Kumar David, well-known columnist and past Professor of Electrical Engineering in Hong Kong has come forward to defend the controversial coal-power installation which has become a thorn of controversy (May 8, Colombo Telegraph). The ancient name of the city itself (saama-pura, the “city of Peace”), has been long forgotten; it has been a place where blue murder has been committed by both sides in the name of ethnic nationalism. It was here that a French NGO abandoned its local recruites to face the wrath of the tigers and the cross-fire from the government forces. So, let us forget the “saama” part and look at this sheer bone of contention, even when it comes to installing a power plant.
The country is badly in need of power, (just as it is short of a lot of other things, or even honest politicians!). So, are we to please various foreign vendors and their local agents by purchasing the Indian coal-power plant (50 MW), or the Japanese coal-power plant (1200 MW) plant, and accept the environmental degradation and increased mortality rates, as well as the need to ship coal from those vendors for many years to come? Or, do we try to push for a more sensible approach? Professor Kumar David argues that we have no other alternative, and that other proposals are all wooly eyed and impractical. He says that we don’t have enough sunlight hours, and enough empty land area to house solar plants. He seems to suggest that Dendro power (burning biomass), wind etc., are all still mere ‘pie in the sky’ ideas in the minds of “renewable energy evangelicals”. Clearly, Professor David considers this also to be “a revolution that will not happen” in our time, or that it is another “un-winnable war”?
Let us just go across the Palk Straits to Cochin, India, where the climate, sunlight effluence etc., are very similar to those of Sri Lanka. We have the following report”, “Eyeing to generate one lakh MW solar power in the country, Ministry of Civil Aviation (India) has decided to establish solar power plants at all airports. As a part of the programme, already 12-MW solar power plant was established at Cochin International Airport and the entire airport is operated on solar power at present …Speaking at a programme on Sunday, Civil Aviation minister P Ashok Gajapathi Raju said that already a 5-MW solar power plant was set up at New Delhi airport (Indian Express, 8-May-2016)”.
India is slowly coming to its senses after having already done much damage to itself with its many coal-power plants. Many Tamil-Nadu coal-powered plants are in the vicinity of Sri Lanka. Nearly fifty coal-fired power stations along the coast of Tamil Nadu spew out metal toxins and particulate gases, brought southwards by the trade winds and monsoons. Some 1,15,000 premature deaths in India result from pollution due to coal-fired generators (Hindu, March 11, 2013). This number is much more than the deaths from kidney disease in the Rajarata. The environmental impact of Indian power plants on Sri lanka is unknown and it is urgent that those who talk of a “toxin-free nation” should immediately study it. The fact that these coal-power plants are across the ocean is irrelevant as some of them are closer than Colombo is to Jaffna.
Both organic and “inorganic” agriculture, as well as attempts for healthy living will be smothered by over-arching pollution from the Indian coal-fired generators, as well as from the ubiquitous pollution from petroleum fumes and other petro-chemicals produced by the ever-increasing number of motor vehicules on the roads. All these are class-I carcinogens (i.e., you definitely get cancer on exposure to them, besides getting a whole host of other illnesses and allergies). Class-II carcinogens may give cancer at very high doses and long exposures. For instance, a dose of up to 8 tea spoons per day of glyphosate may be safely ingested by a 70 kg individual, according the the relevant European occupational health authority. However, yielding to fear-mongering, the Sri Lankan government has banned Glyphosate, one of the least dangerous substances in the group of class-II carcinogens, while leaving most class-I carcinogens and all other class-II carcinogens untouched. The plan to install more coal capacity while talking of a “toxin-free agriculture” is sheer hypocrisy.
Prof. David’s worry about there not being enough free surface area to position solar panels suggests that he needs to look up, and notice all the roof tops of building, hotels, hospitals, schools etc., that can be used. Architects should mandatorily include solar paneling in every new building or house just as they put in flooring and electric wiring in any building. The money allocated for coal-fired power plants should be used as a fund to subsidize such ventures through bank loans and subsidies.
Even northern countries like Germany, which has less sun than Sri Lanka have gone in a big way for Solar energy. France relies on nuclear generators for nearly 80% of its needs and has shaken off the need for polluting fuels.
Of course, at present most of the electricity demand in Sri Lanka is during the night. But with enough solar panels, people will use electricity for air-conditioning, and the peak period will shift to daytime.
Increasing industrialization as well as the use of electricity for rail transport will also shift the peak hours to daytime. In any case, excess day-time electricity production can be used to even pump back water into reservoirs as a means of storing energy for use at other times. However, the CEB is a slow and inefficient beast, possibly riddled with the usual ills of corruption and mismanagement. Perhaps Professor David knows more about such matters. However, the CBC has still not given (as far as I know) a tariff figure for the purchase of electricity from private individuals, although some credit is given in terms of banking any net electricity units generated by a private owner.
Even in the area of Dendro electricity production, it is the CBE that seems to be the slowest link. I have heard of at least two cases of 10 MW Dendro power plants (private sector) that were ready to be hooked up during the 2011-2012 period, but the CBE was not ready with their substations! Dendro power and other “bio-mass” power sources are “carbon nuetral”, in the sense that they put back to the environment just the carbon that was absorbed when the plants (e.g. Gircidia) grew.
There are some who think that our troubles will be over when the gas deposits in the Sri Lankan seas begin to be tapped. I would argue that the nations troubles will escalate to the maximum if the gas is tapped. Furthermore, the environmental impact on the topical marine ecology cannot even be assessed at this stage. All the international vultures will be upon the gas, and Sri Lanka will be like Nigeria, rich in fuel and run by foreign multinationals, while the people remain poor. They will be deliberately kept poor by those who exploit the gas.
Prof. David has is no novice to politics. In fact, I first knew him as an ardant engineering-faculty LSSP activist. So, when he says “It need not be at Sampur, it can be elsewhere”, he is forgetting that locating it right near Gokarna (Trincomalee) is essential to the Indians. Their bid to control the port of Trincomalee will be further strengthened by their control over the power supply to the region. Once the Indians get the politically naive Sri Lankans to build the bridge over Rama-Setu (Adams bridge), a direct railway line will connect the strategic port to India. Both Colombo hegemonists and Jaffna hegemonists will in the end find that they have been taken over by the big brother from the North. Mr. Wickremesinghe may think that this will weaken the hand of the Northern Provincial Council to a mere milli-volt, but he too will be nothing but a powerless spark from a Wimshurst machine. So, I am sure the Indians want the power-plant in this very strategic location for much more than selling coal.
So, Prof. David is quite mistaken when he believes that moving away from coal-fired power plants is NOT a practical possibility available right now. It is not , by any means some sort of “pie in the sky idea” of alternative-energy evangelists.