Sun and wind carry long-term hopes but CEB pessimistic
Authorities are starting to put in place measures to lessen the impact of the power crisis with a long-term goal of providing uninterrupted power to the entire country, and renewable energy will play a key part in this strategy.
Cabinet this week approved a proposal to implement a National Program on Energy Demand Management, Efficient Energy Use and Energy Conservation prepared by the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), Lanka Electricity Company Pvt. Ltd, and the Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority (SLSEA).
About 45 per cent of the country’s budget goes on the energy sector and it is imperative that a strategy is devised to overcome an energy crisis, SLSEA Chairman Keerthi Wickramaratne said.
“We currently don’t have any oil or gas reserves. We are, however, blessed with excellent sunshine and our island is positioned in such a way that it is extremely conducive for wind power generation. We must make use of these renewable sources of energy,” Mr. Wickramaratne pointed out.
As part of a sustainable energy initiative, Mr. Wickramaratne said the SLSEA would support a program aimed at installing solar panels for one million homes in the country. As an initial step, solar panels will be installed at 65,000 houses being built for displaced persons in the north and east.
The authority is also looking at using “‘smart meters” to be introduced by the Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy to replace the existing electricity meters in homes.
“If they have a solar panel installed at the house, a consumer can use the smart meter to obtain power from the solar battery during peak hours, thus lessening the strain on the national grid,” Mr. Wickramaratne said. He hoped to see solar panels and solar battery packs installed in every house.
The authority is also proposing to introduce the concept of “net metering”, where excess electricity generated by solar-powered homes will be purchased by the CEB for the national grid.
“Not only does this mean that homes will individually generate their own electricity, homeowners will also be paid for any excess electricity they generate for the national grid,” Mr. Wickramaratne explained.
“Given that we spend so much money to import diesel and coal for power generation, it makes sense to go for such an initiative as it would save the country a lot of money in the long run.”
Other measures aimed at encouraging solar powered electricity includes a proposal to provide tax concessions for solar battery packs and a loan scheme for government employees to install solar rooftop electricity.
He said ministry and CEB officials all agreed that renewable energy was the way forward.
Mr. Wickramaratne said Sri Lanka was the best-positioned island in South Asia for wind power generation. There were some investors who were willing to invest in wind power, he revealed, and discussions will be held with them.
He acknowledged the initial installation cost for renewable energy was higher than energy sources such as coal. “Such (coal powered) plants are also easier to use and have a long lifespan, but we feel the long-term cost coupled with the obvious adverse effects on the environment, means that renewable energy is the only option available when moving forward,” he emphasised.
The Chairman of the Strategic Enterprise Management Agency attached to the Presidential Secretariat, Asoka Abeygunawardena, echoed the view that renewable energy was the best option to avert future power crises.
“There’s no future for coal,” Mr. Abeygunawardena stressed when queried about the power sector’s present dependency on the Norochcholai coal power plant.
Since Sri Lanka had to import coal it was taking valuable foreign exchange away from the country, he said, and coal-fired plants harmed the environment and increased climate change. In such a context, Sri Lanka needed to concentrate on its indigenous energy resources, Mr. Abeygunawardena observed, arguing that renewable energy sources were cheaper in the long term.
“The price of coal will not remain the same over 30 years. The exchange rate also has an influence over this,” Mr. Abeygunawardena said, adding that by his calculation, the cheapest renewable option was wind power.
In order to absorb renewable energy though, he explained, the CEB would have to modify its transmission lines. “The current transmission line is designed to absorb central coal power; this transmission line cannot absorb scattered renewable energy,” he said, while adding there also needed to be space to store renewable energy such as solar and wind power, since they were not always available.
Mr. Abeygunawardena said the plan was to both redesign the transmission line and establish storage facilities for storing renewable energy by 2022. “By that time, there should not be any reason why renewable energy cannot fulfill the energy requirement of the Sri Lankan consumer.”
The President of the CEB Engineers’ Union, Athula Wanniarachchi, said, however, that the immediate necessity was to expedite construction of the coal power plant at Sampur.
“You can’t build such a plant in a year; it’ll take four to five years. As an intermediate solution, the government will have to invest in at least a 300MW thermal power plant to cushion the situation,” he said.
Mr. Wanniarachchi said the concept of “100 per cent renewable energy” was technically not possible. “For example, we have 140MW wind power in our system. But we get only 10 per cent of that right now. There’s no wind these days.”
The CEB engineers’ union chief said solar power was not as cheap as claimed. “We don’t discourage solar power. Some private developers have already signed an agreement with the CEB to develop about 40MW of solar power in Hambantota. But we have to pay them Rs. 23 per unit. For wind power, we are paying Rs.20 per unit. For mini hydro it’s Rs. 18. For coal power, our expense is just Rs. 6.50 per unit. As such, these environmentally friendly options are not low-cost solutions. They’re actually luxuries,” he stressed.
Mr. Wanniarachchi predicted electricity bills would rise further when based on renewable energy sources.