The newly-elected Bangladesh-born CEO of EPRI Arshad Mansoor spoke to The Business Standard on his career so far, overcapacity in Bangladesh’s power sector and minimising the use of captive power
Bangladesh-born Arshad Mansoor, the serving president of US-based research and development organisation Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), was recently elected its Chief Executive Officer in recognition of his deep knowledge of the power sector and his ability to lead a diverse team of innovators. Arshad's new role in the firm will be effective from January 1, 2021.
Arshad completed his bachelor's degree from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology. Later he earned a doctoral degree in electrical engineering from the University of Texas in Austin. He also completed the Harvard Advanced Management Program and the MIT Reactor Technology Course.
TBS: Congratulations and best wishes for your next journey as the CEO and President of EPRI. You are undertaking more responsibilities in the new position. What is your next plan?
Arshad: I am truly honoured to lead EPRI's team of world-class researchers. It is because of their talent, hard work, and commitment to serving society that EPRI is widely regarded as the world's preeminent electricity research and development (R&D) organisation. As we look at new ways to improve electricity generation, delivery, and use for the benefit of people around the world, much of today's energy discussion focuses on increasing access to cleaner electricity. Moving forward, I believe we have an opportunity to engage in more robust dialogue around global energy challenges as we find solutions that enable a cleaner energy system, reliably and affordably.
TBS: You hold five US patents in distributed energy resources. Would you please brief our readers about your inventions?
Arshad: At EPRI, no solution is created alone. I'm pleased to say that every invention patented during my time with EPRI is the result of close collaboration with staff from EPRI and utilities around the world. I had the chance earlier in my time with EPRI to work as an engineer at our Power Electronics Application Center in Knoxville, Tenn. There much of my work focused on power electronics and distributed energy resources, such as solar and energy storage. The technologies you're referring to help improve the integration of distributed energy resources across the grid. Instead of merely identifying existing solutions, EPRI creates new technologies on an ongoing basis. These technologies account for a small percentage of EPRI's more than 750 US patents, along with its related international patents worldwide. As our energy R&D continues, that number will continue to grow.
TBS: Currently, Bangladesh's power sector is at overcapacity. In the next two years, the power generation capacity will hit 35,000mw against the estimated demand of 20,000MW. In the pandemic, the power sector has become overburdened with overcapacity. What do you recommend?
Arshad: Bangladesh's economy growth rate is among the highest in Asia, reaching levels the US experienced in the 1960s and 1970s. Due to the long lead time of energy system investments, energy infrastructure must be built faster than a growing economy to meet both current and future needs. The challenge of staying ahead of a growing economy is why Bangladesh previously experienced a lot of load shedding. Now the country is taking steps to get ahead of the challenge, building the power infrastructure first without waiting for the economy to overtake the system's current capacity. Looking at the system today, there are several options the industry could take. To keep assets running smoothly, utilities could perform maintenance on power plants when there is more than enough electricity available to meet customers' needs. Operators could approach power generation dispatch – deciding which plants to run at different times – based on economics and the environmental benefits of different generation types. Regardless of the approach, getting ahead of the curve is essential to supporting continued economic growth.
TBS: Despite the surplus generation capacity, Bangladesh-based industries still rely on captive power. What would be your suggestions for the Bangladesh Power Development Board to minimise the use of costly power?
Arshad: In the US, companies that rely on captive power primarily do so to achieve near-perfect reliability. For example, a server farm that can't afford to go offline may choose to invest in backup generation. However, the US energy system operates above 99 percent reliability on an annualised basis. In Bangladesh, the electric grid is not reliable enough for companies that need to operate every day and night without disruption. While captive power is a backup option in the US, it's often an essential investment for companies in Bangladesh to ensure power quality and reliability. There are steps energy providers can take to limit grid impacts on companies and grow confidence in the energy system. It's about more than growing to meet companies' evolving needs. When there is a need for disruptions in service, utilities should communicate as early as possible so that companies can make contingency plans. Captive power should remain part of the solution, but in a future with a more developed energy system, it should be incorporated into emergency facilities first, with utility power reliably meeting day-to-day needs.
TBS: It is claimed that rural electrification in Bangladesh is following the US model. The reality is, most of the rural-based consumers still face three to four hours of power outage, known as load-shedding, every day. How do you compare the scenario between the US and Bangladesh?
Arshad: Serving customers at the far edges of the grid costs significantly more than reaching those in city centres. In those cases, it's not about the economics, but rather the societal benefits of providing universal access to electricity. The US addressed this important issue by enacting the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, which provided federal loans supporting the development of distribution systems serving rural customers. In doing so, the country sent a message that electricity is essential to all. In the US, about 15,000 of the Navajo Nation's 50,000 homes lack access to electricity – accounting for 75 percent of all US homes without electricity. To address this need, American Public Power Association members recently teamed up to begin connecting the remaining homes to the grid. Bangladesh should adopt an approach similar to the US model to enable societal power. This requires investments in power generation, as well as transmission and distribution infrastructure, to meet customers' needs. In certain countries with societal electricity access, such as the US, the focus is shifting to the next universal need – access to broadband. As the pandemic highlights the need for high-speed internet supporting education, commerce, and social interactions, broadband is becoming as important as power. Together with utilities and regulators, EPRI is looking at how to deliver broadband to the masses. In Bangladesh and around the world, this is an opportunity for the power industry to collaborate with the broadband sector to help meet society's needs.
TBS: Bangladesh's gas storage has been dwindling. Despite this, there is no remarkable success in gas exploration both in off-shore and on-shore. Moreover, Bangladesh is importing LNG. What do you suggest?
Arshad: The broad availability and low cost of LNG, thanks in large part to the shale boom in the US, makes power generation from LNG with storage a more viable option. Electricity generated from natural gas is an important component of Bangladesh's energy portfolio and there are efforts under way to import LNG. However, this is only one piece of the power generation puzzle. As the energy system grows, it is important for power providers to invest in domestic energy resources to best meet the country's needs. Even as a land-constrained country, Bangladesh has access to certain energy resources, such as favourable conditions for solar and wind. It is important to build all resources – renewables, nuclear, fossil – to meet the country's growing electricity needs. The first step is increasing beneficial electrification. Then, as the future energy system takes shape, the next step is to do it cleanly, such as by avoiding the kind of biomass generation that can lead to deforestation. There is some remarkable work under way in Bangladesh to unlock its energy potential. For example, GE is working with Reliance Bangladesh LNG & Power Ltd. on a new, 718-MW combined-cycle power plant that will generate electricity on the island of Meghna Ghat using LNG and serve customers in Dhaka with buried transmission lines.
TBS: Why is Bangladesh lagging behind on the renewable energy development front?
Arshad: As a land-constrained country, wind and solar could be highly beneficial in meeting Bangladesh's electricity needs. Getting the most out of these resources requires investing in the right wind and solar technologies, as well as in the land and transmission infrastructure to support them. In all three areas – investing in technology, land, and transmission – Bangladesh can and should do more. Transmission is essential to delivering renewable energy from the remote regions where it's generated to the areas where it's needed most. Distributed solar is also an option at the point of use. Consider the difference it could make for homes, schools, and businesses. For a growing economy, though, it's important to consider that supporting economic development can require thousands of megawatts of new generation, available at all times. This requires significant land resources, as well as energy storage. Renewables are an important part of the solution, and Bangladesh should use them as part an all-in energy strategy. The primary focus should be on improving electricity availability and reliability. By shifting from smaller, captive power generation to centralised generation, Bangladesh's power system will improve its environmental impact, as well.
TBS: What else does Bangladesh need to build its future power system?
Arshad: To build, operate, and maintain its growing electricity infrastructure, Bangladesh needs a skilled workforce. Today power providers in the country largely rely on consultants. This is where EPRI can provide a great deal of support – by helping enable this workforce transition through our training and expertise.
I had the opportunity to help establish the Bangladesh Energy & Power Research Council. That was a great step toward building tomorrow's workforce, and there are already projects under way in local universities. Now the focus needs to shift to taking this work to the next level to grow the skilled resources needed for Bangladesh's energy transition.