Common regional energy grid | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

Common regional energy grid

2 April, 2017

Wherever else our delicate foreign relations balancing act tilts us towards, hard facts on the ground prevent us from tilting too far away from our immediate geographical location in the Indian Ocean and, very specifically, just off-shore from the South Asian Sub-continent. One such hard fact is energy shortage.

Last week, Sri Lanka decided to join its neighbours in the Bay of Bengal area in a new initiative to share energy resources. The Cabinet of Ministers has approved the signing of an agreement with BIMSTEC, a technical co-operation program among countries in the Bay of Bengal region that will enable the building of a regional energy grid for the pooling and equitable sharing of energy resources.

BIMSTEC stands for ‘Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation’ and its member states comprise those countries either with a Bay of Bengal seaboard or located in the Bay region, namely, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. BIMSTEC was formed in 1997 in Bangkok, Thailand, to boost economic and technical cooperation among member states.

Even as many countries of the Bay of Bengal region are picking up economic momentum and lifting themselves out of poverty, that very economic growth brings with it the crucial challenge of energy scarcity, as well as, energy diversification.

Energy, today, presents us with a double-edged problem. On the one hand, our current model of development and modernization, globally, requires an impossible level of energy supply, as well as, the production of energy at a rate that is harmful to the natural environment – the bio-sphere. On the other hand, the available quantum of existing energy resources and natural reserves is dwindling rapidly requiring the search for and, invention of, new sources and forms of energy.

Global warming has been scientifically found to be principally caused by excessive emissions of carbon during the production and consumption of energy. And, global warming is now an immediate threat to the very survival of our bio-sphere and, consequently, the human race itself.

Hence, developing countries, on the one hand need to share knowledge in their search for sources of energy that are viable alternatives to fossil fuels and existing nuclear technology. At the same time, the race to consume existing energy is at such a pace that energy markets are unstable. This requires the need to rationalize current energy consumption levels.

The economics of the market has shown that the bigger the production or consumption unit, the better the economies of scale and the rational management of whatever is being produced or consumed. In the case of energy supplies and distribution, since physical connectivity or proximity is paramount, collaborations and integration within a geographical neighbourhood is the best way to go.

Thus, in the Bay region, we have both impoverished economies alongside middle-income ones, while very small economies share borders with some of the world’s largest. At the same time, some countries in the Bay region have natural fossil energy reserves, while others are completely dependent on fossil fuel imports.

The region as a whole, being home to some very dynamic economies and large pools of scientific intelligentsia, holds potential for research to develop new forms of energy, clean energy production and, most importantly, alternate strategies and technologies for development that will ensure lower and safer carbon footprints.

Our geographical proximity will enable Bay region countries to develop more efficient connectivity - in transport and shipping, in coordination and rationalizing of carbon emission footprints, and in actual integration of energy supplies, in a manner that will enable a more rational market in energy supply and demand.

A unified energy grid in the Bay region, in terms of a more balanced and predictable energy market, will also help in smoothening impacts on national economies caused by energy market turbulence.

In the 1970s, Sri Lanka, with a much smaller economy, could plan a Mahaweli Irrigation and Power program that envisaged a possible export of excess hydro-electric power to India. Today, our model of development has taken us to middle income status, but that very model has brought an energy scarcity that is near crisis level. We can no longer think of energy exports – at present, unless we find new indigenous sources of energy.

We are, once more, heavily dependent on carbon fuel imports while we have run through our hydro-electric generation resources. This means a continued massive fuel import bill on the one hand and, on the other, continued pollution and increasing heat emissions.

The sole way to meet current energy demand may seemingly be coal-fired generation, but the environmental implications are dangerous not just to our island but to the whole global environment.

It is only such close collaborative efforts among neighbours that will lift us out of this predicament.