According to news items during the first week of June 2019, the “Surya Bala Sangramaya” programme launched in 2016 seems to be on the verge of collapse. The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and the Ministry of Power & Energy (MPE) officials are considering not to approve rooftop PV connections over 50 kW capacities until further [...]

Sunday Times 2

Don’t let them switch off solar power supply

CEB, MPE moves to apply breaks on green energy will affect sustainable development

Smog (smoke+fog=smog) due to air pollution covering the Galgiriya Kanda close to Galgamuwa in January/February. This has been observed in Sri Lanka for the first time and the cause is air pollution. This type of occurrences happens only in cities like Beijing and New Delhi due to burning of coal.

According to news items during the first week of June 2019, the “Surya Bala Sangramaya” programme launched in 2016 seems to be on the verge of collapse. The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and the Ministry of Power & Energy (MPE) officials are considering not to approve rooftop PV connections over 50 kW capacities until further notice and they are planning to build four new coal power plants.

At present those who produce solar energy under the “Net Plus” scheme are paid Rs.22 per unit for the first seven years and Rs.15.50 for the next 13 years by the CEB. Therefore, the average lifecycle cost of solar electricity is about Rs.18 per unit. Reports say that the Ministry officials have been pressing producers of renewable energy to reduce their prices further. However, CEB pays Rs. 30-45 for “emergency” power purchased from private plants which use imported fossil fuel.

For the benefit of all Sri Lankans, we would like to raise several key questions on this unwise decision detrimental to the development of renewable energy utilisation in Sri Lanka.  This type of ad-hoc decisions would inevitably lead to the “reversal” of the sustainable energy initiatives taken by Sri Lanka in complying with the UN Sustainable Development Goal 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

In accordance with this goal, one of the best nationally important decisions implemented by the Government from 2016  is the “Surya Bala Sangramaya” programme aimed at installing solar panels on roof tops of one million households. This important initiative created more than 10,000 direct and indirect jobs in many state institutions and private sector companies. To date, more than 17,000 PV solar systems have been installed all over the country and about 200 MW had been added to the National Grid. This was an impressive beginning for Sri Lanka as per the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. However, due to these most recent ad-hoc policy changes, what we see now is that instead of accelerating and expanding this major sustainable development programme, the CEB and the MPE are planning to jeopardise this successful programme affecting the country’s future in developing renewable energy and seriously damaging the sustainable development efforts in Sri Lanka.

Solar panels being installed at the Nochchiya Solar Power village. The project was funded by APSL-UK

We would like to question the CEB and the MPE the reasons for policy change which would prevent the production of clean renewable energy in the country. These decisions would also create economic disaster in the long run.

While every country is moving forward in implementing SDGs with regard to sustainable and environmentally friendly energy sources for the interest of our present and future generations, our policy makers appear to be interested in reversing this trend for whatever short-term gains.

These decision makers appear to be living with their heads buried in the sand, ignoring the global trend towards renewable energy development. Solar energy conversion depends on advanced technologies and the initial high cost has been a barrier in the past. In early 1970s, about U$100 was needed to produce 1.0 Watt of solar energy. However, as a result of worldwide research and development, this figure has come down to about US$ 0.4 per Watt today and solar energy has reached on par with grid-parity in several sunny-countries.

The “Solar Energy Revolution” is happening around the globe and even countries with comparatively low sunshine are producing tremendous amount of clean energy from PV solar technology. For example, Germany produces 42.3 GW, Italy produces 19.6 GW and the UK produces 12.8 GW from PV solar. The worldwide total installation capacity is more than 500 GW. But Sri Lanka, though blessed with abundant sunshine, has only about 3 GW total power production capacity and is going backwards as a result of the unwise decisions taken by apparently a few self-interested individuals.

One of their favourite arguments is that more solar power at non-peak hours cannot be handled by the National Grid. However, many countries have found ways and means of overcoming these issues and in Germany over 50% of the energy comes from renewable energy sources today. Many countries have undertaken research programmes in developing solar energy as a major renewable energy source and Sri Lanka could work with these countries in gaining the necessary technology to make our country self-sufficient in renewable energy without depending on imported coal as the main source of supplying energy. It appears that the decision makers in the CEB and the Ministry would never learn from other countries how they are moving away from coal in generating power. Our decision makers are planning to continue to produce electricity by burning expensive and imported fossil fuel such as coal, oil and gas. Disregarding the “Clean Air Act”, they carry on polluting our atmosphere by building four more coal power plants.

We are now experiencing the Smog (Smoke + Fog) in Sri Lanka, never observed before mainly due to carbon particulates emitted to the atmosphere when coal and other fossil fuel are burnt. This will create health issues. The fine particles produced are responsible not only for respiratory illnesses but are now known to cause stroke, cancer and a plethora of other health problems. Therefore, it is high time renewable energy solutions are encouraged to protect our atmosphere and health.

Air pollution is the leading cause of ischaemic heart disease and premature deaths of children worldwide. Indirectly it affects a country’s economy also as money needs to be allocated to treat more sick people. CEB policy makers seem to ignore these effects and the MPE approves these damaging policies without taking into consideration the damage it makes to the environment. It is the duty of everyone responsible to oppose the decision to resist solar energy and put the country in the right direction.

The news items also reported that during a meeting, the Power and Energy Minister had said that plans were underway to introduce a new tariff system for rooftop solar consumers. This is a good opportunity to increase the payments for clean energy production in the country. As an example, in April 2010, the UK government introduced an incentive by a double payment of 43.5 pence per solar energy unit, against the cost of less than 20 pence charges for the electricity usage from the grid. This sensible policy has led to the installation of over one million solar roofs during the past eight years, thereby increasing the total solar energy production capacity to 12.8 GW by 2019.

Learning from such success stories, we would expect that the Sri Lankan government would also increase the solar tariff at least to match Rs. 30-45 payments during emergency power purchase rather than reducing the renewable energy tariffs. Any solar tariff reduction will appear to the Sri Lankan general public as a foolish decision by the CEB and the MPE and would lead to an unfavourable situation in the renewable energy sector, going against the UN’s SDGs, which Sri Lanka has committed to achieve.

In the 1980s, there were more than 600 coal mines in the United Kingdom, but these were gradually closed, and the last coal mine was closed in 2018. This is due to the severe pollution of environment and to protect people from the damaging climate change effects. When a major coal producing country takes this kind of right action, Sri Lanka’s general public is puzzled by the coal addiction of the CEB and its plan to build few more coal power plants. We should make use of the already operating coal power plants, without building new plants, until the country establishes a clean energy technology-mix to produce our required energy. Coal usage should be gradually phased out as the other indigenous and clean energy production increases within the country. The long-term goal should be for Sri Lanka to become a “Renewable Energy Island” dependent largely on hydro, solar, wind, bio-mass and other renewable energy sources.

Fossil fuel has done a good job of developing only two thirds of the world population to a certain degree. However, this carbon-economy has also polluted the environment creating severe climate change problems like global warming and widespread health issues. These are well established facts and the whole world is moving away from a carbon-economy to achieve a carbon-neutral economy and finally to a hydrogen-economy. It is anticipated that the future energy will generate from burning of hydrogen produced by splitting water using freely available solar and wind energy. Sri Lanka should move forward with this trend rather than going backwards introducing policies which could damage the environment and people’s health.

Some of the authors of this article have carried out extensive research on solar cells and solar energy conversion over past many years. We were actively promoting renewable energy applications in Sri Lanka starting from the early 1990s. With the help of a Higher Education-Link programme, continued over a period of eight years, and several other similar programmes, professionals in Sri Lanka and local universities continue to promote clean energy applications within the country. At least six international conferences were organised in Sri Lanka to discuss solar energy research and to promote solar energy applications.

We have experienced in the past numerous negative actions taken by the CEB against the successful implementation of the renewable energy policy. Just to remind a few examples; the CEB drew a grid line through “Pansiyagama at Malsiripura” to jeopardise an early stage 500 solar home systems installed in the late 1980s. More recently in 2017, it took about eight months to receive the first payment for the 6.0 kW solar roof installed at Nochchiya solar village under the “Net Plus” system, sponsored by two UK-based charities, APSL-UK (Association of Professional Sri Lankans in the UK) and Hela Sarana (UK Registered Charity). Project leaders had to write to the CEB chairman several times and finally after appealing through the Prime Minister’s office in Colombo the first payment was made after eight months from the date of completion of the project. The income generated is now being used by the Nochchiya Village Development Committee to develop the village via many humanitarian projects.

Therefore, the Sri Lankan professionals are fully aware of this type of negative attitude of the CEB towards the renewable energy development, and we consider that the current decisions are also aimed at preventing and discouraging the implementation of solar power projects. While condemning the arbitrary and adhoc actions of the CEB to limit solar roof installations, we request the CEB and the ministry officials to take the correct decisions in the name of the future generations of this country. At the same time, the Power and Energy Ministry should take correct decisive actions and instruct CEB officials to consider the long-term benefits to the country and not short-term gains by purchasing power at exorbitant rates from the private sector.

(About the authors: Prof I M Dharmadasa -Professor of Electronic Engineering & Ex-President of
APSL-UK (2009 - 2011). Prof Lakshman  Dissanayake  - Professor Emeritus (Physics), University of
Peradeniya, & Research Professor, NIFS. Prof Oliver Ileperuma OI - Professor Emeritus (Chemistry), University of
Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. W Leslie Dep - Chartered Surveyor and Ex-President APSL- UK (2015-2017)
Jayantha Silva - Mechanical Engineer and President Hela Sarana )

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