Even as the rest of the world look to renewable power as the fuel of the future, Lanka goes into retro mode and seeks its future energy needs in the past.  Whilst the world stares at the heavens and views the sun as the answer to provide infinite solar power, Lanka’s busy, digging into the [...]


Old King Coal to rule Lanka’s power future

Never mind environmental pollution and hazards, for, like there is money in muck, there’s gold in coal

Even as the rest of the world look to renewable power as the fuel of the future, Lanka goes into retro mode and seeks its future energy needs in the past.  Whilst the world stares at the heavens and views the sun as the answer to provide infinite solar power, Lanka’s busy, digging into the nethermost regions of infinite hell to find, in that underground mine of condemned coal, the solution for its future energy needs.

For even as there is money in muck, there’s gold in coal for some, working in the caverns of corruption. The annual import of coal to the Norochcholai plant alone costs the nation over 2.4 billion bucks every year.

In the late 1980s a proposal was first made to establish a coal plant in the island. But the protest raised by the environmentalists and echoed by the nation’s press, soon grounded it. But those in the energy sector remained fixated on coal. And during the previous regime, Rajapaksa rode rough shod over all protests to invite the Chinese to set up the now ‘always breakdown’ Norochcholai Coal Plant in Kalpitiya and it was commissioned in 2014 with the Chinese banker in attendance.

But if one coal power plant was bad news for Lanka and her environment, the President and the UNP Cabinet of Ministers he heads now plan to introduce not one, not two but three more coal plants in the country as the energy source of the future.

Last month, the cabinet approved three new coal power plants, two in Foul Point – how symbolic the site’s name -  Trincomalee of 300 MW each. And another to be set up near Norochcholai will generate another 300 MW each.

e Norochcholai power plant

In spite of previous pledges that the government will not seek a return to coal as Lanka’s fuelling agent of the future, as pledged by the newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena when he cancelled a 500 MW Indian sponsored coal plant in Sampur in Trincomalee in 2015 where land was cleared and the plant was on the verge of being tendered after delays for which the Ceylon Electricity Board ( CEB)  itself was responsible.

The CEB mafia has of course been fully charged like a Duracell battery to propound energetically and repeatedly the godly virtues of Satan’s black coal as Lanka’s future saving grace. It drives the fear of God into Lanka’s poorish heart by manifesting itself as the Prophets of Doom, prophesying that without coal Lanka will face Doomsday.

It speaks in statistics, it says in unintelligent tongue that ‘assuming coal plants were not there in 2017, and CEB had to produce 5,103 GWh of energy with liquid fuel at 25 rupees a unit, the total generation cost would have been about 172.5 billion rupees. At 7.90 rupees per unit the coal energy cost is about 40.3 billion rupees. This is a saving of 87 billion rupees compared to the average energy cost of a CEB plant. Assuming the power was bought from private developers at 27.5 rupees a unit including capital costs (capacity charge) the same energy would have cost 140 billion rupees. Coal with capital costs at 11.38 rupees would total only 58 billion rupees, indicating a saving of 82.26 billion rupees or about 541 million dollars. At that rate, in less than three years, the coal plants would have paid for themselves compared to the alternatives available. ‘

And to drive home the point they even say this to scare us all out of our wits, that we face a total blackout if it aint coal:

The CEB Engineers Union say the damage done to the country by cancelling the Sampur coal plant is massive. The Union estimates the loss from Sampur plant scrapping to be about 200 billion rupees over five years. “This could finance the construction of four more highways similar to Katunayake expressway.” Accordingly, they say, it is clearly evident that unlike other sectors, the erroneous decisions taken by the top government authorities for the power sector can have massive impact on the nation’s economy.

The union says the Puttalam plant was built with a 15 year delay, which by one estimate cost the country 900 billion rupees. “This amount is equivalent to the construction cost of eight more highways similar to the Southern Expressway.” The CEB unions say.

Well fancy that. Eight more highways similar to the Southern Express? But where would it lead us? Even as man does not live by bread alone, neither can this nation forget the environmental damage coal will cause and why we have the Executive President as the Minister of Environment to safeguard the island’s environmental health.

And we are supposed to swallow it all. When the coal mafia states its justifications for its perpetuation and its proliferations warning the citizenry that they will be light denied, it’s a demand that  none can refuse to accept as the gospel truth, even if they do not believe in the CEB scriptures.

For even as there is money in muck, remember well there’s gold in coal. Waiting to be meticulously mined by those hell bent digging for it.

But what must be realised is not the cost that cheap coal power will do to this country but the economic damage that will rain upon it in times to come.

Take for instance the following: Earlier this month, the North Western Province Environmental Authority asked the Secretary to the Ministry of Power, Suren Batagoda to shut down and restart Plant One of the Lakvijaya coal power plant in Norochcholai by mid June so that its flue-gas desulphurizer (FGD) becomes operational.

And why?

According to the report published in the Island on 3rd June, ‘two plants are operating without FGDs. Flue gas desulfurization is a set of technologies used to remove sulphur dioxide (SO2) from exhaust flue gases of fossil-fuel power plants and from the emissions of other sulphur oxide emitting processes. This means that harmful acid gas Sulphur dioxide (SO2) from the smoke of the power plant goes into the atmosphere which leads to acid rain.’

If one coal plant can cause acid rain, imagine what four in this small island can do?  And what does acid rain portend?

But first a brief resume on coal power and the damage it causes to the environment and how it turns natural rain acid.

Coal has been the energy source on which Britain built its empire and fired its industries. “It is a natural resource that forms with geological steps over millions of years.” According to the National Geographic, “coal can be extracted from the earth either by surface mining or underground mining.” There are three different classifications of coal that are based on their quality: lignite, bituminous, and anthracite. The quality depends on the amount of carbon in the coal. The higher quality coal burns more efficiently and cleanly. “The coal is burned to produce heat to boil water and steam. The steam turns a turbine connected to a generator, which generates electricity.”

Burning coal releases gases that are harmful to the environment; carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. These contribute to acid rain, smog and respiratory illnesses. The biggest sources of acid rain are coal-burning power plants, factories, and automobiles. When humans burn fossil fuels, sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) are released into the atmosphere. Those air pollutants react with water, oxygen, and other substances to form airborne sulfuric and nitric acid.”

So, essentially, what causes acid rain? The burning of fossil fuels. A government that has banned people from burning branches that fall from trees in their garden to get rid of it, a government that has prohibited bakeries from using wood to fire their furnaces to bake bread for the masses, is now intent to set up three more coal plants, burning an ancient fossil fuel 24/7 and has no regard for the environment but only talks of the benefits it will bring.

The bait to the masses hurled from the rod of deceit is cheaper electricity. And the masses are expected to swallow it hook, line and sinker. Whilst the whales in power grow fatter by the hour. Blinkered the nation forgets, what else is at stake. It’s not only one’s electricity bills. It’s the broader picture. How it will have an adverse economic effect which will in time boomerang to affect the nation as a whole. It may not reflect in one electricity bill at the end of the month but will seep its way to inflict its damage unknown and unseen.

For what’s the environmental damage that acid rain does?

According to scientists,  ecological effects of acid rain are most clearly seen in aquatic environments, such as streams, lakes, and marshes where it can be harmful to fish and other wildlife. As it flows through the soil, acidic rain water can leach aluminum from soil clay particles and then flow into streams and lakes. The more acid that is introduced to the ecosystem, the more aluminum is released.

Furthermore, it is said, dead or dying trees are a common sight in areas affected by acid rain. Acid rain leaches aluminum from the soil.  That aluminum may be harmful to plants as well as animals. Acid rain also removes minerals and nutrients from the soil that trees need to grow. At high elevations, acidic fog and clouds might strip nutrients from trees’ foliage, leaving them with brown or dead leaves and needles. The trees are then less able to absorb sunlight, which makes them weak.

Aye, there’s the rub. For in that fall of acid rain, what destruction may come to the tea that grow in the highlands, none can really say, except to note that the quality of Ceylon Tea may be permanently tarred with the acid that falls from heaven.

That is the economic factor that will seriously impact the nation’s finances. But there is an emotional one too. A sacred religious factor. And that is how it will affect the 2300 year old Sri Maha Bodhi at Anuradhapura. The same rain that ruins the tea will rain on the Jayasiri Maha Bodhi and hasten its end, nor due to the impermanence if all life but due to the crass attitude the government takes to the protection of the environment.

In a 2016 interview with the Daily Mirror, the then Minister of Science, Technology and Research Susil Premajayantha had this to say: “Coal power was introduced after much discussion between consultants and other respective authorities since coal was cheaper than oil. Therefore, generation plans were prepared based on coal power plants. That is how the Norochcholai coal power plant came into the scene. Scientists and researchers all over the world were researching for alternative energy options such as solar power, biomass, wind power, Dendro, geo-thermal and other sources of energy. Especially after the Fukushima incident in Japan, people started to protest against nuclear power plants on a global scale. Therefore, countries have distanced themselves from establishing new nuclear power plants whereas the current trend that prevails in most countries is centred on renewable energy. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka had a plan promoting coal as an alternative to thermal at the time. Nevertheless, during the last ten years with the development of science and technology and extensive research in laboratories, it has been found that wind, solar and Dendro were much cheaper than coal and thermal.

What? If as the then Minister said in 2016, “it has been found that wind, solar and Dendro were much cheaper than coal and thermal” then why on earth is the present Power and Energy Minister Ravi Karunayake vigorously promoting a fossil resource of the past as Lanka’s future saviour?

Is it because, even unbeknown to him,  even as there is money in muck, there’s gold in coal for some way down the coal mine. Imagine. The annual import of coal to the Norochcholai plant alone costs the nation over 2.4 billion every year. And is set to increase by over 300 per cent each year.

And that’s for just one coal power plant. Can you imagine the pickings wafting to be plucked for three more? Never before it seems have the coal pits been and wait to be so deeply mined. And promoted as the cheapest resource. But as the Chinaman would say, while watching the frequent breakdown of the Chinese built Norochchalai, ‘good things no cheap, cheap things no good”.

As the then Minister of Science, Technology and Research Susil Premajayantha said in his interview in June 2016,” During the General Assembly in 2015, the United Nations with the participation of many world leaders representing different nationalities including Sri Lanka, announced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG goals) from 2015- 2030. Among the SDG, introducing renewable energy and taking care of climate change gained prominence. The COP 21 Paris Agreement famous for climate change was signed in UNFCCC headquarters in New York in April 22. We were talking about mitigation and adaptation during this international convention. However, mitigation and adaptation are two areas that have already been achieved despite the rise in temperature by 20 Celsius throughout the last decade. If we continue like this, definitely global temperature will rise resulting in the melting of glaciers whereas island nations such as Sri Lanka will be badly affected within the next 25 or 30 years.”

“Therefore, the prevailing norm is that every country is responsible to ensure that the increase in temperature will not exceed more than 1.50 Celsius within the next 30 years. One of the main causes giving rise to intense global warming is the continuance of power generation through coal and thermal power plants. Consequently, many countries do away with coal and thermal power and introduce LNG nowadays. Countries such as Germany have planned to have by 2050 the entire power production process centered on renewable energy; solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.”

To quote a report aired by the BBC Sinhala Service on the environmental damage caused the Norochcholai Coal Power plant, less than a few years in operation, read this:

“The continued operation of the Norochcholai coal plant has posed a massive threat to human health and the environment, residents in the area have claimed.

They told the BBC Sinhala Service that coal dust spread by the winds have caused severe respiratory problems to the residents.

They said that added to the dust in the wind, the smoke emitted by the coal plant has also caused widespread damage to the environment.

As a result the vegetable crops grown in the surrounding area are covered with black soot, the BBC Sinhala Service correspondent Prasad Poornamal who visited the area said. “I could see that green ladies fingers had turned black. Green vegetables in the area had turned black, he reported.

Residents said that a team from the health ministry had visited the area and had videotaped the damage done to the crops but since then nothing has been heard from them.

Parents said that as a result of the dust, even the white school uniforms of their children had become discoloured.

“It is true we received compensation before the coal plant was set up but that is hardly enough when we see the damage it is causing the environment and the adverse effects it is having on our health” residents said.

In the face of worldwide evidence of nation after nation giving the thumbs down to coal, why is Lanka hell bent on turning the tide to stake its energy future on the grime of black coal?

And that’s not the end of the story. Whilst the nation goes into reverse gear and see in coal its future, the funny thing is that the present Power and Energy Minister is reported to have announced on World Environmental Day his grand plan to eclipse the sun as a source of free clean renewable energy.

His plan was to  remove the  Net Metering System (NMS) and Net Accounting System (NAS) This, it is claimed, will dramatically reduce the future investment in solar power generation which were introduced  to encourage installation of rooftop solar systems. The do it yourself, home installation power panels to harness solar power which even the state banks were instructed to provide loans to encourage the general public to follow. It had two advantages. One it placed less pressure on the national grid. And two, it cuts down on one’s electricity bills.

The two systems were put in place to encourage installation of rooftop solar systems. The Minister announced that from August 1, only the Net Plus System (NPS) would be in place. Under it, rooftop solar systems that produce up to 50 KWs would be paid a Rs. 19.75 flat rate for a contract period of 20 years while systems above 50 KWs would be paid Rs. 18.75 flat rate, also for 20 years.

Currently, those who produce renewable energy are paid Rs. 22 for the first seven years and Rs. 15.50 for the next 13 year. With the changes it takes longer time for a producer to recover their costs.

Secretary of the Solar Industries Association Lakmal Fernando told the press “A large number of people started installing solar panels after these two systems were introduced. Solar power accounts for about 230 megawatts a day and if not for this, the CEB would have had to start power cuts by February or cut power for longer periods at a time.

As reported in the Island, the Information Officer of the Ministry of Power and Energy Sulakshana Jayawardena said that the decision at issue had been made in view of the financial difficulties faced by the CEB, which subsidized electricity used by those who consume 60 or less units a month at about Rs. 4.68 a unit. Then we have those who consume over 200 units of electricity and they pay about Rs. 45 per unit. What we have seen in recent years is that they have started to install solar panels on their rooftops. Once these people leave we will be left with consumers who use electricity at a concessionary rate. That will be a further burden. On the other hand, we want to support the entrepreneurs who run large solar power plants. The changed Net Plus scheme will help them.”

But the Secretary of the Solar Industries Association Lakmal Fernando has a different viewpoint. He said: “The CEB has no problem in purchasing electricity from large thermal power producers at over Rs 30 per unit. Not only are fossil fuels pegged to the dollar but they are also high polluters. We assume that about 50 MW of solar power are generated daily by rooftop systems from high end consumers. This converts to 66 Gigawatt hours per annum. If this is gone, the CEB will have to purchase power at Rs. 30 a unit as emergency power. This will cost us tax payers an additional Rs. 2 billion.”

But who’s bothered? Especially when 2.5 billion worth of coal arrive at the ports each years, now to be multiplied by the cabinet nod for another three coal plants within this small island of only 25,000 square miles.

Coal may be cheap. But is it clean? And do the people who make these decisions have grime on their hands? Not to forget, of course, that for some working deep in the mines, there is gold in coal. Provided, of course, one knows the elusive secret of alchemy: the mystic, magical art of turning coal into gold.

Shangri-laBy Don ManuOh! That I were cast off, marooned
On some desert island cocooned
TO spend my life’s brief span alone
Far from the maddening strife I’ve known

Oh! That I were free, could erase
These ceaseless torments that retrace
Pains endless, sufferings sans grace;
And, in solitude, find solace

Away from it all, from all woe away
Where misery’s scepter holds sway;
Where lies crushed the human spirit
‘Neath the trod of cold hard habit.

Oh! Let me live, Oh! Let me learn
How to quench these hungers that burn;
Let me seek, let me strive and find
The Nirvana where no ties bind

Beyond the shores of mankind’s reach,
I’ll divine what the sages teach,
Life’s higher purpose, truth sublime,
One stark sunrise would illumine.

Oh! Let me breathe freedom’s sweet air
Savour its myrrh then let me dare
To view alone the Heavens unfold
And reveal to me bliss untold.

Unfettered, unchained, with my soul so unbarred
I’ll face the forces, I’ll emerge unscarred;
I’ll brave the tempests and it furies balm
As it lash ‘gainst my untroubled heart’s calm
On the plains of untrammeled human thought,
I yearn to learn what the Buddha has taught;
Conquer desire to render sorrow nought,
Outsoar the fates that my karma has wrought.

Let Mara with his sirens tempt,
Maya with her daughters attempt
To lure me from that one intent:
To dare behold the ultimate.
Awake and find enlightenment.

No more shall they resurrect this home ‘gain
For me to languish in exquisite pain;
No more shall this frail, perishable frame
House the demons that make the soul deprave

Where ignorance urge more riches to crave
Trapped in the vortex of desire’s rant And rave;
E’en whilst knowing it leads beyond the grave
To repeat the cycle that but enslave
The ceaseless torments none can allay:
The endless cycle of birth and decay

Now on these steeps let my isle ‘fford
Me to dins my idyllic ‘bode;
Create Shangri-la at Heaven’s door
Leave sorrow stranded in the shore:
And know no more this earthly woe.

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