2 March, 2024

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Energy Options: Fossil Or Renewable?

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

With development and population increase, national energy requirements will inevitably rise. Fears of exhaustion of the resource and inflation at supply sources, will surely increase prices of coal and oil. Small nations such as ours are bound to lose out. 

Two considerations have dominated discourse on Energy issues. (1) Both coal and oil face scarcity, if not extinction. (2) Burning of both as fuels, release large quantities of Greenhouse Gases (Methane, carbon dioxide and monoxide), which contribute towards Global Warming. 

This has triggered widespread interest in renewable and non-polluting options. Much progress has been made. Electric cars and use of hydrogen, both for motive power, and liquid hydrogen for energy storage, are two thrust areas of research. Electric cars are already a reality, and petrol engines are being phased out in richer countries.

It has been a constant lament of our Electrical Engineers that Long Term Generation Plans have not been adopted and that this has resulted in the current crisis.

It is said that our Hydropower potential has been fully exhausted and no further expansion is possible. Hence the need for new coal or oil-fired generating facilities.

It is doubtful that possibilities for adoption of renewable biological resources for energy generation have been adequately considered. This is surprising and the reasons for this apparent official reluctance is not clear. Despite this lethargy, considerable information on biomass use is available. Additionally, rooftop solar panels are now also common.

The introduction of the “Net Metering” system is a great incentive for such domestic power generation.

Wind and large scale solar possibilities are also now being addressed. Meanwhile, a good number of rooftop solar panels, over houses and commercial buildings are already in use. This has evidently not been helped, nor hardly noticed, by the bureaucracy. There is probably ample scope for exploiting this sector. In fact, in the long term interest, even a 100% subsidy on installation costs may be justified. It needs to be stressed that huge transmission costs from generator to customer as now exists, would thereby be eliminated.  

The most inexplicable lethargy in taking fair notice of these options, will for the umpteenth time, mean our “missing the bus”!

A slight deviation here would be useful. The World’s only primary source of energy is the sun (materially, as substances such as radioactive minerals, or indirectly as sunlight, wind, waves or biomass). It has also to be noted that coal and petroleum are also derived from bio-materials – coal from tree trunks and petroleum from fat of animals, both from over millions of years. Also, in nature, with every step in a chain, there is an accompanying loss. This would mean that a photovoltaic device, or wood would be more efficient for trapping solar energy and converting it to usable form, than coal or oil. 

It is estimated that an hour of bright sun is equivalent to 200,000 times the total amount of energy consumed annually by the World, or that the receipt of a mere second of bright sun would provide about 500 times the current annual consumption of energy by man on earth. Clearly, solar energy is an inexhaustible, clean and practically eternal source. However, to trap it all through photoelectric devices now available, would cover an area of Sweden or Morocco. 

Developments in the continuing improvement of photo-voltaic cells are proceeding at great speed. In particular large floating panels over water bodies, is seen as an attractive possibility. Some work is  also progressing in using well reinforced panels to cover roadways and walkways (pavements). These are possibilities that it would be unwise to ignore.

Nature’s way of purposefully harnessing this energy resource, is through vegetation (and marine organisms). However the extent of incoming radiation being fixed by photosynthesis is estimated to be only around 2 to 4%. The pigment chlorophyll which makes leaves green, is the first step in capturing energy from the sun. The chlorophyll molecule has magnesium at its “centre.” The configuration of the magnesium atom is such that when light hits, an electron in it’s structure is knocked out to an outer orbit, using the energy of the incoming sunlight. After this step is over, the electron returns to its stable orbit, releasing the energy absorbed, to drive a step in carbohydrate synthesis. 

This is an exquisitely elegant way, to force upon us the humbling reality, that the capture of the energy that drives all of society, flows from the behavior of electrons in elemental Magnesium. Likewise, the delivery of this energy to all of the cells in our bodies, relies on the iron in the pigment hemoglobin, in our blood. So, acting in accord, Magnesium and Iron are in a sense, central to what we call “Life”. 

Of the light energy emitted by the sun, only a fraction of less than 1% reaches our planet. Of that too, less than a half is in the fraction that chlorophyll can use for photosynthesis. Despite this apparent profligacy, photosynthesis is crucial as a sink for the millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants, that human activities discharge annually, into the atmosphere. Vegetation laps this up, and in exchange give us life-giving oxygen. This is why forests are so important. Interestingly, Bhutan is so far, the only country, that through its forest cover of 70% of its land area (the Constitution requires that a minimum of 60% is maintained for posterity), is better than “Carbon Neutral”, it is “Carbon Negative.”

Internationally, the importance of tree cover is recognized and rewarded by the “Carbon Credits” arrangement. This is a kind of parallel of the “Net Metering” scheme on a macro scale.  

This is a powerful reason for our assiduously pursuing the option of “Dendrothermal Energy”. The potential for this option has led to a wealth of local information. The Late Dr Ray. Wijewardane was an ardent advocate, who deemed that the power needs of a town the size of Kalutara, could be met by 150 hectares of Glyricidia maculata (Wetahira or Makulatha), cultivated and managed. The feasibility of planting Glyricidia as an intercrop in coconut, was extensively studied and endorsed by the work of the Late Dr Jayantha. Gunathilake of the CRI. The use of “Biogas generators” as a means of providing gas directly for domestic use, has been demonstrated.

In days gone by, tea estates maintained “Wood Lots” mainly of fast growing Gum trees, to supply the needs of tea factories.

So, in summary, much information is available on the potential for sustainable, renewable, economical and clean energy to supplement, perhaps even to replace, fossil based fuels. This must be explored and harnessed before we rush into nuclear or expanded oil and coal facilities. 

We are a small and poor country, but blessed by conditions supportive of tree growth and exceptional year round sunlight. Surely these potentials should be examined, the available information harnessed, and workable methodologies worked out. Without which “Long Term” generation plans would be incomplete.

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Latest comments

  • 6
    1

    We don’t have to dance to anyone’s whistle if we use ubiquitous “wind” and “solar power” as renewable energy sources. We must change our high opinion of our nation. Various other nations in Asia get on easily because their attitudes are more progressive than most of us.

    Even though the current president became the leader of an interim government, what he prophesied in good governance also matches the reality today. This country and its people will rise up against any experts and their thoughts for no good reason. Either they listen too much or too much to ignorant monks or other false patriots.

    India is believed to have “solar parks” and “windmills”, such sources are abundant and the production contributes to their national grid.
    In the same way we could make that project successful, the culprits of the electricity board should join these projects soon.

  • 2
    0

    “Meanwhile, a good number of rooftop solar panels, over houses and commercial buildings are already in use. This has evidently not been helped, nor hardly noticed, by the bureaucracy. There is probably ample scope for exploiting this sector. In fact, in the long term interest, even a 100% subsidy on installation costs may be justified.”
    There are many reasons behind this, and it is simplistic to blame an evil bureaucracy. It is significant that no country has more than 16% installed solar capacity. They can’t all be run by corrupt bureaucrats.
    One reason is economics. Solar panels are still expensive. At our current electricity rates, it may be marginally worthwhile, but one has to remember that panels wear out over time, and inverters in a lightning prone country are asking for trouble.
    Secondly, a solar panel doesn’t give you power at night without a battery, which is also pricey and has to be replaced periodically. Of course solar farms have some form of storage, but even the won’t work on rainy days.
    Thirdly, the utility has to pay for generators which are used only at night or on rainy days . Who foots the bill?
    Ah, electric cars! Most electric cars here are used ones imported at 30% of the brand new price and only 10% tax. After a few years, it costs 2 million to replace the battery. Not exactly an option for a third world country.

    • 2
      0

      OC
      Good point on Electric Vehicles. The general life span of a EV battery is about 10 years & a replacement costs about £3k-£5k but may come down as EV becomes mainstream after 2025 in Europe. However, disposal of EV batteries is expensive & cannot be left lying around as scrap due to hazardous materials. Working on hybrids & Evs is also dangerous & in UK, technicians have to be licensed & workshops also need to comply with strict safety regulations. A few years ago in SL, I saw mechanics working on a collision damaged hybrid & were totally unaware that the high voltage system has to be isolated, & in this case, by discharging the battery prior to any work being done as the battery & the wiring may be damaged. Wonder how many in wayside workshops are aware of the danger when working on hybrids & Evs.

      • 1
        0

        Raj,
        “The general life span of a EV battery is about 10 years & a replacement costs about £3k-£5k”
        The EV’s that we import are used ones, with already reduced range, and consequently cheap. But replacement batteries have to be brand new.
        As usual, Sri Lankans make decisions based on wrong assumptions, living beyond their means.

  • 2
    0

    LM,
    Sri Lankans always want a complicated solution, when there are several simple solutions around!!
    Their EGO wouldn’t allow them to seek the simpler ones instead of the complicated!
    No wonder, topmost or lowest bottom individual want Merc’s or Toyota V8’s!!?? None are or will be satisfied with Toyota Yaris, even at the expense of not having DINNER!!
    Thoththa (STATUS)!! Including the venerable selves, who are held in very high esteem are not sure of their Thoththa without the showpiece – lacking self-confidence and of their knowledge – Position!? What a sad State of Affairs!!!????
    ARE WE TRULY RELIGIOUS OR A HOAX!!!???

    • 2
      0

      Dear Mahila,

      We are doomed in many ways. Not many are remotely aware of its depth.
      People today have no idea. Of course with revolutionary information technology, it should be the other way around. Unfortunately the Sri Lankans have touched it at the other end.
      .
      They don’t ask themselves “why”. When will they grow to that level? My relatives who are your age but live in Sri Lanka are all the same. That has nothing to do them being educated or not. Their conditioned mindset does not allow them to see beyond that.
      .
      It all depends on our thinking. We are a nation that is happy to see beautifully dressed elephants in Kandy and Kelaniya Peraharas.. Do some people even think about the animal’s side?
      Our people respect idols, threads, pujas and inanimate things more than living things. They are more Hindu in “Buddhism cover”. More primitive than it looks. The truth is that true Buddhism is based entirely on non-violence.

      tbc

      • 1
        0

        Surprising that they do not ask or question, why we have unprecedented floods or heatwaves and high daytime temperatures!!
        May be not education, but who should impart people to think critically and draw answers and enhance knowledge!!??
        Educators themselves, including the Minister and his acolytes too are DUMB and CRITICAL THINKING IS AN ANATHEMA!!????
        WHAT ELSE IS EXPECTED OF THEM!!??

      • 2
        0

        LM,
        Surprising that they do not ask or question, why we have unprecedented floods or heatwaves and high daytime temperatures!!
        May be not education, but who should impart people to think critically and draw answers and enhance knowledge!!??
        Educators themselves, including the Minister and his acolytes too are DUMB and CRITICAL THINKING IS AN ANATHEMA!!????
        WHAT ELSE IS EXPECTED OF THEM!!??

        • 2
          0

          Mahila,
          .
          Unfortunately true. If it is anathema, will we ever overcome this hurdle to give saline to the nation?
          Even today, our people follow “witchcraft” when they believe that some patients will succumb to cancer. This is now no barrier also in urban areas. I have never seen in many other devleoping countries, but our promotion of myths under ” BUDDHGAMAGA” is beocming real threat in this country.

          Youtubers of the day promote witchcraft for their “profit like dollars”. One of them is Chamudith Samarawickrama.
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2U-iMxQBOZo

  • 0
    0

    for sri lanka get the cheapest.People can’t afford to pay for electricity.Wealthy countries can.

  • 6
    9

    Leela do you know the depths of the penetration rogue energy suppliers have made in the Ranil administration ? If you knew, you will run a mile from RW !

    • 4
      2

      deepthi ^ silva

      Please explain what you mean by
      “Leela do you know the depths of the penetration rogue energy suppliers have made in the Ranil administration ?”

      • 1
        1

        NV,
        :
        donot take it serious when it come from DS. She is even more insane after her recent gender op.
        Let s wish her sooner recovery.
        :
        Happy holiday NV and all other true souls of CT.
        .
        LM

    • 1
      1

      May Prof. Deepthi Silva be blessed with some brains.
      .
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-ySMNL8YeQ

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-OCcFFDUOg

  • 0
    2

    Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda has clearly given a good deal of thought to the forms of energy that are feasible for us. The time for discussing the nuclear options was just over when he he launched this article about the other two broad options, Fossil or Renewable Energy.
    .
    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/nuclear-power-for-sri-lanka/
    .
    True though it is that only a handful of us participated in that debate, and that we are hardly decision makers, we all agreed that the hazards were too great for us to seriously consider nuclear energy. But see what this newspaper report says:
    .
    https://www.themorning.lk/articles/yDzJvHuBgqNY4TJMvzmJ
    .
    I know that the report heading has this: “7 days ago | By Maheesha Mudugamuwa” but it looks as though it’s been in today’s newspaper, and certainly I got there from here:
    .
    http://www.infolanka.com/news/
    .
    and there the “story” is headed “Apr 8 (TM)”.
    .
    True that it is stated is that these plans are still a long way from fruition, but doesn’t this ask us to consider who it is who calls the shots in this country?
    .
    Panini Edirisinhe (NIC 483111444V) of Bandarawela, writing from Maharagama

    • 2
      0

      1) What is the best way to kill time?
      Read comments on CT.
      2) What is the best way to kill others?
      Pass comments on CT.

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