Viable alternative renewable sources

Tuesday, 13 September 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Norochcholai – underperforming, Kerawalapitiya – under maintenance, power utility – threatens strike, Sampur at Trincomalee – coal power agreement signed with NTPC of India, lack of rain in hydropower catchments… the travails of Sri Lanka’s power sector are always in the news.

The policy on energy has been driven by populist policies and hit on the nose planning, I suppose it also can be labelled ‘just in time’ planning, except that the implementation is always totally out of time! The consumer has to carry the bag as always. Pricing, pollution, contamination, health costs, etc., you name it.

Harnessing wind power

After much delay and prevarication, we seem to be proceeding, tentatively, in a sensible direction, almost by default. Wind power farms are up and running in the Puttalam, Kalpitiya area, connected to the national grid, to join the lonely windmills which have been operating in Hambantota for some decades.

In addition to the hydro big damns, mini hydros are also contributing their bit. There were some nice-sounding ‘sound bites’ from a scientist working in the geo thermal sector some time ago, about generating power from the hot springs near Hambantota and Kinniya and other places. A solar power plant was also inaugurated at, you guessed it, Hambantota, built with foreign aid.

Householders are increasingly having the sense of installing domestic solar panels for hot water and also for back up lighting, to cope with the regular power outages. This is in addition to the areas which are off the national grid which are increasingly installing solar panels for lighting.

The Energy Services Delivery (ESD) and the Rural Energy for Rural Economic Development (RERED) projects through its imaginative publicity promotion programme ‘Gamata Light,’ designed by Phoenix Ogilvy, supported by a Word Bank-assisted soft loan programme, brought about an increased awareness of solar panels for household lighting and a number of businesses marketing solar panels and related products came into being.

There is also some talk going on about the potential of wave power, but whether this will get beyond the ‘no action, talk only’ stage, which is our national malaise, is to be seen.

Nuclear power and renewables

There was also some talk of nuclear power, but after Japan’s experience of the tsunami and its effect on the nuclear power station at Fukushima, it seems to have died down.

Nuclear energy normally accounts for 30% of Japan’s electricity needs. The policy was to raise this to 50% by 2030. The tsunami put paid to that. Now only 17 of 54 Japanese nuclear reactors are working.

There is a debate going on in Japan on whether Japan could plug its energy gap caused by phasing out nuclear power by increasing the use of renewable energy. Renewable sources could be competitive if it were produced on a larger scale. Germany supplies 18% of its energy needs through renewables.

Analysts point out that Japan made the critical error of strangling its renewable industry at birth. It restricted the scale and the scope of the feed in tariff, an enhanced purchase price which is offered to suppliers of renewal energy who sell to the national grid.

If this is placed at a high rate, it allows non conventional energy supplies to grow. Of course the consumer has to pay, but in Japan, just now, the negative reaction to the Fukushima disaster, seems to indicate that the Japanese people realise the folly of going nuclear.

Analysts say that the feed in tariff for renewable energy should be set generously, to see how industry responds. The window of opportunity during which nuclear averse consumers are willing to pay more for energy sourced from renewable sources is not open-ended.

Taro Kano, a Member of the Japanese Parliament, says that Japan has the third highest potential worldwide for geothermal power and sixth highest for wave power. It is estimated that through a combination of energy conservation and more renewable energy, Japan could scrap nuclear power within two decades.

By May 2013 all of Japan’s nuclear plants currently operating will have to shut down for routine maintenance. If the current public antagonism to nuclear power continues, politicians may not have the willpower to order them to be restarted!

Dependence on fossil fuels

All this is of course not to dismiss the world’s and our dependence on fossil fuels for a long time into the future. The coal power plant at Norochcholai is up and running, though delivering less power than contracted for. Another coal power plant at Sampur is also on the cards.

Drilling a test well for oil and gas in the Mannar Basin by Cairns, with all sorts of fiscal concessions, is supposed to start soon. That is a double-edged sword. What capacity have we to cope with the ‘resource curse,’ which plagues most developing and emerging nations that have found crude oil and other natural resources, including the so-called populist democracies and dictatorships, that been well documented?

Sri Lankans would recall the fiasco of the Soviet drilling at Pesalai in the 1970s. These fossil fuels, if and when they are found, are a finite resource. Demand is far outstripping supply. The cost of sourcing them from monopolistic suppliers is escalating, by the day. They are highly polluting.

As President Obama said after BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico: “...our continued dependence on fossil fuels will jeopardise our national security, it will smother our planet and it will continue to put our economy and our environment at risk.”

Solar panel power

The history of Sri Lanka’s energy generation will read as a journey from fuel wood to hydro to oil to coal. Now we are about to drill a test well in the Gulf of Mannar for crude oil.

Dependence for power on fuel wood, kerosene and hydro later gave way to dependence on oil for emergency power, due to lack of planned expansion. Power from photovoltaic systems (solar cells) when compared with onshore or off shore wind power is projected to be cheaper; in some places it may be possible in time to feed solar electricity from a set of panels to the national grid, as is already happening at Hambantota.

Germany has a feed in tariff to the national grid for power from solar cells in private houses, which is so favourable that every panel installed has become a profitable investment. The cost of solar panels is coming down, because more silicon, from which photovoltaic cells are made, is coming to the market and China is mass producing panels at the proverbial China price that no one else can match.

Spain introduced such a competitive price for purchase of power sold to the grid from solar panels that they soon ran out of cash and had to cap the volume which would be bought from individual households!

However solar panel power is not without its flaws; there are limitations of high installation capital costs and although there is hardly any recurrent cost, skies overcast by cloud, night time and dirty panels are limitations.

Solar thermal technology

Another solar technology is solar thermal, which uses mirrors to concentrate heat, produce steam and drive turbines. There would be potential in our arid zones of Mannar and Hambantota.

Such solar thermal plants can be built on the scale of gas-fired power stations, generating a few hundred megawatts at a time. A proposed project in California’s Mojave Desert could deliver more power than all the photovoltaic panels installed in the US in 2009.

It is indeed welcome that decision makers in Sri Lanka have realised that the nation should attempt to break away from the commitment to imported oil now and coal and hopefully our own crude oil tomorrow, except for the major and mini hydro generation schemes, which has reached almost full exploitation levels, and look for alternative sources.

Wave power

Today, Denmark gets 20% of its energy requirement from wind power. An activist group, the Carbon War Room, based in Washington DC, is in fact pushing for solar panels to be integrated into houses being rebuilt after the Haitian earthquake and developing mini grids that will allow people to use power generated by the sun, the wind and other alternative sources.

Other than the abundant sunshine in the Hambantota and Mannar areas, Sri Lanka has much more potential for other renewable alternative energy sources. Take for example wave power.

Hydrographers have, in the new edition Sri Lanka National Atlas, marked Sri Lanka’s south east coast as a High Wave Energy Zone. There is no land mass to the south until the South Pole is reached and this vast expanse could generate some humongous wave power – witness the fury generated by the tsunami and the ravings of the surfers at Arugam Bay on the superb waves. The recent winner of the SriLankan Airlines-sponsored World Surfing Championships at Arugam Bay has said: “The waves here have been so amazing, it’s never been flat and we had the best surf in the final, it was perfect, Arugam Bay is an awesome wave!”

Wave power has been used for commercial power production since 2007 at Agucadoura on Portugal’s Northern coast. Wave power generates electricity in Scotland, Canada and Hawaii in the USA.Tidal power, the energy generated by gravitational pull of the sun and the moon, is being used at Rance in France, in the Orkney Islands off the North East Coast of Scotland, at Sihwa in South Korea and is being tested on the East River at New York.

In Cornwall South Wales, a Wave Hub project will feed power from numerous off shore wave power machines into the grid.

More options

Bio mass gasification and dendro power, using glydicidea, (back to fuel wood!) which is planted as live fence material in farming areas, is also a potential source; there is a pilot project at Kotmale. Harvesting and supplying timber would mean substantial income to subsistence farmers.

Geo thermal power, utilising the hot springs at Sooriyawewa, Maha Oya and Kinniya, also could be used for generating energy, as in Iceland, the Ethiopian part of the Rift Valley in Africa and at Lake Assal in the Danakil depression, in Djibouti.

The 30 degree deep water Bathymetric contour comes closest to the coast of Sri Lanka, at the Trincomalee Canyon, below Swami Rock, and Sir Arthur Clarke has written about the potential of bringing cold water from that depth rapidly to the surface at Trincomalee and using the steam generated by the heat at the surface to generate power.

Crude oil and natural gas

The drilling of exploratory test wells for crude oil and natural gas in the Mannar Basin will be touted as a basis to claim that we are diversifying away from imported crude and coal to our own crude, but this is only a test well and the recent experience with the blow out of the BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, some caution should be exercised in extreme offshore drilling.

The former Governor of California withdrew his support for drilling off the west cost of the state, although President Obama recently authorised off shore drilling there, which has now been put on hold. Thousands of barrels of crude a day gushing out onto the environmentally sensitive wetlands of the Louisiana coast from Deep Water is indeed a sobering thought.

The Gulf of Mannar has a unique ecosystem, this was one reason why environmentalists opposed the Indian Sethusamudram Canal project to link the Gulf of Mannar with the Bay of Bengal with a canal for shipping cutting through Adam’s Bridge, linking Sri Lanka and India; the Arabian sea is warmer than the Bay of Bengal and colder water flowing in from the Bay of Bengal into the Gulf of Mannar if the Sethusamudram is ever completed will negatively transform the ecosystem of the Mannar Basin, destroying rare and unique aquatic animals, such as the rare manatee, and ruin the fishery industry.

Drilling for power on our Continental Shelf is an attractive option, especially as India is already extracting crude from the adjacent Cauvery Basin, but it is a high risk activity and strict regulation is required.

Much more crude, than at Deepwater Horizon is said to be leaking out into the Niger Basin in Nigeria from extreme deep and shallow water oil wells, but due to conflict and lax regulation, no one actually knows the damage.

In power generation there are no soft options, only tough choices and very serious repercussions and consequences. It is within the power of today’s planners to rewrite the Sri Lanka story on power generation, making it one which will record our journey from fuel wood to oil to coal and thence to renewable energy sources, instead of it being a journey down the slippery slope of dependence on costly, scarce and highly polluting fossil fuels.

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

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