More Power to Renewable Energy | Daily News

More Power to Renewable Energy

Sri Lanka’s first Waste-to-Energy Plant in Kerawalapitiya
Sri Lanka’s first Waste-to-Energy Plant in Kerawalapitiya

Blessed with several forms of renewable energy resources, warranted by geo-climatic conditions in the island, we have mostly been sitting on them, while depending on imported fossil fuel to generate more than half of our total energy requirement.

In the midst of a hard-hitting economic crisis deepened by an acute shortage of foreign reserves, the Treasury has been scraping the barrel to find US Dollars to pay for each fuel shipment that arrives in the country.

Last month alone, the country had spent US$ 100 million for the fuel which was supplied for power generation at thermal power plants. This is while there are long and never-ending queues for fuel at every shed. Yet, the days we had round the clock power supply seems like a distant memory. Rolling power cuts have been continuing daily since January, but the number of hours without power has now come down to about two, somewhat of a relief compared to lengthy power cuts imposed earlier.

The monthly fuel import bill of the country adds up to US$ 500 million, and predictions are that the situation will be worse in the coming months as fuel prices are soaring in the world market mainly because of the ravaging Russia-Ukraine war. Apprising Parliament on the current economic situation, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe last week warned that the Government might opt for rationing fuel in the future.

In the meantime, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), the national electricity supplier, has proposed a 300 per cent increase in the electricity tariff given the steep rise in the power generation cost. The proposal, which the Government has not yet approved, is hanging over the consumer’s head like the Sword of Damocles.

The country has had to hit the rock bottom before it realized that it is imperative to secure its energy future by focusing on the development and adoption of renewable energy sources to meet the growing demand and reduce the economic burden of imports.

Generation cost

Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekara told Parliament last Thursday that the country needs Rs.756 billion per year to generate power depending heavily on furnace oil, diesel and coal (as done now), based on their current rates. The income generated by selling electricity only amounts to Rs.250 billion going by the tariff rates applicable today, and therefore, he pointed out that, a gap of Rs.500 billion exists.

He lamented that this predicament could have been avoided if the relevant authorities and successive Governments had paid enough attention to develop renewable energy. Industries and Plantation Industries Minister Dr. Ramesh Pathirana, bolstering this position, highlighted that the loss of the CEB has been Rs.80 billion so far this year and the estimated loss at the end of the year is over Rs.400 billion. He stressed that moving to renewable energy could help reduce this loss within a short period.

The unit cost of New Renewable Energy ranges between 16 and 22 Rupees per kilowatt hour (kWh), whereas this rate is beyond Rs.40 per kWh in all thermal power plants. The unit price is as high as Rs.182.80 per kWh at ‘Kelanitissa frame VGT’ plant and Rs.137.60 per kWh at ‘Kelanitissa GT 7’ plant, to mention a few. Accordingly, the average cost per unit has increased to Rs.48 per kWh, more than double the average unit cost in 2019.

The surge in the generation cost is due to twin effects, namely the Sri Lanka Rupee depreciation in the face of its economic meltdown and the upward trend of the world market prices, Electrical Engineer-turned-politician and a one-time Power and Energy Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka analysed.

New Renewable Energy

Renewable energy, also called clean energy, comes from natural resources such as sunlight, wind, rain, biomass, tides, and geothermal heat, which are naturally replenished, as opposed to non-renewable energy resources such as coal, crude oil and natural gas, which have limited supplies because they take a very long time to form.

Sri Lanka is endowed with an ample renewable energy resource base. Our rainfall patterns are largely influenced by two Monsoon wind regimes, called the South-West and the North-East Monsoons. In addition, we get convectional and depressional rains. Therefore, we have hydropower, and we have fully tapped into large-scale hydro power plants already, but mini-hydro power projects are still being developed. The environmental impact of mini-hydro projects is, however, a cause for concern.

“Sri Lanka receives a year-round supply of solar irradiation since it is located in the equatorial belt. The tropical temperatures and the island’s location in the ocean have resulted in distinct wind regimes. The high rainfall, coupled with other bioclimatic conditions of the tropics, has yielded a high plant density in the island. Biomass, therefore, is available aplenty,” the Sustainable Energy Authority, the focal Government entity that promotes the increased adoption and sustainable use of all forms of renewable energy in the country, explained.

Wind, Solar, Mini-hydro, Biomass and Waste to Energy Projects are the ‘Non-Conventional Renewable Energy’ (NCRE) or ‘New Renewable Energy’ sources used in Sri Lanka. With the technological advances and global Climate Change concerns, Sri Lanka, like many other countries, is eyeing to diversify its energy mix with the help of these sources.

Sri Lanka, in fact, was signatory to a declaration at the end of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP) in Marrakech, Morocco in 2016, agreeing to make our electricity generation 100 per cent renewable as rapidly as possible and by 2050 at the latest, along with other 47 countries. However, given the technical, financial and economic challenges, nature of seasonality and intermittency of available resources, daily electricity demand pattern with a notable peak and off peak period, and power system stability, it is an ambitious plan for the country.

According to the international media reports, Iceland and Paraguay are countries running on nearly 100 per cent renewable energy. With a population of slightly above 5 million, Costa Rica and Norway are nearing the target of becoming carbon neutral.

Progress

Coming back to Sri Lanka, a target has been made to generate 70 per cent of its electricity demand using renewable energy by 2030. Now that we have fully harnessed large-scale hydroelectric dams, attention has been drawn to develop NCRE projects to reach the above goal.

“Thambapavani”, a wind farm with a total installed capacity of 103.5 MW, is being developed in Mannar. Its first phase was energized in December 2020 by connecting a 30MW block to the national grid. It is the first CEB-owned large scale wind power plant.

In another commendable initiative since 2011, electricity consumers are allowed to generate electricity at roof tops within their premises and to synchronize their generators with the CEB system, while consuming and exporting energy, under three schemes namely ‘Net Metering, Net Accounting and Net Plus’. Up to now, 590MW has been added to the national grid in this manner.

However, many parts needed for NCRE such as solar panels, inverters and batteries have to be imported, and the prevailing foreign currency shortage has affected this industry as well.

There have been talks of converting Parliament to solar power since 2016, but Parliament authorities said the plans could not be materialized. Fixing solar panels on its roof has been ruled out to preserve its architectural value, and the proposal to install floating solar panels in the Diyawanna Lake has not proceeded due to some environmental issues. Former Power and Renewable Energy Deputy Minister Ajith P. Perera, who was keen on the project, said the Urban Development Authority did not give the nod for it back in 2016, claiming it would affect the beauty of the Lake.

There was also a move to introduce solar-powered street lamps in urban areas, but that project has not achieved much progress either. According to the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka, street lighting, said to be about 700,000 in number, consumes about 1.5 per cent of the total demand for electricity.

Electricity Act amended

The contribution of NCRE to the total generation is only about 12 per cent in Sri Lanka. The CEB’s delay in signing agreements to purchase power from NCRE projects is cited as a major roadblock to push them through.

Minister Wijesekara revealed in Parliament that NCRE projects with a total capacity of 4,083MW are in the pipeline for six years. Among them are 580 MW mini-hydropower projects, 769MW wind power projects, 2,538MW solar power projects and 196 MW biomass projects.

“The work of almost 90 per cent of NCRE projects is currently suspended. When those projects, which were tendered, get delayed, the CEB Engineers use diesel to meet the shortfall. Sometimes it is a scam, and that is why we say there is a diesel mafia at the CEB,” the Minister complained.

Against this backdrop, the Government last week moved a brief Amendment to the Sri Lanka Electricity Act with an aim to clear legal barriers for NCRE projects. Under a previous Amendment of the Electricity Act in 2013, NCRE development too had to be through competitive bidding. Under the new Amendment passed in Parliament last week, competitive bidding is not necessary to develop any power generation plant.

There was, however, wide criticism from the CEB Engineers’ Union, Opposition political parties and MPs, who are teamed as an Independent Group in Parliament, that the Government’s move to do away with the competitive bidding process for the development of power generation plants would lead to dangerous repercussions. They complained that it would open doors for further corruption and fraud in the power sector.

Minister Wijesekara took great pains to convince that the Amendment would not affect the least-cost principle, and that a Committee comprising officials of the relevant Government agencies would decide the best price.

SJB MP Dr. Harsha de Silva argued that energy projects are not excluded from competitive bidding process anywhere in the world. The Opposition proposed to restrict the applicability of the Clause in question in the Bill to renewable energy projects up to 10MW, observing that it would serve the purpose of clearing the backlog of NCRE projects.

The Government did not agree to it, but instead added a provision which said that the subject Minister would inform Parliament 30 days before a Power Purchase Agreement is signed to any develop power plant with a generation capacity of 100MW or above.

Indian investment

The Opposition also charged that the Government’s aim through the Amendment was to clear the path for India’s business tycoon Gautam Adani to invest in renewable energy projects in Sri Lanka. Minister Wijesekara dismissed those claims, stressing that the Amendment to the Electricity Act got nothing to do with the proposed investment by Adani’s infrastructure conglomerate.

India’s Adani Green Energy Limited (AGEL) has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Sri Lankan Government for 500 MW Renewable Energy Projects in the Northern Province. AGEL has expressed interest to invest over US$ 400 million for development of solar and wind power plants in Mannar and Pooneryn within two years for domestic needs, as the first phase.

MP Champika Ranawaka told Parliament that Adani’s Company has plans to generate 6,000 MW solar and wind power in Sri Lanka. The excess power will be exported to India through Cross Boarder Transmission Links established by the same company.

MP Ranawaka raised concerned that allowing a single Indian investor to dominate the renewable energy sector in Sri Lanka could be detrimental to energy security and would let down local small and medium scale investors.

In the meantime, a joint venture project has been planned between India’s largest energy conglomerate, National Thermal Power Corporation Limited (NTPC), and the CEB to develop a 100 MW Solar Power Plant at Sampur.

Non-debt creating flows such as Foreign Direct Investments are welcome because those are vital for Sri Lanka to resurrect its feeble and debt-ridden economy, but when doing that, emphasis should be on transparency and accountability. The national interest must not be compromised when negotiating them.


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