The recently released interim report looking into the reasons for the countrywide power blackout on 17 August highlighted the failure of the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) to implement expert committee recommendations after similar power outages in 2009 and 2015.
The report, which was presented to Cabinet and subsequently released to media, outlines the lapses of the CEB in setting the right risk and maintenance protocols in place. This is just one example of why it is important to have due process that focuses on accountability for key State-owned enterprises (SOEs) and not dismissing expert concerns.
Despite having pledges to increase renewable energy, the Government nonetheless has moved forward in attempting to expand the Lakvijaya Power Plant, which tripped on 17 August and is still not restored to full capacity. The near-two-week lag shows the importance of having the right mix of power and that fixing Sri Lanka’s power needs actually requires more widespread policy discussions.
Collectively, developing countries have more than half of global renewable power capacity. China and India are rapidly expanding markets for renewable energy. Brazil produces most of the world’s sugar-derived ethanol and has been adding new biomass and wind power plants. Many renewable markets are growing at rapid rates in countries such as Argentina, Costa Rica, Egypt, Indonesia, Kenya, Tanzania, Thailand, Tunisia, and Uruguay.
More developing countries are implementing the public policies needed for the widespread development of renewable energy technologies and markets, which have traditionally been dominated by Europe, Japan, and North America. Even Australia, which recently hit global headlines for bushfires, actively invests in renewables and has made huge inroads to increasing their solar power generation capacity. Lessons Sri Lanka, which has a similar sized population, would do well to learn from. Compared with fossil fuel technologies, which are typically mechanised and capital intensive, the renewable energy industry is more labour intensive. Solar panels need humans to install them; wind farms need technicians for maintenance.
This means that, on average, more jobs are created for each unit of electricity generated from renewable sources than from fossil fuels. Renewable energy is providing affordable electricity across the country right now, and can help stabilise energy prices in the future.
In Sri Lanka scaling up rooftop power generation, establishing floating solar facilities and connecting them with the national grid could ensure that renewables are adopted faster than coal power plants that typically take about three years to come into operation. Wind and other sources can also be prioritised.
Moreover, the costs of renewable energy technologies have declined steadily, and are projected to drop even more. For example, the average price to install solar dropped more than 70% between 2010 and 2017. The cost of generating electricity from wind dropped 66% between 2009 and 2016. Costs will likely decline even further as markets mature and companies increasingly take advantage of economies of scale.
In contrast, fossil fuel prices can vary dramatically and are prone to substantial price swings, especially if policies are made without taking exchange rate and other variations into consideration, as happens in Sri Lanka. For these changes to become reality though mind-sets will have to change and policymakers will have to genuinely be committed to putting renewables at the heart of Sri Lanka’s energy strategy.