Environment organisations’ response to cabinet proposal for two new coal power plants in Sri Lanka

Wednesday, 20 December 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Environment organisations in Sri Lanka have great concern about the proposal to build two new coal power plants in Sampur and Norochcholai despite their rejection by the PUCSL.

We note inherent issues and contradictions in the recent joint cabinet paper (63/2017/PE) outlining the diversification of the energy mix in Sri Lanka’s long-term generation plan (LTGP).

Firstly, as per Government policy, the already approved LTGP for 2017-2038 currently in force cannot be changed until 2019; should the ministry need to introduce new proposals, it must wait until 2019 to do so, and seek public comments on all such new proposals. The public, being an energy consumer, has a right to comment on the nature of what they are supplied with for consumption; therefore, giving public opinion prior to the tabling of changes is moreover a consumer right.

Strategic diversification of Sri Lanka’s 

energy mix

The cabinet paper notes in its ‘Background’ section (1.0) that minimising environmental impacts in the generation of energy is a priority for the country, and reiterates that when deciding on the generation mix, protecting the environment is of ‘utmost priority’. As environment organisations, we would like to note that this point is aligned with the assurances Sri Lanka made to the global community as party to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change in April 2016, including in the country position paper that, “Sri Lanka will place her development agenda on a fossil fuel free target”. 

Nevertheless, later on, the cabinet paper contradicts its previous point, when it allocates 1,200 MW of new power generation to two new proposed coal power plants, ostensibly for the purpose of strategic diversification of the energy mix in order to ensure energy security.

Environmental organisations believe that using strategic diversification as a justification for the development of coal power generation in Sri Lanka is heinously damaging to the country’s pledges to the world, and takes Sri Lanka a long step back in a world fast progressing past coal. In fact, the Powering Past Coal Alliance, which is part of the Conference of Parties, aims to grow its country membership to 50 by the next UN Climate Summit in 2018, in recognition of coal’s role as the biggest source of carbon emissions in the world.

‘Clean coal’ myth and the empty promise of carbon sinks

Regrettably, the said cabinet paper uses the term ‘clean coal’, a misnomer without a scientific definition. The term ‘clean coal’ implies higher technologies in coal processing that removes carbon emissions, although in reality the term is merely subterfuge created and popularised by the coal industry itself, in response to anti-coal litigation. To the best of available knowledge and scientific research, CCS and other technologies that ‘clean coal’ implies are still underdeveloped, and this seriously undermines the possibility that coal power plants in Sri Lanka will be clean. 

SO2, NO, Lead, Mercury and Cadmium are some of the non-carbon pollutants of coal power, and the technology for containing these is also at a nascent stage. Furthermore, highly efficient coal plants will still have higher carbon emissions than more environmentally friendly generation methods that the energy mix could include. Including new coal in our future energy mix for the sake of ‘diversification’ is unjustified and only further reinforces our climate change risks and threatens our national climate action program.

The last point of the cabinet paper, which purports to plan carbon sequestration through the creation of new carbon-sink forests, raises grave concerns, particularly in the current atmosphere of rapid deforestation raging through Sri Lanka and the lack of enforcement of environmental laws to mitigate it. 

It would require planting approximately 36,000 hectares of new forest to sequester the carbon annually emitted by the two power plants. This fact is not mentioned in the cabinet paper. The clear lack of consideration for the feasibility of such a task casts doubt on the true intentions of the cabinet paper: as to whether the ministry’s intention was to sequester carbon or to greenwash the coal power plants via an impractical promise to sequester their carbon emissions. 

An intention to reclaim approximately 36,000 hectares of arable land for reforesting, if a genuine intention, should involve some thought into its location (in fact, in the recent past, the government of Sri Lanka claimed to target increasing forest cover by 3%, but in fact has lost 1% since then, according to our calculations). Moreover, a newly planted forest takes decades to mature into a carbon sink, and by that time, the world would have largely phased out coal altogether. 

In the interim period until the forest is ready, all carbon emissions from the two proposed coal power plants would contribute to climate change and to localised environmental damage. The cabinet paper does not touch on these problems. This solidifies our assumption that the proposal for sequestering carbon is merely a greenwash, and the so-called clean coal would not be as clean as purported.

Environmental impact

It is evident that coal power plants have wreaked havoc on the environment and the people living around them, as can be seen by the many petitions filed by affected citizens against the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant. Further, there is an ongoing court case against the Norochcholai coal power plant. Most importantly, the Central Environmental Authority has delayed issuing its environmental clearance. In addition, litigation was filed against the Sampur coal power plant in 2016, and the government decided to cancel the project due to the environmental and procedural concerns raised in this court case. 

Coal’s unit-cost failure

The reason for coal power plants to be excluded from the current approved Least Cost LTGP is that its unit cost fails to meet the required standard. According to data from the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), the unit cost of the Norochcholai coal plant is Rs. 19. When environmental costs are added, it can be much higher than Rs. 20 per unit. Based on recent tenders received, the unit cost of a natural gas power plant is just Rs. 15. Therefore, it is clearly evident that coal power plants have lost their cost advantage.  

Soorya Bala Sangramaya and renewables

 The Cabinet paper undermines the President’s recent initiative ‘Soorya Bala Sangramaya’ which aims to promote non-conventional renewable energy that does not destroy our environment and sensitive eco-systems, and this is essential towards preserving and enhancing Sri Lanka’s agriculture- and tourism-based economy. This new proposal for coal power will derail the Government’s policy on clean energy, which is already approved and is currently being implemented. 

According to National Policy, Sri Lanka has set the goal of generating all its energy needs through renewable and local sources by 2030. In 2015, 50% of all energy was generated through renewable and local sources, and the figure was well underway to push past 60% by 2020. At such a time, this said cabinet paper proposes to backtrack these achievements. Additionally, Sri Lanka has targeted producing its own natural gas by 2020, enabling it to achieve its energy needs without the need for imported coal.

Sri Lanka’s goal of generating all its energy via renewable and local sources by 2030 is already in progress and is an achievable goal. Therefore, pushing the goal a further 20 years into 2050 is pushing the country and its economy in reverse.

Sri Lanka has potential to generate 2,000 MW via renewable energy such as wind, dendro power and unlimited solar power. However, the CEB has blocked signing small power purchase agreements during the past 18 months. Further, the Sustainable Energy Authority has been unable to approve (due to CEB blocks) 1,200MW power generation by solar producers over the past two years.

According to the carbon budget estimate, all developed countries should stop burning fossil fuel by 2030 and developing countries have to stop burning fossil fuel by 2050. Therefore, this investment is climate unfriendly and against the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) we have submitted to the UNFCCC, which plans to reduce energy-sector emissions by 4% (9,173Gg; unconditional reduction) and 16% (30,210Gg; conditional reduction). The said cabinet paper clearly reneges on that promise.

 Energy self-sufficiency

 The Government’s goal is to become self-sufficient in energy by 2030. Pushing the dependence on coal towards 30% will derail this achievable goal as well, and this goes against the authorities’ energy policies. Constructing expensive 1,200 MW coal power plants instead of natural gas plants will cost the economy Rs. 30.3 billion annually. Moreover, they will create a long-term coal import dependency, costing the country recurrent expenses in the billions. The pragmatism of such a move is seriously under question, especially given the alternatives available (e.g. solar power), which do not create such massive dependencies. 

 Hypocrisy of parallel development 

of coal power and carbon taxes

 In its most recent budget, the Sri Lankan government introduced a carbon tax for motor cycles, cars and public buses, aiming to discourage carbon emissions by the public. For the government to also propose two new coal power plants and to thereby considerably raise its own emissions is hypocritical to say the least. Such contradictions gravely undermine the country’s official stance on carbon emission management and the mitigation of climate change, both in the eyes of the local public and the global community.

At a time when Sri Lanka is working towards the Sustainable Development Goals; when the president has already officially promised to aim for a fossil fuel free economy in its development agenda; and when the Sri Lankan public has mandated that achievement through this government, as Sri Lanka’s environmental organisations, we find this proposal for two new coal power plants surprising and strongly believe that they should not be allowed.

Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka

Centre for Environmental Justice

Wildlife and Nature Protection Society

FEO Sri Lanka