18 May, 2024

Blog

Electricity, Costs, Options Needs & Priorities

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

It is beyond dispute that reliable, adequate, cheap and clean generation of electrical power is a pre-requisite for national development, especially through Direct Foreign investment (FDI). Per capita energy use is sometimes also regarded as a measure of “development”. Despite the claims that Sri Lanka’s coverage of electric power availability, is impressive, there are other matters that are evidently not so. Unfortunately, several aspects of the power picture are in deficit, and may even serve to support or conceal, the seamier side (inefficiency or corruption).

Source

The sun is really our only source of power. Its supply is ample and practically infinite. It is calculated that if all of our planet is in receipt, the daily amount of solar energy entering is some 200,000 times the total power currently generated. It is also true that, the further we move along the chain of steps, starting from first entry and ending in capture, the less efficient the process becomes. This means that in real value, solar energy is the most, and coal and oil the least efficient. This fact should dominate energy plans and projections.

Future Plans

Sri Lanka aims to increase its renewable energy supplies to 70% by 2030 and reach Carbon Zero by 2050. However, our energy sector predictions have been so seemingly off the mark, that some skepticism is justified.

The energy sector is confusing mostly because of the numerous calculation units employed. Some of them are – Joules, mega-joules, terajoules, million tons oil equivalent, barrel equivalent, megawatt hours, gigawatts, terawatts, British Thermal units and so on. This leads not only to confusion, but also to easy obfuscation and concealment of misdeeds and corruption.

One is shocked by recent revelations that certain criteria (eg. Generation and Transmission costs), have been seriously inflated to justify recent increases of consumer tariffs. Some sectors claim that electricity charges can be reduced by as much as 34% if operational profits are calculated correctly.

One can certainly commend the authorities for the claimed 98% electrical power connectivity island wide, which is possibly the highest for South Asia. However, the frequency of interruptions and breakdowns are crippling for industries. Many potential industrial investors would consider this as a serious negative.

Frequent and long power interruptions, are usually attributed to droughts and reduced water storage levels in reservoirs.  Gifted with abundant rainfall and a network of ancient tanks, frequent droughts and floods are pointers to poor water management.

The fact that neglect of silt removal from large tanks results in reduced storage capacities, calls for effective remedial actions. It is probable that the accumulated silt is rich in eroded plant nutrients. During times of drought, tank beds lie exposed. If the silt is of value as fertilizer, it may still be feasible to permit supervised free removal by private transporters, at zero cost to the State.    

Often we see droughts and floods, virtually following one another with distressing frequency. One result is the shameful compulsion for creating a “Ministry of Disaster Management,” whose substantive function seems to be to dole out “Flood and Drought relief”. It may be a Freudian Slip, that the label is Disaster “Management,” rather than “Prevention.” This suggests that these disasters are inevitable, and thus can only be “managed.” This would then justify the setting up of a separate Ministry in perpetuity, for this purpose.

The other entity that operates in this sector is the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), which displays a remarkable alacrity and concern, by its readiness in moving to “purchase” power from private (often offshore) suppliers. Truly, the cat is among the pigeons. Also, “It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good”.    

“Unbundling” the power sector

Presently, power generation, transmission, maintenance, billing and revenue collection are all centralized in the CEB.  From time to time, proposals have been made to distribute the present multitude of functions entrusted to the CEB. The major re-organizations impact the generation and transmission sectors. The changes have been far from unanimous, and Trade Unions have vigorously opposed such moves.

The main sources of electricity generation are Hydro- and Thermal (Oil and Coal) adding up equally to about 98%. The minor providers are Solar (Photovoltaic) and wind. Geo-thermal and Biological sources have received limited support, despite the potential. Currently, of total electricity supplies, some 40% are from renewables and slightly more from non-renewables (diesel and coal). The ambitious expectation of 70% renewables by 2030, will require a genuine and concerted efforts, hitherto lacking, to promote solar, wind and bio-energy. Hydropower is said to have reached its limits. Periodic focus on a nuclear option, is inappropriate for several reasons – mainly on grounds of safety. Although firewood ( dendro-thermal ), to energize turbines, has been shown to be a feasible option, it has received very little serious attention.

Use of biofuel (Glyricidia wood) in furnaces, powering steam turbines, have been shown to be practicable at a sizeable coir production factory. The Engineer- Innovator, the Late Dr. Ray Wijewardena, calculated that a managed 150- hectare Gliricidia plantation, could meet the power needs of a town the size of Kalutara.

If small scale installations are encouraged, very considerable savings, in particular by way of reduced transmission costs, would follow. The already available “net metering facility”, permits the operation of small scale generation units such as rooftop solar, mini-hydro and small wind turbines, for integration into the National Grid. It is difficult to see why so little enthusiasm has been shown towards renewable, organic matter based units (such as biogas and wood fuel operated turbine generators), have received less attention, than even the highly questionable nuclear option.

While electric power considerations have attracted attention, the vast number who still cook by firewood, seem neglected. An enlightened forestry sector, based more on public participation, rather than exclusion, and the old estate practice of maintaining “Wood Lots,” may prove to be progressive changes.

Frequent reference is made to the fact that in India, power needs for farming, are provided at State cost and has contributed substantially to increased productivity. One notes that small solar panels with sensors, fixed onto lamp posts, provide adequate lighting for walking tracks in Colombo.

In summary, if we are to achieve power supply adequacy, reliability and environment friendliness, approaches from several angles are needed. Domestic rooftop solar panels should be encouraged. Small generation units (mini hydro, wind turbine) to feed the central grid, are an attractive option. In computations of relative unit costs, transmission costs must also be considered.

Installed options for biofuel should be extended and integrated into future plans. Dedicated areas to supply needed firewood, should also figure. Adequate, reliable and fairly priced electricity are essential to attract FDI’s, crucial for economic recovery.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 2
    2

    Good analysis, though Dr. P doesn’t mention that the 40% of our energy attributed to “renewables” is mostly hydro. The much-touted wind and solar still hover in single digits.
    ” It is difficult to see why so little enthusiasm has been shown towards renewable, organic matter based units (such as biogas and wood fuel operated turbine generators), have received less attention, than even the highly questionable nuclear option.”
    Part of the reason to push for renewable energy has to do with pollution reduction. Burning stuff like Gliricidia increases pollution.

  • 2
    0

    Now that Dr P has brought up the subject of renewable energy, I wonder what the aspiring Presidential candidates & their respective parties’ stand on ‘Sri Lanka aims to increase its renewable energy supplies to 70% by 2030 and reach Carbon Zero by 2050’ pledge. I don’t know who made that pledge but I assume RW, who has been attending COP conferences regularly & his much publicised attendance at the recent COP28 with a large entourage, is behind SL commitment to climate change. Although, by 2050 many of us may not be in the land of living, the 2030 commitment is commendable, considering that, even now, a large proportion of our energy is from hydro power but. particularly, with an aging population of motor vehicles & trains relying on fossil fuels, do we have the economic capability for infrastructure transformation?

    Despite the exponentially increasing need for energy to power domestic & industrial needs, little seem to be done in capturing solar & wind energy. In fact, a friend was discouraged by the Elect. Board when he wanted to install solar panels in his home. In UK, although its not sunny all the time, solar panels are becoming a common sight, as well as, wind turbines, despite the initial protests for ‘ruining’ the landscape.

    • 1
      2

      Raj,
      There are technical reasons why too much home solar is a bad idea.It only works in the daytime. At other times, and when it rains (which is a lot of the time here), generators have to take up the slack. So, who pays for these extra generators that idle half the time? Yes, the guys who don’t have home solar!
      Industrial solar farms are different. They have storage in the form of batteries, pumped water, etc, which can be used at night.

      • 1
        0

        OC

        You maybe aware that British weather is always rainy & in the winter months from October to March, the daylight hours are less & the clocks go forward. In mid winter, sunrise is around 8am & sunsets around 4pm, yet the trend is towards solar panels because PV panels will generate electricity even when cloudy, although, works best in direct sunlight. The govt. is encouraging housing developers to install ground heat pumps & solar panels instead of gas fired boilers to heat water & the central heating system as gas boilers will be phased out completely by 2030. An average household will need, maybe, depending on energy use, a 4 kW system with a 5kW storage battery, which will cost about £8k in total & any excess energy can be sold back to the grid but the downside being about 7 years to recoup the cost. However, govt. grants are available for poorer households.
        In SL, where its sunny most of the year, I don’t see why solar panels should not be encouraged. Coal fired power plants supplement hydro power in LS but coal is already banned in most countries, therefore, if SL is serious about renewable energy sources, it is time solar power is taken into consideration.

        • 0
          1

          Raj UK – What do you think of Nuclear as an option for Sri Lanka?

          • 1
            1

            Ruchira

            I don’t think we are advanced enough to have our own nuclear power plant & there is also the problem of nuclear waste. Even most advanced countries stay clear of the nuclear option because of the potential danger. Chernobyl was due to human error but Fukushima was due to a natural disaster & considering SL’s general work ethics & corruption, an accident could be inevitable. Anyway, China would be the most likely partner in such a venture & looking back at past dealings with China, the most likely scenario would be that SL will bare the cost & the risk while China takes a cut as well from the tariffs. UK pulled out from a deal with China signed during Cameron’s time because it turned out be that the end beneficiary would be China, not the British public.

            We have abundant sun & wind to harness the energy without the risk of a disaster. Lake Titicaca in Peru has ‘floating’ islands made from bundles of reed & people live on these islands. The dwellings have refrigerators, fans & TV, all powered by solar energy.

        • 2
          2

          Raj,
          “An average household will need, maybe, depending on energy use, a 4 kW system with a 5kW storage battery, “
          And there’s the rub, as they say. In this country, practically no home solar systems have batteries. A lot of owners only realised this during the power cuts last year. The battery (and its eventual replacement) makes rooftop solar of that sort uneconomic. Even a 35 AH car battery costs almost 20,000 bucks nowadays! The CEB’s coal power stations cannot be turned on and off at will, unlike hydro in response to large load variations like, say , solar power disappearing suddenly. That’s the reason why the CEB doesn’t encourage rooftop solar beyond a certain point.

          • 1
            0

            Hello OC,
            I wanted to install a Solar 5 kW system when I was building my house.I tried to find a suitable system in our area and install it myself. All the companies I approached wanted to do the whole thing themselves and their prices were very high. Most wouldn’t give a guarantee more than 1 year (some offered 2 years). My neighbour has a small hardware shop and at that time had installed a 10 kW 3 phase system exporting to the Grid, however he hadn’t been paid for months. So I gave up.
            The UK has 14,432MW of Solar PV whilst Sri Lanka has 714 MW. The UK has about 67 Million population, Sri Lanka about 23 Million.
            Central UK Birmingham has a PVOUT of 971.9 kWh/kWp. Sri Lanka Colombo has a PVOUT o 1573.3 kWh/kWp more than 1.5 times as much. The UK has Nuclear, Gas, Hydro, Wind and some Tidal systems and one coal fired station. I wonder if Raj-UK has as many power-cuts as we do.
            Why does Sri Lanka lag so much behind? They have so much potential, e.g. the Oil and Gas (Mannar) that they still haven’t started to develop.
            Best regards

            • 1
              1

              LS,
              “They have so much potential, e.g. the Oil and Gas (Mannar) that they still haven’t started to develop.”
              That’s a very old story, starting in the 70’s. There have been regular new “developments “, usually close to elections. I don’t know if you’re aware of the plan to export power to India with anticipated excess power from the Mahaweli schemes in the early 80’s. It all turned out to be smoke and mirrors….
              Nobody thought demand would outstrip supply quite soon.

  • 0
    1

    OC
    Batteries are relatively expensive even in UK. The most expensive single item in an EV is the battery which costs upto £10k & some manufacturers lease the battery separately from the vehicle. These batteries have a life span of about 10 years but cost are expected to come down with improved technology & mass production. UK govt. offers grants to poorer households to switch to solar energy & by 2030, there will be a ban on gas heating of homes. Coal fired power plants are already banned in most countries & the use of coal in industry will be no more, therefore, the days are numbered for SL coal power plants & time for SL to look at other sources of energy. SL govt. should encourage solar panels in households by reducing tax & providing incentives but it seems the Elect. Board does not want to lose its revenue. Even in remote areas in Peru have solar panels providing electricity but SL is way behind. Maybe RW & his huge entourage who attended COP 28 have solutions.

    • 1
      1

      Raj,
      SL does lag behind in tech. I don’t know if the CEB itself is afraid of losing revenue.
      Leave alone solar, we even lag behind in TV broadcasting, where we still mostly use antennas and analog, perhaps because antenna manufacturers are a strong lobby. Most countries in the region have switched to digital broadcasting.
      Like solar, I think affordability is a major factor.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.