By Upatissa Pethiyagoda –
We are incessantly bombarded with “Devolution of Power” in a spurious sense. This is to be expected in a society where sectarian politics are all-pervading. Here I am using it in the more relevant sense, and which affects us all. Ten years of my working life was outside my country, and not once (yes, not even once) was there a domestic power failure. Back home, there have been dozens. This is not a matter of being “poor”. It is more a matter of bad planning, lack of a sense of pride in whatever paid work that we do, and a propensity for NATO ! Recently, an element of sabotage (at power plants) and an official desire to bring in private suppliers into a very lucrative game, even after oiling the relevant palms. Plans, projects, calculations and technicalities can do no good to assure the people with a regular supply, obscured by the boast that we have “electrified” all of the country. Yes, but not in the sense of Kilowatts, Gigawatts and other less understood jargon. But in terms of surprise, wonderment or incredulity.
Let us “get back to basics” a slogan that the UK’s Blair introduced just before getting kicked out into the Consultancy Business and State-sponsored visits to Sri Lanka – at the behest of our callous rulers and the cost of all of us! This is despite all the prattle about our sovereignty and integrity!
All power has as its source, the Sun. The longer the processing chain to the eventual form in which we use it – heat, light, motive power etc., the greater the losses along the way. The most direct way in which we could use it is via photo-electric devices. Just fancy what it would have cost us if we had long Winters during which we would be compelled to warm ourselves. We would most likely have perished, with no money to buy coal or petroleum products. The “natural” way to make use of the sun are plants. With leaves, and chlorophyll and thence to wood, coal and petroleum (through the fats of herbivorous animals).
Realizing the value of wind and sunlight as “free” sources of energy, developed countries have tried to maximize their use. I believe that Germany and other industrialized countries have managed to supplement other renewable fuels to extents of around 10 to 15%. The saving is probably in millions equivalents of tons of coal or petroleum. The reduction of their “Carbon Footprint” is massive, in both financial and conservation terms. The Scandinavian countries (principally Norway) use their natural gift of rivers and waterfalls, to the fullest. We are said to have nearly exhausted our main hydro-electric capacity. A few small units, similar to the earlier “Peltons” that provided energy to the house of the Periya Dorai (PD’S) on larger Tea Estates, make only a minor impact. However the new “net metering system”, is a huge asset in promoting small scale power generation, especially of solar.
We have limited potential for wind power in a few sites located in the deep South and elsewhere.
Our best option is for fuelwood or Dendro-Thermal (or Biofuel). A considerable amount of work by that great inventor, engineer and innovator, the Late Dr Ray Wijewardena prompted a much work to establish that Gliricidia would be the best option in practice. Matching his theory with practice, he ran his battery-driven car, charging it on electricity from a generator of his design, from wood grown on his coconut garden as an intercrop. He also maintained a small plot in his house garden on Dharmapala Mawatha for regular observation. Industrial scale use has been adopted, by Hayleys in their factory. Ray’s vision was for small farmers to function as “out-growers,” supplying commercial operators. Interestingly, he examined the feasibility of using the “alien invader”, Prosopis julifera thriving and spreading in the South, and even threatening The Yala National Park. His vision was that this was a resource rather than a menace. Because of its thorny nature, it required tractors (as a pair linked by a chain) for harvesting. The wood, he found to be of high calorific value.
The vision was for establishing plantations of appropriate size, to serve small scale, power stations of fuelwood plantations. This is how things were in the past. A few urban centres had such Power Stations designed to provide for urban needs. The obvious reduction of transmission costs and providing small scale farmers with an additional income. At the same time, an improved environment and reduction of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, makes this a ‘win-win’ situation. Opposition from the formal establishment (wickedly called the “energy mafia”, is to be expected and is very evident. We need to think outside the box!
Several countries (eg. Turkey) have I am told, making roof-top panels a condition for building permits. This was to make individual homesteads self- sufficient for their lighting and hot water needs. However modest the contribution, the saving on transmission costs and freeing main (eg Hydro-electric) power for the needs of the envisaged industrial expansion and to supply big consumers (eg Tourist Hotels). This would provide other benefits such as reducing power cuts and major failure (as indicated by events at Norocholai), and when hydropower potential is reduced because of drought.
As far as the State is concerned, there is a compelling need to provide assistance towards promoting subsidized solar panels and replacement of existing bulbs with the vastly more advanced LED (light-emitting diode) bulbs.
This is the way to decentralize Power (electric), towards the benefit of many and not that of a chosen few. This is the only type of “Decentralized Power” that is worth seeking!