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Sri Lanka power system expansion and national security implications


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The growing number of university graduates entering the job market is heightening pressure on the Government to act proactively on youth unemployment

 

 

The national power system expansion debate continues with the fossil fuel and renewable energy (RE) options under consideration. Embarking on a program to rapidly harness RE resources will bring direct economic benefits to the nation and negate the need to develop additional coal power plants.

The following elements drive this narrative:

a)Vision of the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) to attain a 100% Rebased power system by year 2050

b)UN year 2030 agenda for sustainable development

c)The threat of industrial action by the CEB Engineers Union demanding the adoption of a coal-based power system expansion plan that they have proposed

d)The recently-staged Colombo Defence Seminar titled ‘Security in an Era of Global Disruptions’ 

e)Very recent World Bank warning to Sri Lanka on climate change concerns

The narrative makes the case that all the above have an influence on the power system expansion strategy in the country with arguments covering the following: 

  • Energy security is a national security issue
  • Exposure to risks associated with fuel price and currency (SL rupee slide against the US dollar)
  • GOSL obligation to follow a path that helps address climate change concerns 
  • Global climate change mitigation strategies leading to penalties levied on goods lacking green credentials exported to the developed world

The above have a significant bearing on the economic health and welfare of the nation. 



National security implications

The Colombo Defence Seminar covered pertinent topics such as Demographic Transformations and Implications on Security, Technological Disruptions, Human Induced Climate Change and Political Extremism.

The military leadership must be aware that youth unemployment is a significant factor that leads to discontent, agitation and political extremism. Not meeting youth aspirations has been a major driver that has fuelled past insurgencies in Sri Lanka. These conflicts resulted in the death of a large youth population that can be viewed in a perverse fashion as a reduction in the national labour pool that helped to relieve the pressure on the State to provide jobs.

Today, youth discontent has been dampened by Government actions and external factors such as:

  • State sector employment
  • Human resource pool in the military
  • University student population
  • Trishaw drivers 
  • Labour emigration to the Middle East and other nations

The state sector is bloated with jobs offered as political patronage. The military is over-manned with demobilisation following the end of the war and made difficult due to the unemployment issue. This has resulted in the military engaging in work that would normally be performed by the civilian sector.

The number of trishaw vehicles on the street are a result of loan facilities made available to young male elements of the large labour pool.

The university student population is significant and those who graduate will enter the job market thereby increasing the pressure on the Government. 

The scenario portrayed above is not sustainable. However, the Government faces a difficult situation. A drive to shed surplus labour is politically explosive. An unemployed population becomes a breeding ground for the spread of the virus of discontent. From an internal security point of view these elements can be viewed as “sleepers” with the absence of ideological orientation, but open to indoctrination.



Coal or renewable energy? 

The coal or renewable energy option must be viewed in the context of the factors identified above.

The case that coal is cheap is not valid when one considers a) cost of renewable energy on a downward trend and rapidly heading towards parity with fossil fuel prices; b) abundant renewable energy resources; c) technological advances on the renewable energy front; d) employment of skilled labor to produce the electricity required by the manufacturing and service industries that seek green credentials; e) environmental issues arising from the use of coal and f) risks associated with the importation of fuel.

One could make the case that the highly-trained state technocrats are comfortable following the conventional power system expansion path featuring base load fossil fueled plants with hydropower for regulation. However, with global sentiments against fossil fuel use and technological disruptions aiding the harnessing of renewable energy, the adaptation and mastering of new skillsets by the emerging professional cadre will be key to national development.

In a rapidly changing world where meeting aspirations of the younger generation, safeguarding the environment and taking steps to address climate change concerns are priorities, following the path towards a renewable dominant power system is imperative. This path is also aligned with the Government’s aspiration to develop a knowledge-based economy. A significant amount of knowledge is required to assess renewable energy resources, plan the power system expansion program, harness renewable energy, manage a distributed power grid in stable fashion and operate the widespread renewable energy plants.   

The Prime Minister recently spoke about the need for skilled and knowledgeable people when various kinds of industries come up. Harnessing renewable energy is one such industry. 

Meanwhile, the Commander of the Sri Lankan Army has expressed a vision for an institutional transformation from a threat-based system to a capacity-based one with full-fledged professionals capable of handling various spheres of national responsibility. Since the harnessing of renewable energy is a Government stated goal, the military should also be aligned with this vision and train its engineers to engage on renewable energy project developments for the supply of electricity to the military bases spread across the island. This activity also helps to broaden the technological capability of the armed forces.

Harnessing renewable resources rapidly on a large scale will see project developments ranging from small, medium and large in capacity located in a distributed fashion throughout the land, thereby opening business and job opportunities countrywide. This is highly beneficial and helps to bring stability to the nation where large-scale monopolistic ventures are viewed in a negative fashion.

A significant pool of managers, engineers and technicians will be required and universities and technical institutes will be challenged to meet the demand for skilled human resources.

Climate change: Humanitarian intervention by affected countries 

A panellist at the Colombo Defence Seminar, Defence Analyst Niruthan Nilanthan, made the case that international interventions in nations harbouring drug producers, terrorists or on humanitarian grounds sets a precedent for intervention based on exacerbating the effects of climate change. Thus nations that are indifferent to deforestation, water pollution and emissions could be targeted for intervention by affected nations.

If such thinking takes place at a high level international defence forum today, what collective international actions should one foresee a decade ahead?



Conclusion

Nations with abundant coal resources are cutting back on their use and following the green route. With rapid technological advances taking place in a disruptive fashion, those nations that adapt to the new realities faced will accrue significant benefits that arise through investments in renewable energy technologies. This activity infuses funds to the national economy, introduces new technologies and helps to raise a cadre of highly-skilled professionals which can meet the future demands of the nation.

Those at the helm of the ‘ship of state’ should understand that a) SL exports reliant on fossil fueled electricity will not get a free pass when selling products in developing nations following the green route, and b) the tourist industry with ecotourism prominent will be marketed on the basis of its green credentials.

With the case for harnessing renewable energy overwhelming, citizens following the power debate should question why the coal power issue is not laid to rest once and for all.

(The writer is a Renewable Energy Consultant and can be reached via email at mbotejue@gmail.com.)


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