7 June, 2023


Capitalism & The War On Renewable Energy

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Let’s approach ecological morality rationally: Capitalism and the war on renewable energy

Man has lost the capacity to foresee or to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.” ~ Albert Schweitzer

It seems that every generation has to learn the same lessons anew. Fifty-five years ago with the publication of Silent Spring the environmental movement was born and millions, especially young people, have since been inspired by a concern for the planet. Ecology and climate change are now everyday terms. Rachel Carson was no wide-eyed environmental evangelist, she was a sober and rational scientist and as the celebrated April 1963 CBS interview-programme with the author of Silent Spring, watched by nearly 15 million people, pointed out: “In spite of her view that pesticide safeguards are inadequate, Miss Carson does not advocate discontinuing the use of pesticides immediately. Instead she proposes a gradual shift to other methods of pest control”.

This is an approach contradicted by our President’s and our government’s uninformed and peremptory termination of the proposed Sampoor power-plant, rejecting the views of experts who offered a scheme for gradual elimination of coal; for example my ‘Short Circuit at Sampoor’ on 25 Sept 2016. Clean-coal is less, but of course not free of pollution; all energy production, renewables too, pollutes in some form; it’s a matter of ensuring that the earth can absorb man’s imprint.

Today the object of my wrath is covetous capitalism which will sell even its mother for profit and in particular capitalism’s high-class strumpet and mouthpiece The Economist. I take objection to its 25 February issue which splashes across the front cover the provocative blast “Clean Energy; its Dirty Secret”. The magazine follows up with a lead article and a longer piece entitled ‘Wind and Solar Power are Disrupting Electricity Systems’ which argue that penetration of renewable energy sources at decreasing costs undercuts the profitability of investors in conventional power plant and “disrupts” the smooth growth of the supply industry. This wacko line of reasoning says cheap, clean, energy is bad for society because it is bad for investors (read capitalism).

Shock to our morality

The reasoning goes like this and I quote from the Economist:

“It is no longer far-fetched to think that the world is entering an era of clean, unlimited and cheap power; about time, too. There is a $20trn hitch, though. To get from here to there requires huge amounts of investment over the next few decades, to replace old smog-belching power plants and to upgrade the pylons and wires that bring electricity to consumers. Normally investors like putting their money into electricity because it offers reliable returns. Yet green energy has a dirty secret. The more it is deployed, the more it lowers the price of power from any source. That makes it hard to manage the transition to a carbon-free future, during which many generating technologies, clean and dirty, need to remain profitable if the lights are to stay on.

“Policymakers are already seeing this inconvenient truth as a reason to put the brakes on renewable energy. In parts of Europe and China, investment in renewables is slowing as subsidies are cut back. At its heart, the problem is that government-supported renewable energy has been imposed on a market designed in a different era. For much of the 20th century, electricity was made and moved by vertically integrated, state-controlled monopolies. From the 1980s onwards, many of these were broken up, privatised and liberalised, so that market forces could determine where best to invest. Yet everywhere the pressure to decarbonise power supply has brought the state creeping back into markets. This is disruptive for three reasons. The first is the subsidy system itself. The other two are inherent to the nature of wind and solar: their intermittency and their very low running costs”.

The cat is out of the bag. Since the operating cost of renewables is low (fuel cost in the case of solar and wind is zero) the scope for investors to make profits is emasculated. So out with clean energy! How much more diabolical and obtuse can capitalism’s global trollop get?

I fought the government’s bovine decision to dump Sampoor and scuttle the Japanese clean-coal power-plant planned for the next plot of land on the Sampoor peninsula for the opposite reason; higher costs and paradoxically, in the long run, denigration of environmentalism itself. The blunder is going to cost Lanka an additional cumulative power generating cost, up to 2023, of Rs 220 billion. This does not include losses to economy and industry from likely power cuts. When this happens the public will turn against environmentalism. Naïve environmentalists therefore are shooting themselves in the foot.

This caving in to an ignoramus lobby fits a larger pattern. The government is blundering on all fronts and it funks confronting the chaos engineered by the Joint Opposition (JO). The latest is doctors on wildcat strike, but taking-on the GMOA and breaking the strike is a challenge pussycat Ranil and befuddled Sirisena have ducked. A spate of gangland style shootings, obstinate campaigns by disabled ex-soldiers, disruption and blockades everywhere, these are grist to the JO’s mill. It is no longer a joke to fret that S&R wish to throw in the towel in 2020 and confine themselves to a one-term administration. Surely isn’t this more likely than that they are forlorn lovers sworn to a mutual suicide pact?

The killing fields of Monsanto and Union Carbide

This piece alternates between a critique of profit-motivated homicide by global business and the rational balancing of environmental imperatives with societies needs. To put the latter in context I mean the Sampoor debate. Global public opinion is too intelligent for the Economist’s dirty campaign to foul up clean energy or Donald Trump’s idiocy on climate-change to prevail. The former will be ridiculed out of court; the latter is in retreat. However, it is sobering to recount the onslaught that Monsanto, American Cyanamid, Union Carbide, Du Pont, the pesticide industry, trade groups and the Manufacturing Chemist’s Association unleashed on Silent Spring and its author in the early 1960s. Billions of dollars were at stake so the merchants of death spent millions in an attempt to shore up their poisons.

Monsanto, the vilest, released millions of copies of a parody mocking Carson. The industry slated her work as alarmist, an emotional outburst and inaccurate (actually the book is meticulously researched and reliable science). The Agricultural Chemicals Association, the biggest chamber of pesticide makers called Silent Spring “more poisonous than the pesticides she condemned”. There were McCarthy style missives to Congress and press releases describing Rachael Carson as a closet communist hell-bent on destroying the “free world”. When profit is threatened earth knows no fury like capitalism spurned. And there was no shortage of insinuation and smugness playing on Miss Carson’s gender.

It is unnecessary to refute the Economist’s preposterous baloney. In summary its point is this: The promotion of clean energy requires state intervention therefore privatisation of electricity utilities is being reversed; this by definition is bad. So down with clean energy! Surely even the Economist can’t be so obtuse as to imagine that it can get away with so absurdly ideological a rant!

Home again

The problem at Sampoor is not greenhouse gases; Lanka’s contribution is minuscule and well below the permitted cap. The problem is local; the misery of people living in the vicinity. The CEB has unpardonably neglected its environmental obligations. The horrible truth at Norochcholi is fine fly-ash carried up to 3 km down-wind from the ash dump. With the right waste management tools this could have been circumvented; world class plants control ash and eliminate coal dust. People from Sampoor who have visited villages downwind of Norochcholi will never agree to live near a power station even if the CEB promises the sun and the moon.

We have to take an overview; a cumulative cost of Rs220+ billion, no greenhouse gases in excess of international obligations, advanced containment technologies, but psychological distress for the local population, or what else? The alternatives are candid; either scarp the project or resettle local people in good quality homes and lands elsewhere.

What would the latter cost? Let’s calculate for1000 families. Minister Swaminathan estimated 825 families in June 2015. If it takes Rs 1 million per family to relocate to new homes, lands, schools, health and other services, 1000 families will cost Rs 1 billion. That’s two orders of magnitude below Rs220 billion. Even if the number of families and cost per family were two or three times higher, the total is miniscule, comparatively. One must not be hoodwinked by the oil and LNG mafia, one must gradually disengage from coal, one must not cave in to naive greens, or to rapacious capitalism. Miss Carson would have approved of a balanced approach such as this.

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Latest comments

  • 4

    what has happened to Sri Lanka is what happens to a man who sells his wife. He has no say in the matter. Finally we are seeing the effects of selling the country by JRJ. Premadasa, Chandrika , Rajapakse and Ranil W coming home to roost. The citizens of this country have their birth right sold by a political class that is naive and recherous. Replacing them after the damage is done is not enough they must be made to account.

    • 1

      Prof. Kumar David

      RE: Capitalism & The War On Renewable Energy

      The CO2 levels will go up in a century the sea levels will go up bu 210 feet, and many nations will be smaller including the capitalist and non-capitalist countries.

      It will be warmer, and many places will be trainer, and others drier, and will lead to population shifts.

      Want to buy sea front property? But property at an elevation of 220 ft.

  • 1

    President Sirisena and PM Ranil is closing their eyes and allowing SLMC members to create havock in the country taking the poor sick people as their targets. President and PM should have the guts to say SAITM is a ongoing operation and give and ultimatum to these Thugs wearing white and. Declaring them as Doctors either to treat patient or other wise recruite capable Doctors from other countries to run the Hospitals. These MBBS. doctors from SL will never be able to migrate to better countries as they think. Follow former President Premadas,s action and sack every one who go against the laid down regulations and bring the country to help the poor Sri Lankan. Who voted for you both.

  • 1

    What Kumar Davids saying Tamils want everything but not in my back yard because coal – powerplants have negative effects. Built it some where and give us cheap energy.

    Trump and all that crap is extra. If not why Kumar David is living some where and trying to change some where else ?

    One better suggestion is ask people to be content with what they have and reduce the energy consumption.

    Do you think, clean energy does not have any negative effects. The isses will be completely different. That will be the only difference. One may not introduce CO2 into the air. but, you create many troubles to the environment that include animals and humans. Becausee, we can not change the environment and stay without affecting everything around us on us.

    So, just ask to stop the Almighty subjugates and exploits the humans, powerful humans subjugate and exploit the weaker humans. o called academics come and write what they want.

    I think the best thing is cut down the exploitation and ask the govts to teach people how to be happy with what they have. As long as they chase the money, there will not be solutions. Solutions are within us which is hard to believe.

  • 7

    The core issue is energy consumption which links to material consumption and consumerism which link to capitalist greed.
    Consumerism is a key link to attack to break this chain of evil.

    • 5

      Very good point. Energy and fuel consumption is way too high. We must stop building these air-conditioned glass ovens and go back to the old energy- conserving buildings. But I don’t believe our people are ready to exchange their pet Toyotas or Marutis for buses.
      Raise the price of petrol to 200 bucks a litre!

      • 0

        Old codger
        Even at 1k per litre we have a middle class that will burn petrol by skipping a meal; and then there are the super rich.
        It requires some form of a revolution in our attitudes.

        • 0


          “It requires some form of a revolution in our attitudes.”

          Bring back the weeping widow, NM Perera, Pol Pot, …. and Katta and Hakkuru.

  • 1

    AKD still seems to have a great desire for taking pot shots at investors (read capitalism). This seems to be a genetic trait that most leftists are prone to. he tries to portray investors as bad guys who are always out to make a kill no matter what.

    Let us not forget the greatest ecological disaster due to a power plant happened in the Russia, the country that AKD worships, as the Utopia of socialism. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster has produced pollution that would last for tens of thousand years.

    Todays investors are not the dirty rich only. many commoners are also investors. The Economist he quotes says “That makes it hard to manage the transition to a carbon-free future, during which many generating technologies, clean and dirty, need to remain profitable if the lights are to stay on”.

    Is AKD claiming that this is not true, at least partially? I am not a Professor in Electrical engineering. But it is true that renewable energy without storage disrupts grids in many ways. The intermittent nature of these energy sources means thatbyou have to have storage or conventional plant to backup.

    As an example, in the case of PV and Sri Lanka, PV is available during daytime but the peak load occurs in the night when there is no PV. This means 2 things. You have to have thermal plant, to meet night demand and hence run for a short time or you must have storage of PV energy.

    PV energy can be used (1) specially designed hydro plant(pumped storage) (2) Batteries (3) Other exotic storage schemes.

    All these have their own adverse ecological impact.

    One must also consider the frequency and reactive power support that are inherently available in all rotating machines but have to be artificially built in to PV plant. CEB cannot manage these properly even with rotating plant. It is hard to imagine the PV home owners doing so.

    • 1

      T. Lakshminarayan,
      You have got the wrong end of the stick:
      “But it is true that renewable energy without storage disrupts grids in many ways. The intermittent nature of these energy sources means thatbyou have to have storage or conventional plant to backup. “
      This is exactly what K.D. has been saying all along. There is no need to argue, because he is on the same side.

      • 0

        Oh yeah? Sorry. I did not read the article.

      • 0

        Oh Yeah, old codger. Sorry, Ah! I did not read the full article. How can I? They less interesting than even his lectures!

        • 0

          Looks like some of his lectures stuck in your head anyway!

          • 0

            Old Codger, NOT SOME BUT ALL! That happens to be the problem.

            Let us now take your article para by para. You say, “The cat is out of the bag. Since the operating cost of renewables is low (fuel cost in the case of solar and wind is zero) the scope for investors to make profits is emasculated. So out with clean energy! How much more diabolical and obtuse can capitalism’s global trollop get”?

            when you say “investors” here you mean those the sub set of the global set of energy investors who want non-renewable energy. They must be idiots if they stick to one energy source instead of going with the trend and trying to invest in the most favorable type of plant that will make the future. Oh yeah, they must be as blind as leftists, socialists and communists who cannot change their thinking to suit the new conditions. By the way, who is your hero now? Probably, Kim Il Jong? Soon he will be Kim Il Sune Sung! Is he to you what Che Guevara was to the JVP?

            I am asking this because you say : “So out with clean energy! How much more diabolical and obtuse can capitalism’s global trollop get?’ Kimis firing ICBM’s and you are firing in coherent ideas at capitalism.

            Don’t you see the dual personality here. One is a technical man. The other is the politician.

            Even in the ‘technical man’ there seems to be confusion. You say you prefer clean coal in one place and want to push renewable in the other. May I ask “What is your position regarding Norochcholai? Do you accept that though it is polluting, it is saving billions in terms of fuel costs.

            Anyway, I am glad that you do not belong to any lobby. That itself makes your ideas palatable.

        • 0

          AKD’s lectures, not interesting?: He was among the best communicators in the Engineering Faculty, Peradeniya. (I cannot comment on Harare or Hong Kong where he worked for as long or longer.)

          Count the number of people who read anything before shooting off their hip. Fewer than the fingers on one hand, excluding the thumb?

          • 0

            I must be the exception.

            Would a monkey find the latest Sinhala movie ‘Aloko Udapadi’ interesting? Of course not. Only an exceptional monkey would!

            P.S.: AKD Among the Best communicators in the Faculty? Ha! Ha!That is not telling much. None of them were exceptionally good, except Batho (Among the best in the world). The thermodynamics communicator did not know what Entropy is and wanted us to go home and think about it. If that is the way things should be, we should be allowed to go home and award the degrees to ourselves.

            Hey, judging from the quality of output, that is what must be happening.

            One more P. S.: I don’t think many of the E Fac would find ‘Aloko Udapadi’ interesting or understand it – especially, AKD. Paccattam Veti Tabbo Vinnuhiti.

            Sorry One more P.S.: AKD had no industrial experience at that time. One can excuse that. But one cannot excuse his lack of the understanding of basic principles. Once he insisted that a certain type of motor cannot be made to turn in the reverse direction because it would violate certain Laws in Physics.

            Hope he got industrial experience later in life.

          • 0

            You claimed that you did not read the article because it was boring like his lectures. (Will not that disqualify you as an exception?)
            Jokes apart, your view of AKD is not that of his colleagues and most students.

            If Barth is the norm, I admit that very nearly every teacher at Peradeniya will fail, with some like David Gunaratnam just passing.
            I knew Dr Robert Taylor who taught maths at Mech Eng, ICSTM between 1966 and 1990, A PhD research student sat with us for his MSc lectures (that was the third time he did it) just to listen to him.

            Bartho & Bob are a rare breed. Those are examples to look up to but hard to emulate.
            Their presence should not disqualify those who make an effort to communicate well.

            Kumar David made mistakes.So what? Anyone could.
            I remember the incident an he was still a fresh PhD. But he took his teaching seriously.

            • 1

              AKD and Reactive Power

              Sekara, Here is an anecdote:

              3 Mid West farmers were talking about their sons in college.

              Framer 1: My son is doing a BS

              Farmer 2: What is a BS?

              Framer 1: Bull Shit

              Framer 2: My son is doing an MS.

              Framer 3: What is MS?

              Framer 2: More of the Same.

              Framer 3: My son is doing a PhD

              Framer 1: What is PhD

              Framer 3: Piled High and Dry.

              Marconi was the first person to transmit a radio signal across the Atlantic Ocean. Marconi was an experimenter and did not have a PhD or even a formal education. When he announced his plans all the experts said that he was wasting his time.

              Reason: Due to the curvature of Earth, the straight line joining East Coast of US nd England had to pass through Earth. And of course, radio waves would get attenuated completely when going through solid Earth.

              However, Marconi, not having any theoretical knowledge, did not understand this argument and went ahead. To everyone’s surprise, his experiment was successful and the signal was received in US.

              Later it was found that something called the ionosphere acted as a sort of mirror for radio waves, and that is why it was received successfully.

              AKD’s weakness ‘was’ the lack of absolutely no industrial experience. Example Reactive Power: or him was just a formula VI sin (Phi). Just a figment of our imagination. But for me, when I faced it while working in the CEB it was a devil. Poor management of Reactive power and the lack of understanding about it caused the longest and biggest black out in the history of this country.

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