Compressed natural gas clears the air in Bangladesh
Cleaner-burning fuel is reducing dangerous levels of pollution – and saving money, too.
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CNG began to succeed in Bangladesh at this time because of the push for a cleaner environment plus the availability of millions of dollars in loans from international agencies to encourage a long-term program.Skip to next paragraph
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In 2000, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) created a training scheme with Rupantarita Prakritik Gas Company Ltd to expand the alternative-fuel program (cost: $1.2 million). At about the same time the World Bank created the Air Quality Management Project (cost: $5 million) to help reduce vehicle emissions as well as introduce air-quality monitoring.
International help puts CNG in place
Additional CNG projects to strengthen infrastructure were put in place by the Asian Development Bank in 2002 ($113 million) and the UNDP in 2004 ($1.5 million). These initiatives involved extending natural gas pipelines and more CNG technology development (including training engineers and mechanics to do CNG conversions and filling-station installations).
The price of CNG also dropped substantially. CNG now sells for 16 taka per liter, the equivalent of about 87 cents a gallon. Gasoline, on the other hand, is currently $4.33 per gallon, while diesel is $2.38. CNG represents a drastic savings, but gives about the same miles per gallon as gas for the auto-rickshaws. There are some 300 CNG filling stations around the country and almost 200,000 of the 1 million vehicles on the road are now CNG-fueled, according to the Bangladesh Road Transport Authority.
“I converted to save taka and the environment, but the main factor is for the environment,” says a truck driver at a CNG filling station who says he used to spend 2,000 taka per day (about $30) on gas, but now spends only one-quarter of that on CNG.
Payback is less than one year
Although conversions are relatively costly at around $800 per vehicle (the average per capita yearly income here is $600), the cheaper price of CNG relative to gas and diesel makes for a rapid payback. According to M. Khaliquzzaman, an environmental consultant at the World Bank, those who travel about 60 miles per day can break even on the cost of the conversion in less than a year.
Two-stroke engines were banned completely in 2003; all must be cleaner-burning four-stroke or CNG-fueled engines now.
When this happened, “there was a 30 to 40 percent drop in particulate pollution in Dhaka,” says the World Bank’s Mr. Akbar. In addition, an estimated $25 million in health costs are avoided each year by the cleaner environment, says Quamrul Islam Chowdhury, chairman of Forum of Environmental Journalists of Bangladesh.
The name CNG has become synonymous with the auto-rickshaws, which are painted green and referred to simply as CNGs. More than 14,000 of them now crisscross the streets of Dhaka. So even though Muhammad Mokles says that he’s not happy to be driving for a living (a job he’s done for 30 years), he is still happy to be helping the environment.
Some caution that, for all the good news, CNG isn’t the perfect solution. The tanks are bulky. Prices doubled last year. Reports also point to shoddy conversion stations springing up and vehicle traffic expanding 10 percent every year here.
“That positive impact on the overall quality of environment in Dhaka city has been eroded especially by other modes of transport,” says Mr. Chowdhury. “Especially old buses; those are still emitting CO2.