Bangladesh island’s switch from solar power to fossil fuels threatens birds

  • The Bangladesh government recently converted off-grid Nijhum Dwip Island in the Bay of Bengal into an on-grid locality powered by fossil fuel-fired plants, posing a threat to the country’s second-largest mangrove forest.
  • The island’s inhabitants had depended on individual solar-run power, and the government planned to install a mini solar grid for an uninterrupted power supply a few years back.
  • Instead, the government has facilitated the construction of a 15 megawatt heavy-fuel-run power plant at Hatiya, the subdistrict headquarters of Nijhum Dwip, under the ‘100% Reliable and Sustainable Electrification Project,’ which seems to be a reverse transition from renewable to fossil fuel-based electrification.
  • Nature conservationists believe that due to the connection to the national grid, human activities will increase around the forest and endanger the already cornered wildlife of the national park on the island.

Almost all 2,500 households — mostly fisher folks — on Nijhum Dwip, a national park that has the second-largest mangrove forest in Bangladesh, used solar PVs LED bulbs at night and recharge table fans and button phones.

However, since October 2023, the island has been connected to the national grid, primarily powered by a 15 megawatt heavy fuel oil (HFO)-fired power plant located 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of the island.

In six months, 800 families came under grid coverage. Among them, fisher Kaiyum cherished using ceiling fans and a water pump with electricity. But at present, he is facing continual disruptions in the electricity supply.

“A few days ago, a bird got electrocuted at the nearest electric pole. The incident snapped the electricity connection for around five hours,” Kaiyum said, adding that disruption in power supply is inevitable “even if there is a gusty wind.”

In 2023, Bangladesh’s southern subdistrict of Hatiya and its island Nijhum Dwip were connected to the national grid for the first time through the Bangladesh Power Development Board‘s (BPDB) “100% Reliable and Sustainable Electrification Project.”

Since April 2024, Nijhum Dwip has had a 50-km- (31-mile-) long power line network with 1,500 metal electric poles. The tallest ones, standing at 12 meters (39 feet), carry 11 kilovolts of primary electricity, while some shorter, 9-meter (29.5-foot) poles deliver usable electricity.

Power line installations inside the Nijhum Dwip National Park.
Power line installations inside the Nijhum Dwip National Park. Image by Sadiqur Rahman.

The electrification project neither followed the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines nor underwent an environmental impact assessment (EIA), posing a threat to the survival of wildlife, especially birds, on the island, which is also an East Asian-Australasian Flyway site and a marine protected area.

For such an ecologically important place, an EIA is important because researchers have traced at least 28 different biotic impacts resulting from 13 abiotic impacts of projects including installation of overhead power lines.

Moshiur Rahman, BPDB’s sales and distribution division executive engineer at Hatiya, recently said that power disruptions due to falling tree branches and contact with birds (as well as bats) on live wires are common in Nijhum Dwip.

“Given the power supply from a 15 MW power plant, the areas would never face load-shedding until 2035 [as per the power plant’s projection]. But still, people experience interruptions because the power lines are stretched through vegetation and bird habitats,” Moshiur said.

The IUCN guidelines mention that electrocutions have been documented in more than 70 raptor species worldwide, and millions of raptors are estimated to have been killed in collisions with overhead lines globally.

According to the guidelines, power lines produce an electromagnetic field (EMF) and typically harm birds, altering their behavior, physiology, endocrine system and immune function. Furthermore, EMF exposure may disrupt animals’ orientation in the Earth’s magnetic field, potentially affecting migratory bird and insect species.

A myna perching on a wire in the Namarbazar area of Nijhum Dwip.
A myna perching on a wire in the Namarbazar area of Nijhum Dwip. Image by Sadiqur Rahman.

Conservation biologist and Ph.D. researcher at the University of Cambridge, Sayam U. Chowdhury understands the electrification in Nijhum Dwip as unfriendly to birds when the establishment of power lines is also found within agricultural lands that are used by many globally important raptors.

He told Mongabay, “The new power line installation poses a serious threat to migratory birds. I am especially concerned about the globally threatened raptors, which are highly vulnerable to power line-related mortality.”

Sayam also said that Nijhum Dwip is a regular wintering ground for the endangered steppe eagle (Aquila nipalensis), vulnerable greater spotted eagle (Clanga clanga) and resident Indian spotted eagle (C. hastata).

The Fifth National Report of Bangladesh to the Convention on Biological Diversity records a total of 193 bird species, including 76 migratory species in Nijhum Dwip. Among the birds, more than half a dozen globally threatened migratory birds, including the spoon-billed sandpiper (Calidris pygmaea), Asian dowitcher (Limnodromus semipalmatus), Nordmann’s greenshank (Tringa guttifer), spotted redshank (T. erythropus), goliath heron (Ardea goliath), greylag goose (Anser anser) and bar-headed goose (A. indicus) land on the island during winter, from late November to early March, the document says.

As this is an important bird area, the IUCN guidelines and toolkit of BirdLife International’s Convention on Migratory Species Energy Task Force should have been taken into consideration before implementing the national grid expansion.

However, Faruque Ahmed, the director of the 100% Reliable and Sustainable Electrification Project, informed Mongabay that safety measures to prevent bird casualties, as mentioned in the international guidelines, are not included in the project components.

With the arrival of power lines and electricity from the national grid, Nijhum Dwip sees a rise in building construction.
With the arrival of power lines and electricity from the national grid, Nijhum Dwip sees a rise in building construction. Local contractors are piling up construction materials, even destroying the forest environment. Image by Sadiqur Rahman.

Readjustment can protect birds

Expanding the electricity grid brings environmental costs. Even “clean” energy infrastructure can harm nature, especially in sensitive areas. While power line development is unavoidable, coexistence with biodiversity requires minimizing environmental impacts through preventive measures.

According to IUCN guidelines, electric poles and crossarms should be made of wood or concrete, with conductor distances ideally 1.5 m (5 ft) or more apart. Ground wires should be covered for at least the first meter (3.3 feet) below the crossarm. Additionally, the length of installed insulator strings must meet safety distance requirements.

Preventive measures are crucial when power lines are installed within a 1.5-km (0.9-mi) radius of colonial bird nesting sites or cross bird flyways in migratory corridors and watercourses. These measures are certainly vital for protecting Nijhum Dwip’s wildlife.

“Some small adjustments in the design, such as reconfiguring poles and implementing insulation, could significantly reduce the avian mortality rate,” conservation biologist Sayam said.

Amir Hossain Chowdhury, chief conservator of forests at the Bangladesh Forest Department, acknowledged the threats of power lines while talking to Mongabay and said his department would talk to BPDB and take necessary actions to stop the loss of biodiversity.

A heron in Nijhum Dwip.
A heron in Nijhum Dwip. Image by Md Saiful Islam Khan via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
The new power line installation poses a serious threat to birds, especially the globally threatened raptors, which are highly vulnerable to power line-related mortality.
The new power line installation poses a serious threat to birds, especially the globally threatened raptors, which are highly vulnerable to power line-related mortality. Image by Sadiqur Rahman.

A reverse transition from renewable to fossil fuel energy

Getting a single-phase 220 volt electricity connection costs 40,000 taka ($342) at minimum, although BPDB offers electricity to new customers at a subsidized price (4.50 taka or $0.038 per unit].

Still, the costs, particularly for installation, are quite expensive for fisher Zaber Hossen, who leads a five-member family at Jaila Killa of Nijhum Dwip.

“I am not getting the electricity connection soon,” Zaber said.

Residents said only four households among 50 at Jaila Killa village have electricity connections from the national grid.

Dinaj Uddin, chairman at Nijhum Dwip Union Parishad (the local government body at the grassroots level), recently said the existing demand for electricity on the island is less than 1 MW since the residents’ per capita income doesn’t support moderate to high consumption of electricity.

So, concerned people have questioned the rationality of a 15 MW independent power plant (IPP) for the locality when the whole Hatiya subdistrict (covering Nijhum Dwip) doesn’t require more than 7 MW of electricity.

BPDB’s executive engineer at Hatiya, Moshiur, said the HFO-fired 15 MW power plant has been paid with capacity charges, as the local electricity demand is only 33% of the plant’s actual generation capacity. As per the agreement between the power plant authority and BPDB, BPDB pays capacity charges based on the plant’s capacity and establishment costs.

With the arrival of power lines and electricity from the national grid, shops of Namarbazar turn brightly illuminated at night.
With the arrival of power lines and electricity from the national grid, shops of Namarbazar turn brightly illuminated at night. Image by Sadiqur Rahman.

The Bangladesh government paid more than 1 trillion taka ($8.5 billion) to 82 IPPs and 32 rental power plants in the last decade. In 2023, the Implementation, Monitoring and Evaluation Division — a planning ministry body — recommended scrapping the extension of contracts with the IPPs and rental plants, as the country’s power sector has been experiencing substantial financial losses because of the model of capacity charges.

Research organization Change Initiative executive director Zakir Hossain Khan finds power supply to Nijhum Dwip from a 15 MW power plant as whimsical and also contrary to Bangladesh’s Nationally Determined Contributions that promise expansion of the country’s renewable energy coverage.

“Renewables, including solar and wind power, have potential at the coastal island. The government could engage private organizations in this task instead of purchasing electricity from an HFO-run plant,” Jakir said.

Despite having a 120 W solar PV system at home, Nijhum Dwip resident Kaiyum embraced the grid for reliable and sustainable electricity.

However, during frequent disruptions of electricity supply, he wonders, “What is the use of getting connected to the national grid?”

Recently, he has planned to install an additional 85 W PV system.

“The total solar home system will serve as a backup. To my realization, this is like a friend in need,” Kaiyum concluded.

Banner image: A red-whiskered bulbul in Nijhum Dwip. Image by Adnan azad asif via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

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Biasotto, L. D., & Kindel, A. (2018). Power lines and impacts on biodiversity: A systematic review. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 71, 110-119. doi:10.1016/j.eiar.2018.04.010