December 5, 2003
Regional power grid could energize South Asian nations
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. South Asian nations stand to become more prosperous and politically stable by creating a regional power grid and pooling their energy resources, according to a preliminary planning model developed by Purdue University industrial engineers and adapted by researchers in Bangladesh.
Such a South Asia Power Pool linking India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh also would create investment opportunities for Western companies, said Frederick T. Sparrow, a Purdue professor of industrial engineering who specializes in electric utilities.
Engineers from Bangladesh adapted the preliminary model during a workshop recently completed at Purdue, but more details must be incorporated before the model can be used to prepare a proposal seeking funding for further research, Sparrow said.
If the proposal is accepted, engineers will use the model to produce a series of reports detailing how to lay out the grid, which would span a geographical region more than half the size of the continental United States.
The engineers hope to have the proposal completed by early next year. The Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) was chosen to modify the Purdue model because the Bangladesh university has a well-established program in energy trade and several faculty members specialize in that area of research, Sparrow said.
A power grid uniting the South Asian nations would have two obvious benefits: improved reliability of the power supply and reduced electricity costs, said M. Quamrul Ahsan, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at BUET.
Selling the idea to policy-makers, however, will require hard facts and the political will on all sides.
"The main aim of this project is to quantify the benefits and express them in monetary terms to these countries," said M. Rezwan Khan, also a professor of electrical engineering at BUET.
Research and other activities regarding the power pool are being coordinated by the Academy for Educational Development, a private, non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C. The effort is part of an overall program called the South Asia Regional Initiative for Energy Cooperation and Development, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The program's first five-year phase will be completed by the end of this year, and officials will submit the proposal to ask that funding be included for the grid in the program's next phase.
Purdue engineers began developing such models nearly 20 years ago to forecast future electricity demands in Indiana. The models were needed to make sure that plans for utility expansion were justified, given predicted demands, and were later used to predict what would happen if Indiana's electric utilities were opened to trading instead of the current, government-regulated system of utility monopolies providing power.
"The natural result of that was, if we can help Indiana utilities predict the impact of free trade, why can't we do it with other areas of the world?" Sparrow said.
Aside from internal benefits to South Asian countries, such a power grid enabling trade would have global payoffs as well, he said.
"It's often been said that countries that trade with each other are far less likely to go to war against each other," Sparrow said. "So a regional grid would help to stabilize the area."
Cheaper and more widely available electricity would spur industrial and economic growth in the region, opening up new avenues for trade with the West, said Brian Bowen, a Purdue industrial engineer working with Sparrow on the project.
The model will identify the least costly energy options, indicating which types of plants to build in which locations. Such a grid would incorporate hydroelectric, coal and natural gas.
"This is the beginning of something massive," said Roger M. Gibian, a regulatory adviser for the Energy and Environment Training Program at the Academy for Educational Development. "The report will form the basis of planning for the construction of plants and transmission lines. Nobody is going to build anything until they figure out the most economically efficient locations to put power lines and generating stations and determine centers of demand and centers of power production, which will require massive mathematical computations to crunch all the numbers and the variables."
India has plentiful coal and hydroelectric energy sources. Nepal has a large potential for hydroelectric generation, which is mostly untapped. Bangladesh has natural gas and Sri Lanka has hydroelectric power.
On the other hand, only about 30 percent of Bangladesh's population has access to reliable electricity, and the other South Asian countries also have limited power distribution, Ahsan said.
One hurdle to overcome will be convincing people that it is beneficial to export precious resources, such as natural gas and coal, because the economic and social benefits may not seem apparent to the average person, Gibian said.
"For example, Bangladesh has a large amount of natural gas power, but there are political consequences to exporting and importing gas or electricity generated by utilizing this gas," he said. "The larger picture, the dream of the entire program, is to promote regional power trade because of the economic benefits for everybody involved."
A South Asia grid would foster social change, as well, Gibian said.
"More access to electricity promotes better health care and also gender equity for women," he said. "Instead of having to collect firewood and water, if they have electric power for pumps and stoves, their daughters can go to school and they can become literate.
"Electricity is truly the rising tide that lifts all boats."
Another major challenge will be to overcome geopolitical strains in the region, including ongoing issues between India and Pakistan, the engineers said.
"There are many unsettled disputes between South Asian countries," said S. Shahnawaz Ahmed, a professor of electrical engineering and director of the Centre for Energy Studies at BUET.
The engineers said they believe, however, that the data will help to influence the creation of a regional grid.
"We believe, once we quantify the benefits in monetary terms, everybody will understand why this is needed," Khan said.
The process of developing the grid and increasing the availability of reliable electricity would enable better communication among the nations, Gibian said.
"One goal is getting everyone from the different countries to talk to each other, especially as they move from vertically integrated monopolies to more private separation of generation and transmission. Problems that one country has already experienced, another country may be just starting to experience. If they can talk to each other, they increase the chances of finding effective solutions."
USAID is the principal federal agency that extends assistance to countries recovering from disaster, trying to escape poverty, and engaging in economic and democratic reforms.
Writer: Emil Venere, (765) 494-4709, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources: Frederick T. Sparrow, (765) 494-7043, email@example.com
Brian Bowen, (765) 494-1873, firstname.lastname@example.org
Roger M. Gibian, (202) 884-8935, email@example.com
M. Quamrul Ahsan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; email@example.com