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Sri Lanka should not go for any more coal-powered electricity generation

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CIMOGG calls upon the President, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet not to betray Sri Lanka by giving into the crude self-interest of those promoting coal

By Dr. A.C. Visvalingam

In an article published in a Sunday newspaper of 7 January, the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG), employing a minimum of technical language, set out several compelling reasons why coal-powered electricity generation is wrong for Sri Lanka. Eng. Tudor Wijenayake (TW), in an article in Daily FT of 7 June has given much useful additional information including valuable data on costs in this connection. 

TW reports that, in a note addressed by Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) engineers to its “membership”, the unit price of electricity had been given as Rs. 7.90 per kWh whereas, in a later submission made by the CEB to the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), the cost of coal-based generation at Lakvijaya had been given as Rs. 14.53 to Rs. 14.74.

Why the discrepancy? Was it to gain ill-informed institutional support from their fellow-workers for the use of coal by giving the misleading lower figure of Rs. 7.90 per kWh? We are compelled to speculate in this manner on account of the publicity that has been given from time to time about the controversies over the tenders for the procurement of coal that go to show that it is a vastly attractive long-term “goose with a profusion of golden eggs” for ministers, ministry officials and senior CEB engineers who are responsible for formulating policy, preparing specifications, calling and evaluating tenders, providing superintendence at the supplier’s end, testing/acceptance at this end, and so on. 

[As this article was about to be sent to the media, we came to learn from two newspapers that Minister Champika Ranawaka has called for a Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the massive frauds in importing coal from 2009 onwards, stating inter alia that “this is many times greater than the bond issue”. CIMOGG fully endorses Minister Ranawaka’s call for a PCoI as it has become increasingly convinced over the years that the import of coal is heavily soaked in corruption].

At no time have we seen an assessment by the CEB of the costs of mitigating the adverse environmental impact associated with the use of coal. The issues that should be looked at in this context are how to deal with the several polluting operations that are involved in transporting, storing and burning “dirty” coal and coping (if that is at all practicable) with the large volume of by-products such as fly ash, which has only a limited market in Sri Lanka. 

Moreover, there are no realistic, economically-viable means of capturing the hot, gaseous oxides of sulphur, nitrogen and other similar particularly noxious emissions that are discharged through the flues into the atmosphere from where they will cause health and other problems over a fairly large area. 

Practical methods of dealing with heavy metals like cadmium, lead and mercury that are present in small but significantly dangerous quantities are just not available. In short, if it were possible to control all the various types of pollution that are inevitable with coal-powered electricity generation, the cost per unit of electricity would skyrocket over the costs associated with virtually all the other competing sources. 

It is no secret that there have been sporadic public protests at Norochcholai regarding the damage that is being caused to the health of the people living near and some distance away from the coal-burning power station there. Public displeasure is bound to increase with time as some of the polluting products will almost certainly spread further and further, and also accumulate wherever they reach ground level. 

The latest news in this regard is that the CEB and the Central Environmental Authority are at loggerheads regarding the issue of the “environmental clearance” for the Norochcholai power station. This dilemma will, no doubt, be “resolved” in the short term by the CEB resorting to strikes, working-to-rule and industrial sabotage that will put the Government under unscrupulous pressure. 

Both coal and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) produce heat and carbon dioxide, and deplete the natural reserves of these two commodities which could probably be put to less damaging and more productive uses as technology advances. These two fuels may appear to be equally bad on these two counts but, when one takes into account the numerous intractable environmental problems that are associated with coal power, as compared with the absence of similar problems in the case of LNG, there is no doubt that the latter is vastly preferable. 

There is no spread of pollution in connection with its shipping, unloading, transport, handling and combustion. Burning LNG does not produce unwanted sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and heavy metal combustion products. It is, by far, the better fuel for thermal power generation.

The next paragraph is almost a direct quote from the writer’s aforementioned article in a Sunday newspaper:

A key consideration is that Sri Lanka has no coal of its own and will forever be dependent on whichever sources are identified as producing the particular type of coal that is required for the particular design of the steam boiler that is selected. In contrast, over the past three or four decades, LNG has become more readily available from several sources and the design of the burners and boilers is not sensitive to the source of the LNG. Of the greatest relevance is the fact that Sri Lanka’s marine resources are known to include substantial natural gas reserves which, if developed with reasonable expedition, would be a fuel source that cannot be monopolised by cartels of foreign suppliers working in concert in the international markets to keep raising their prices as and when they please as they would undoubtedly do if we are forced to rely on them to supply coal over many decades. Whereas the price of coal will unquestionably keep increasing outside the control of Sri Lanka, the state could readily supply LNG indefinitely to the CEB at only the cost of developing and maintaining the LNG infrastructure, without the need to follow price variations in the international markets. During the three to five initial years during which our gas fields and related infrastructure are being developed, it would not matter too much if we have to pay a premium for importing LNG.

It was not many months ago that the public were informed that a firm decision had been taken to work with LNG and not coal. It is, therefore, utterly shocking to learn that the government is being pressurised to go back to the plan to build two “clean coal” power plants which are mythical entities if the emphasis is on the word “clean” as we have already explained in our aforesaid article. 

As the hidden rewards of buying more and more coal would be of astronomical proportions over the years, those interested in “pushing” coal have enormous potential to wield their diabolically unpatriotic financial power to bend the more honest politicians, administrators and technocrats to their will.

There are bound to be some crooked political heavyweights who favour coal because it would prove to be a long-term godsend that would keep on yielding golden eggs for many years without leaving room to exploit our natural gas resources for power-production purposes. 

How the avarice of these traitors is to be countered is hard to foresee but what is absolutely imperative is that not even a single new coal-powered power station should be allowed anywhere else in tiny Sri Lanka if we are to supply electricity economically, and avoid damaging the health of our people and ruining the environment.

As mentioned in the said article, renewable sources of power would be better than coal or LNG but, as things stand at the moment, they cannot be relied upon to provide solid “base load” power any time soon. The authorities must necessarily expend a substantial amount of funds to keep increasing the “renewable energy” component of Sri Lanka’s increasing power requirements. This advice has no bearing on the coal versus LNG conflict. 

CIMOGG calls upon the President, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet not to betray Sri Lanka by giving into the crude self-interest of those promoting coal.

(The writer is President, CIMOGG and can be reached via www.cimogg-srilanka.org or acvisva@gmail.com.)

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