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Powering Sri Lanka

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Earlier this week Sri Lanka and Finland agreed to strengthen ties between the two nations by promoting the development of clean and renewable energies, while also stressing the importance of innovative technologies in climate change mitigation, both nationally and in the international context.

The move, which was welcomed by environmental activists, will also be one that will go down well with the international community, especially in light of the United States’ recent withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. However while these are undoubtedly steps in the right direction, more certainly needs to be done domestically if Sri Lanka is to be serious in its fight against global warming.

It’s no secret that Sri Lanka is facing a looming power crisis. Resolving it however is an extremely nuanced affair, and the Government’s handling of it is questionable at best. Last October the Sampur Coal Power Plant project was terminated 10 years after it was first announced, a decision which came as relief to all those who had opposed it over environmental concerns. That joy was short-lived though as the Government shortly thereafter began calling for tenders for a diesel power plant, calling it instead a Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) plant so as to appease environmentalists.

Diesel is of course even more detrimental to the environment than coal, not to mention more expensive. The reasons behind such decision-making on the part of the Government are only known to them, but speculation has been rife. 

All this contrasts sharply with the Government’s stated sustainability goals, which call for improved energy efficiency, care for the environment, an increased share of renewable energy and the securing of future energy infrastructure among other things.

By 2025, the country hopes to boost its solar power output to 1,000 megawatts to meet fast-growing power needs. But shifting away from coal and other fossil fuel power to renewables will be a challenge. Solar power has the potential to meet 32% of Sri Lanka’s annual power demand of around 10,500 gigawatts – but so far just 0.01% of that potential has been developed, according to the Sri Lanka energy sector development plan for 2015-2025.

Moreover, only about 3% of Sri Lanka’s energy demand is met by renewables such as wind and solar. Hydropower provides about half of the country’s electricity during the wet season but during the dry season, between August and October, 81% of the island’s power needs are met by fossil fuels, over half of that from coal. 

To further aggravate matters, influential unions within the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), headed by the engineers union, continue to push policymakers towards coal, insisting it is the only way for the country to avoid a looming power crisis in 2018. These proponents though ignore the potential of renewable energy and public outcry over the fallout of fossil fuels as seen in the opposition to the Sampur coal power plant.

The private sector may seem a decent option as a last resort. However, it is far from ideal. The world is spending heavily on renewable energy and finding its higher returns are reshaping the direction of the energy industry for decades to come. The Sri Lankan Government should take note and follow suit.

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