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The energy battle

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The Norochcholai power plant is in the news again after the Industrial Technology Institute (ITI) is expected to start ambient air testing amidst continued protests and litigation over environmental pollution caused by fly ash and coal dust. 

The effort, which is also supported by the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka, kicked off when the Ceylon Electricity Board commissioned the ITI to do the tests in 14 locations for a period of one year. According to reports, medical tests have been introduced for employees and more water is being sprayed to mitigate the effects of fly ash and coal dust on workers.

A letter signed by 71 employees of the power plant complains that the health of operation and maintenance staff was seriously compromised by dust and ash. Dated June 2017, the petition pointed out that around 14%-16% of total combustion is retained as ash. The daily fly ash production was over 1,000 MT and bottom ash close to 100 MT when all three units of the plant were running at full load.

The safety of workers and residents is expected but what is still shocking is that some policymakers within the Government remain positive about coal, even going so far as to present Cabinet papers for more coal power plants. 

Energy should be a platform for sustainable growth and not limited to just narrow decisions based on short-term costs. It is critical that Sri Lanka gets its energy combination right and does so quickly. 

In 2016 the Government launched a ‘Battle for solar energy’ initiative which aims to add 220 megawatts of clean power to the country’s energy grid by 2020, or about 10% of the country’s current daily electricity demand. 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.

Currently 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. 

The cheapest entry-level home solar panel installation costs over Rs. 200,000 because the materials must be imported and face import duties. Compared to that, even larger users of household power pay only around Rs. 5,000 a month in electricity bills.

Cheaper costs for panels, free installation, Government help in maintaining panels and higher Government payment for solar energy produced for the national grid are some of the incentives recommended by experts, but it would mean larger allocations of resources than what might be possible for an already fiscally-constrained government.

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. Sri Lanka needs to find its place in this trend and do so with the future in mind. 

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