The Sunday TimesPlus

13th April 1997



Balance of power

Fast running out of hydro power, the country is pressed to look for other cheap energy sources. Coal is the most viable alternative claims the CEB. But its ecological impact could overshadow economic benefits. Tharuka Dissanaike reports:

"Coal power has to come," the government stated. "It is the most economical way to meet the country’s power requirements in the future."

So Sri Lanka will resort to coal power. The Ceylon Electriciy Board (CEB) is presently considering a 300 MW coal power plant in the scrub jungles of the Kalpitiya area on the north western coast of the country. The earlier uproar of environmental concerns regarding coal power still fresh in their minds, the CEB is taking precautions to address the issues that have dragged them under a number of times.

The necessity for the country to move into coal power was felt some time ago, but the first location of choice was the controversial port of Trincomalee. The debate over Trincomalee still exists, but because of security conditions, other locations were looked into. At the moment the most viable one is located 15 km northwards of Palavi junction on the road to Kalpitiya. It is about 10 km away from the famous Talawila church of St. Anne’s, an important Catholic shrine.

"At present it is just scrub jungle, with some cultivations in the periphery," D.C. Wijerathne, Additional General Manger, CEB said. "We will do our best to minimise relocation of the villagers."

But already villagers have begun protesting against the coal plant. Worried about their cultivations and homes, and also the fear that their precious water resources will be sapped by the huge operation which might come, the angry villagers have more or less declared war on the CEB. Some equipment belonging to the CEB was set fire at the site in protest. But subsequent meetings organised by the CEB to explain matters to the people have brought forth heated discussion and a certain amount of awareness among the villagers. Work at the site is expected to commence after Avurudhu, after some delay following the people’s protests. But the project still has a long way to go.

At present the feasibility study is being carried out by a Swiss Company, Electrowatt, whose work is expected to conclude by the end of this year. The pre-feasibility and feasibility studies are funded by the Japanese government through a 920 million yen loan. As soon as the feasibility studies are over, the EIA ( Environment Impact Assessment ) report will have to be compiled. The CEB is quite certain that they can meet internationally accepted levels of pollution control with this project.

"We will not be obtaining ground water. Instead we will pump from the sea and desalinize the water for use in the power plant. Pollutants in the air emissions, including coal dust will be minimised to a large degree," Wijerathne said.

The coast alongside the area earmarked for the power plant will be developed into a port which can bring in large coal transporting ships. Ideally and most economically, a ship carring 120 tons of coal should be able to berth, but only Colombo and Trincomalee harbour can offer such a facility. At Kalpitiya, ships coming to port there would be able to carry only 50-60 tons of coal, because of the shallow sea.

The decision to go into coal power is, apparently, not debatable. While the country’s energy requirements have been growing rapidly, atapproximately 10 percent a year, power supply has stagnated, creating the present power crisis, manifest now as a ban on air conditioning using grid electricity. The aim of the CEB is to break the country’s dependency on hydro electricity and go into other energy sources. "We are an energy poor nation, dependent on imported fuel. Therefore we have no option but to consider the cheapest source of energy," Wijerathne explained.

The price of a barrel of oil had gone up by 30 percent last year, and that kind of price increases are difficult for Sri Lanka to absorb. Coal prices, on the other hand are quite stable and are not controlled by cartels, CEB sources said. The other option being nuclear power, the CEB sees no alternative to meet the power demand as the new millenium draws close. According to their long term generation plan the CEB will be adding a 300MW coal power plant to the grid every two years after the first one is commissioned, they hope, in 2002. By 2010, power generation is expected to be dominated by coal.

The environmental concerns regarding coal power generation are, hewever, still paramount in people’s minds. Horror stories of acid rain and ground water pollution are quoted from the experiences of other countries. But at this stage most environmental groups are not prepared to make any statement before the coal power project is clearly outlined.

"Villagers have come to us expressing their concerns and seeking advice," a spokesman for the Environmental Foundation said. "But it is yet too early to make a definite claim of the effects, other than the relocation of the people. These areas, although arid, are cultivated extensively."

In the end it would be the greater national concerns that rule. Economics against ecology. Can we afford it?

Things are hotting up

With air conditioners switched off, and widespread public resentment at the thought of possible power cuts, the CEB is sweating over ways to overcome the power deficit until the monsoon showers break out.

With the dry spell which marked the first few months of this year, reservoir levels have plummeted. The entire capacity at present is only 20 percent of the total. The situation is only marginally better than that of April last year.

The country has been spared the black out of last year because of the several diesel generators now in operation that are selling power by the unit to the national grid.

Two companies, Aggreko and Coolair together have brought 75 MW of additional power which is already supplied to the grid. In the coming week, Aggreko is expected to commission another 30 MW plant at Kotugoda while Woodgroup will bring in 20 MW more. This additional capacity should see us through to June, at which time the monsoon showers are expected to break out. Even otherwise, two more power plants are to be in operation by June 1. A 115MW Gas turbine at Kelanitissa and a 40MW diesel plant at Sapugaskanda.

"The likelihood of a power cut is very remote," an engineer at CEB said. "But it is a touch and go situation."

"If the catchment areas recieve adequate intermonsoon rains in April we should be able to scrape through." He added that the situation is nowhere near as bad as last year’s crippling power crisis.

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