Solar not a renewable energy solution

Builders and consumers install rented rooftop panels, officials overlook them for bribes and give connections


A regulation, binding users to install solar power panels, has only ended up fattening the pockets of some dishonest businessmen and corrupt government officials, instead of easing pressure on conventional energy.

During May 2011 to April 2014, the five designated power distribution companies have installed around 25,000 rooftop solar panel systems with an aggregate capacity of 11MW.

According to an estimation of government’s Power Cell, with these 150-200 watt panels costing up to Tk3 lakh on an average, the total cost of setting up those panels was around Tk750 crore.

The idea was to ensure that domestic and commercial consumers generated about 3-10% of their demand for power on their own by installing solar systems at their establishments.

Only those domestic users, who required more than 2 kilowatt of electricity, needed to install the panels. For industrial users, 50KW was the lower limit.

Initially, the power distribution companies could not force the consumers to set up the panels; they could only request them. But since the beginning of the process, consumers have been allegedly forced to set up the panels.

There are allegations that some officials of the power distribution companies turned the optional thing into something mandatory, only to serve the purpose of their own solar panel businesses.

Seeking anonymity, several consumers alleged that a number of former and current directors of FBCCI, an advisor to the prime minister and an association of renewable energy traders created pressure on the government to introduce the solar panel regulation.

The businesses too had two different dimensions.

According to consumers, the cost of setting up 150-200 watt solar panels is around Tk4-5 lakh. Generally, builders would install such a system and collect the money from the apartment-owners.

After setting up a system, the builder or the consumer would inform the distribution companies, who would then send an inspector. On the basis of the report of the inspector the distribution company would decide on giving fresh connection.

There are allegations that some government officials, in exchange of bribes, often do not even properly check whether the solar panel systems are running or not and give the connections.

Taking advantage of this, many builders and users have temporarily rented solar panels just for show without actually installing the power generation and distribution system.

Investigations have revealed that around 70-80 companies import and distribute solar panel systems. Around 20-25 of these companies are involved with panel rental business. As soon as the clients get connections, the companies take back the panels and rent them out to other connection seekers. They charge Tk1-2 lakh for 15 days to one month.

These traders have also built up a nexus with the officials of the power distribution companies and helped consumers get connections without actually setting up panels in exchange of money.The distribution company officials get commissions for their “service.”

Disguised as a consumer, this reporter contacted the chief executive officer one of the companies that rented out solar panels.

“We take Tk1-2 lakh as rent for a panel. We will take it back after you get connection,” KamrulHasan, CEO of A to Z Services in the capital’s West Panthapath, told this reporter.

He said the real estate developers were the main clients and claimed that the officials of the power distribution companies were “aware” of this business.

“There will be no trouble. We pay the power distribution officials Tk30,000-Tk40,000 for each rented panel,” he said.

With the same disguise, this correspondent also talked to Faruq Hossain, the owner of Cico Power in the capital’s Motijheel area. He said his company charged Tk1.5 lakh for the “rental.”

He even guaranteed connection if someone rented a “window dressing” system from his company. This means that he would even give the “service” of “managing” the government officials besides renting out a panel.

Seeking anonymity, an official of the government’s Power Division said a section of their employees were involved in the malpractice.

“The officials of power distribution companies are bribed into overlooking the irregularities,” he said.

Visiting a number of houses in the city, the Dhaka Tribune reporter has found that the panels installed are either used only at the time of load-shedding or are never used at all.

In one of the houses constructed by Al-Hera Builders and Engineering Ltd in Block C of the Bashundhara Residential Area, the panel was found to be completely dysfunctional.

Kazi Kamal Uddin, proprietor of Al-Hera Builders, claimed that the panel was not completely inactive. “It does not work sometimes.”

Shah Alam, a consumer from the capital’s Mohammadpur area, told the Dhaka Tribune: “The authority did not specify which inverters, charge controllers and batteriesshould be used with the panels. As a result, distribution companies have made their own specifications, paving way for corruption.”

According to consumers, their investmentshave completely gone down the drain because most of the systems, because of low quality, are either out of order or are not in use.

“If a residential building requires 100KW power, according to the regulation, a solar solution of 3KW would cost more than Tk5 lakh. But the builders often come to the solar panel sellers and ask for 250-300 watt solutions. These smaller systems cost only around Tk50,000,” a solar panel seller told the Dhaka Tribune.

The leaders of Real Estate and Housing Association of Bangladesh (REHAB), an association of builders, has claimed that the regulation has complicated things for their businesses because none of the owners are interested in bearing the financial burden of setting up solar panels.

“This power generation solution is totally useless in the urban areas. Owners are now selling off their solar panels like scrap metal.” REHAB Organising Secretary Sydul Islam Badal told the Dhaka tribune.

He said although the cost of the solar panels are eventually borne by apartment-owners, in return the meagre power that these systems generate are nowhere near sufficient for meeting their demands.

Brig Gen (retd) Nazrul Hasan, managing director of Dhaka Power Distribution Company, admitted that there had been some irregularities.

“Because the system was not launched in a proper way and there is no monitoring mechanism, both officials and consumers are facing problems with the solar panel systems,” he said.

On January 21, REHAB urged State Minister for Power Nasrul Hamid to cancel the solar panel stipulation for getting new connections in households.

However, the government’s Power Cell has recently recommended the ministry to not cancel the stipulation; instead it advised the ministry to collect the money that the consumers were supposed to spend on installing solar panels as a pre-condition of getting new connection.

The Power Division is scheduled to sit in a meeting in the capital today to discuss whether the stipulation could be cancelled.

“We have had several meetings in the past and received recommendations from the Power Cell. Tomorrow [Monday] we are going to sit with the stakeholders, including REHAB, and make a decision in this regard,” the minister told the Dhaka Tribune.

In May 2011, the government resumed giving new electricity connections to households on condition of installing solar panels after a recess of several months.

Source: UNBConnect