Mini-hydro mayhem

Thursday, 2 December 2010 01:43 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

IN Sri Lanka’s drive for development mini hydro projects has become the latest talking point. Caught between government ministers, the private sector and a power hungry public the fate of mini hydro as a community empowering project hangs in the balance.

Last week the Power and Energy Minister Champika Ranawaka decided to announce a possible foray into mini hydro projects, which had hitherto remained in the domain of the private sector. The logic behind this is that the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) spends a considerable amount of money purchasing power from the private sector and therefore can cut costs by building mini-hydro themselves. This bid to become the jack of all trades can result in the CEB becoming the master of none. Surely the CEB has enough challenges on its already overloaded plate without heaping this on it too.

Moreover the Irrigation and Water Resources Management Ministry headed by Nimal Siripala de Silva has decided to stop issuing permits to companies through local government bodies. The reason given was that the permits are given in a haphazard manner that result in irreparable damage to water resources of entire areas and therefore need to be done after a feasibility study obtaining permission from central authorities. These regulations hamper the process still further and while they should be lauded if they achieve their intended goal of environmental preservation, the double sided effect is of delays and corruption.

The third dimension to this issue is dozens of permits have been issued only to be re-sold to other organisations and around 200 projects are reported to be in the pipeline as a result. This bottleneck is being stretched to breaking point with no responsible party taking the problem to task.

Currently in Sri Lanka large pockets of rural communities literally remain in the dark. The aim of mini-hydro is simple — it is to create an environmentally sound mode for generating and distributing power to communities independent of the national grid. The fact that the CEB instead of ensuring that the power is used within the community instead buys it for the national grid is the cause for the massive expense. Surely this can be averted once the large scale projects begin power generation and the CEB can oversee the mini-hydro provide power to the rural areas they spring from rather than connecting to the national grid. Not only will this power local schools and hospitals it also earns the CEB carbon credit that they can use to offset their other less environmentally friendly projects using coal, fuel and in the future, nuclear power.

The potential for village hydro is estimated at 1,000 villages covering about 30,000 households. A typical project will be an off-grid community of 25 to 100 households, interconnected through a mini grid, powered by a micro hydro system that can produce between 5 to 100KW. This technology has been confined to the central hilly areas of Sri Lanka and there are more than 250 projects in operation currently providing electricity to about 45,000 persons — about 9,000 households — barely one third of the full potential.

There are other plus points for mini-hydro projects. It provides employment for villagers and takes over the responsibility of maintaining projects, which is another saving for the CEB. Promoting competition while maintaining responsible distribution of power would assist development far more than putting all power generation methods under one authority — a loss making one at that.