4 December, 2020

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Private Mini-Hydro: Energy Generation Or Willful Destruction?

By Sriyantha Perera

Sriyantha Perera

In an article published in Ceylon Today titled “Small Hydropower Developers Cry Foul”, dated Sunday January 29, Thusitha Peiris and Anil Makalande of the Mini Hydro Developers Association have made baseless allegations that Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka (RPSL) is a foreign funded NGO aiming to destroy the hydropower sector.

Such accusations made through the media with no facts to prove their veracity are clearly an attempt to distort the facts and mislead the public.

I established RPSL as a volunteer environmental organization in 2010 as our motherland had a lack of participation by individuals on a volunteer basis to protect the remaining forests, waterfalls and wildlife. We have carried out small projects successfully with the means of limited funding, such as native tree planting projects in the wet zone, trash cleanup and awareness projects, reporting environmental issues through media and pushing the government authorities responsible for protection of the environment to act on urgent issues.

RPSL is a volunteer-based environmental organization supported and funded by concerned citizens of Sri Lanka. Funding has always been an issue for us as we are intentionally not tied to any NGO, whether local or foreign. Our strength lies in our people who care about the country and will stand up to protect the last remaining rainforests and water rights for our future generations.

Therefore Mr. Peiris and Mr. Makalande of the Mini Hydro Developers Association are welcome to look at our bank account and transactions if they are so concerned, before making false allegations to mislead the public.

The protestors who participated on January 25 in front of the Central Environmental Authority against the mini-hydro mafia comprised volunteer activists, concerned citizens, and over 200 hundred villagers whose lives are affected adversely. The participants arrived of their own volition and at their own expense, out of genuine concern to protect the water rights of villagers, farmers and wildlife.

The Mini Hydro Developers Association’s move to ‘play the NGO card’ at this time shows their shocking desperation to protect their business interests at any cost. I vehemently reject their allegation on behalf of our volunteer based organization and on behalf of those who unselfishly gave their time and energy to speak out against the destruction of Sri Lanka’s waterfalls, streams and rivers.

Here are some facts about the ground situation.

Ecological and Social Impact Due to Private Mini Hydro Projects

Mini Hydro plants have a severe negative impact on the environment, society, agriculture and tourism sectors. Diversion of water away from the natural streams through concrete channels for several kilometers, near complete obstruction of waterfalls, construction of diversion channels within protected forest reserves such as Dellawa rainforest in Sinharaja rainforest complex, have all created an ecological disaster.

At Anda Dola, a tributary of Gin Ganga in Galle District more than 6 km of stream will go dry due to diversion of water for the construction of a mini-hydro plant. Villagers no longer have the right to water for consumption and agriculture. Many endemic and endangered freshwater fish such as Barred Danio (Devario pathirana) and Ornate Paradise fish (Malpulutta kretseri) living in these waters also lose their habitat and are pushed towards extinction.

In Belihul Oya valley within the Nuwara Eliya District, more than 500 acres of paddy fields and hundreds of farmers are severely affected due to Deegalahinna, Medapitiya and Manakola mini-hydro projects.

While the approvals given by Central Environmental Authority (CEA) and Irrigation Department state an unobstructed opening should be kept at all times to release a small amount of water downstream as environmental flow, many sites such as the Hulukelidola mini-hydro plant in Kalutara District have built controllable gates that open when Government officers come for inspection and close as soon as they leave. At other sites, these openings for environmental flow are being blocked to extract the last drop of water for the mini-hydro plant in order to maximize the profit at the expense of water needs of people and wildlife living downstream.

Impact to Waterfalls and Ecotourism

Sri Lanka is said to have the highest waterfall density in the world, with over 400 major waterfalls in this small island. In many countries, people travel hundreds of miles to see a waterfall. Although blessed with so many beautiful waterfalls, as a nation we have sacrificed more than 50 waterfalls already to mini hydro companies and can no longer attract tourists to these sites that would have generated valuable income to the villagers through eco-tourism.

Some of the waterfalls targeted by mini hydro companies include the Handagiri Ella in Balangoda, an intricate combination of more than 60 small waterfalls. These waterfalls not only act as beautiful scenery but also provide essential ecological services by filtering the water of pollutants and increasing the oxygen content thus giving life to the stream. Destroying such waterfalls is an ecological crime!

Violations and False Reports Related to Private Mini Hydro

State forest land adjoining the Koskulana River, forming the northern boundary of Sinharaja World Heritage Rainforest, has been clear cut of all vegetation for the construction of a mini-hydro project, which is a clear violation of the State Land Ordinance. At Anda Dola in Galle District, the weir (at GPS coordinates 6° 20′ 32.9″N, 80° 26′ 39.7″E) and a 2.5 km section of concrete headrace channel are both constructed within Dellawa Forest Reserve.

Construction activities within a protected forest reserve are a violation of the Forest Ordinance of 1907 as amended and punishable by law. Further, the initial environment examination (IEE) report produced by the developer for the Anda Dola mini-hydro project, has failed to include many endemic species whose habitat is this stream and surrounding forest.

A report on this matter prepared by the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle submitted to CEA points out that environmental and biodiversity information including many key species of fauna are missing and/or incorrect on many pages of the IEE report submitted by the developer.

Findings of widespread violations indicate systemic failure of the entire process in place for the assessment of mini hydro projects. It is, in effect, a breach of trust in the very institutions that gate-keep approvals, and fully justifies the public’s skepticism in them. The Association’s claim that Sri Lanka’s mini hydro industry is an example to the world seems farcical against these multiple violations and false reports.

Actual Contribution vs. Perceived Contribution of Private Mini Hydro

The Mini Hydro Developers Association, in an effort to paint a rosy picture about their contribution to the national grid, recently stated that 7% (320 MW) of the total energy generation in the country is produced by private mini hydro plants. They intentionally failed to disclose the actual contribution.

According to the 2014 “Generation Performance” report produced by the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), 71 mini hydro plants operated at less than 20% plant factor which is the actual contribution to the national grid. Only one plant had more than 50% plant factor and that too, a mere 50.98%.

The actual contribution by all these private plants to the national grid is less than one third of the stated capacity amounting to less than 2.5% of the energy generation. Most mini hydro plants generate 1 MW or less which is just 0.02% of the national output. Increasing frequency and severity of droughts due to climate change and deforestation will further reduce these contributions in the coming years.

It is very clear that mini-hydro is not the answer to the growing energy needs of the country but has only become a lucrative business for a few at the expense of dried up waterfalls, streams and rivers that once made Sri Lanka the Pearl of the Indian Ocean.

There are ecologically friendly, sustainable alternatives to meet the energy demand of Sri Lanka. Water flowing through small rivers and streams is a precious resource, and it plays a crucial role in the water cycle and the overall health of our forests. It should not be wasted for mini hydro projects averaging 1 MW that contribute just 0.02% energy to the national grid while aimed at maximizing profits for a few and leaving many farmers, villagers and wildlife with no access to water.

Instead of throwing baseless accusations at a citizen driven volunteer organization engaged in protecting our precious remaining rainforests and the right to access water, the individuals and companies investing in destructive mini hydro projects should switch their focus to Rooftop Solar and Waste-to-Energy alternatives. These have a greater potential to generate energy to the national grid and the ability to increase capacity for a growing population. Those looking to make money will also find these alternative energy sources to be more lucrative in the long run.

*Sriyantha Perera
 – Founder/President Rainforest Protectors of Sri Lanka

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  • 2
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    Sriyantha Perera,
    “the individuals and companies investing in destructive mini hydro projects should switch their focus to Rooftop Solar “

    Rooftop Solar or any scheme using PV panels is self-defeating on the national scale, even though it is undoubtedly environment-friendly.
    Here are the reasons, all technical:
    1.Sunlight is not available 24/7 . On many days not at all.
    2. What happens if sunlight fails ,say 3 days in a row, assuming Solar PV is supplying 20% of the load? The load HAS to be taken up by plants such as Norochcholai or other thermal ones.
    3. What the above means is that we have to invest in conventional power plants that can take up 100% of the load, even though we don’t use them all the time.
    4. Coal plants cannot be stopped and started in minutes. It takes days.
    BUT, Hydroelectric generators CAN respond much faster.That is why even mini-hydros are preferable to Solar.
    So, even if we have 100% Solar /windpower , we need 100% conventional backup too.
    It is useful to think on why exactly we need so much power.We have lighting which is much more efficient than in the past. If buildings were designed to suit our climate,with adequate natural ventilation, we wouldn’t need gigawatts to run air conditioners.
    What we have are giant glass-fronted towers which become uninhabitable ovens without air-conditioning and escalators.
    Just compare the design of the IDH hospital (open and airy) to any private hospital (inevitably hotel-like). Whose fault is this?
    NGO’s which seek to save nature should promote sustainable design.

  • 2
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    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy. For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2/

  • 2
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    Your argument itself is self defeating. If these power plants are not generating power what’s the motive for them to invest in building these power plants. Are they falling trees and selling in black market or fishing the endangered fishes on the river and exporting or treasure hunting?.

    Why you’re silent about the detrimental environmental impact of the mega projects, especially highways and large scale power plants. I’m sure the central highway will have 100s of times more environmental effect on rain forests.

    When mahaweli complex was built massive environmental damage took place, the otherside of it is the benefit we’re still reaping. If that one and kelani development didn’t take place, we would be running complete on coal and thermal,which are much environmentally disastrous.

    I respect your motive of protecting the environment and rain forests. Yet guys like you should take a balanced approach and not behave like undergrads these days.

    • 0
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      Your argument itself is self defeating. If these power plants are not generating power what’s the motive for them to invest in building these power plants.

      Curiosity should be some one who represent those greedy businesmen and those politicians.

      Those who invest in environemtanlly sensitive projects also have the responsibility to protect the environment and not just to destroy the environment and make profits saying we are doing something good for the country.

      What Sriyantha Perera and his team should do is use the RTI to expose the politicians who just give permission to these projects. the reason is these politicians are greedy and dumb, therefore are not sensitive to anything else. they are just like businessmen who destroy everything and sacrifice anything to make money. Expose those politicians.

      Sri lankan political system is made for politicians to exploit the system and get rich at the expense of the country and the people.

      Mini Hydro projects should be good. The reason should be the way they implement. If the businessman is allowed, they destroy everything in order to make money.

      • 1
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        Come on jim… Why accuse me of something just because I talked sense. It is very logical that private sector would not go behind a business which is not making money. As author claimed, if it is not generating substantial power thus profitability, least likely the private sector stepping in. Hence, either one can be true, Mini hydros contribute with a substantial portion of electricity to the national grid or the investors are behind something else, like treasure hunting ;).

        Since I’m curious of the real facts, I did checked out the PUCSL Generation Performance Report for 2014, which author has referred here ( http://www.pucsl.gov.lk/english/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Generation-Performance-2014.pdf ), and noted many discrepancies on what is reported here. Few listed below.

        Page No 8, plant factors of Mini hydros,

        The highest plant factor reported by a mini hydro was 66.93% by Wee Oya followed by Batathota 66.26%. Altogether 18 power plants have reported Plant factor of 50% or higher. In addition 40 more plants reported plant factor higher than 40%.

        In contrast, CEB owns and operates 17 hydro power plants (Page 7). Out of which only 2 reported more than 50% plant factor (Old Laxapana & Kukule) and not a single remaining 15 power plants reported plant factors above 40%.

        My understanding from this is the hydro power plants capacities are designed to operate at a optimum average plant factor to generate power at differing water levels or both CEB and Private engineering are fools to design power plants which doesn’t operate at full plant factor all the time.

        Below quoted from the para 1 of the conclusion,

        Compared to the generation figures in year 2013, it can be perceived that hydro generation contribution of 50% has been dropped down to 29% during year 2014 as a result of the low levels of hydro storage conditions during the first half of the year. But the contribution of renewable energy component is consistent around 10% in year 2013 and 2014.

        Jim, like you and another one said, I also don’t think the mini hydros are inherently bad, If there are any malpractices, lack of proper studies & approvals, those are the ones should get addressed, including the corruption.

        (Just out of curiosity, what if I accuse you of the person seated next to the author at the NGO sponsored villa in Benthota, and the above reply was out of the frustration of seeing a valid counter argument..it’s not true right, so please don’t point fingers at others of their true associations, which you have no idea about)

      • 1
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        It seems Author has misrepresenting the data to the greater extent. He has claimed 71 mini hydro have reported less than 20% plant factor. But it is actually 17 plants.

        refer back to the page 7 of the Generation performance report 2014

        http://www.pucsl.gov.lk/english/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Generation-Performance-2014.pdf

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    Please note that we have mentioned Waste-to-Energy as an alternative source in addition to Rooftop Solar. As seen recently, Sri Lanka has a massive solid waste issue. Government is trying to desperately finding dumping grounds in Ja-Ela and Aruwakkalu in the Wilpattu Buffer Zone. People are protesting against dumping massive solid waste mountains in their backyards. However, the technology is already there to convert Waste to Energy. Many countries including India already have such plants and several companies have submitted proposals to UDA during the last 3 years. Large Waste-to-Energy plants should be setup in all major cities and smaller scale plants could be setup in towns.

    Regarding the question about the motive to invest in them when they do not produce power, one reason is that CEB purchases each unit at a high price when the cost of production is very low due to these plants obtaining water for free. However, Water is a precious resource that many depend on. Villagers, farmers, fish and other wildlife in these affected streams depend on the water for their very survival. Due to lack of monitoring, at many sites, 100% of the water is diverted with no water sent downstream.

    Collectively, at more than 200 sites affected, mini-hydro has a bigger negative impact than a large hydro with similar capacity. More than 200 waterfalls, streams and rivers have been severely impacted to generate less than 300 MW (actual contribution around 100 MW). This is the reason the ecological destruction of mini-hydro is a priority to be addressed right now.

    • 0
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      Sriyantha Perera:

      Regarding the question about the motive to invest in them when they do not produce power, one reason is that CEB purchases each unit at a high price when the cost of production is very low due to these plants obtaining water for free.

      So, Expose these businemen and their cruel business practices and the politicians who support them. These businessmen should be bound to help the rejuvenate the water resources and the environment because they are exploiting it. It is the people who lose.

      • 0
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        Dear Author,

        Your article says 50 waterfall scarified out of 400, now you say 200. Just recheck your facts.

        Dear Jim,

        With regard to the price paid to the mini hydro and the financial viability, I was able to gather following info

        Average Tariff Paid to renewables – 16.74

        (this includes wind power, which is paid over 20/- per unit.) please refer Page 11 of http://www.pucsl.gov.lk/english/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Generation-Performance-2014.pdf

        Capital Cost per MW mini hydro – 220mn

        Refer page 8 of http://www.pucsl.gov.lk/english/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/Decision-on-NCRE-Purchase-Tariffs-2012-2013-Web-Vesion.pdf

        I assumed a Cost of funds of 15%, which is reasonable considering the fact that this comprise of both Debt and Equity)

        On a 220mn investment a 1MW power plant should generate 33mn cashflow to the investor to achieve the return of 15%.

        If we assume there is no other cost to incur, not even salaries of the people employed there, the power plant should generate 1.97mn units of electricity to give a 33mn cashflow. ( 33,000,000 / 16.74 = 1,971,326)

        By applying the plant factor formula given in the page 5 of the performance report 2014 referred above, I was able to compute the minimum plant factor required on a 1MW power plant to generate 1.97mn units. Guess how much it could be.. its actually 22.5% plant factor. (1,971,326 / (1,000 * 24* 365)

        This is my friend, assuming NO expenses to incur, not even salaries or insurance or land leases, just the developer and the banker getting paid their returns which would equate 15% of the full investment. In addition, the banks need to be paid the capital amount which I have not taken in here.

        So in conclusion those plants reporting meager plant factors are actually loosing money at a far greater extent and there is no financial reason to invest in such projects.

        I have given all sources of my numbers and workings and I’m open for challenge.

    • 0
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      Sriyantha,

      “Regarding the question about the motive to invest in them when they do not produce power, one reason is that CEB purchases each unit at a high price when the cost of production is very low due to these plants obtaining water for free”
      Hydro-electric power is not free. The power plants and employees have to be paid for.
      The rates are not very high either, around Rs 15 per unit, compared to Rs.20 for rooftop solar.

  • 3
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    Your argument does not have valid rationale. You have pointed out that there are irregularities in the approval and monitoring the water usage of the streams and the environmental impact from the construction. Of course, This is due to the corrupt bureaucracy and the loopholes in the monitoring mechanism.

    Banning the mini hydro power projects will not solve the issue. These kind of issues arise even from the urban housing schemes and the construction of factories. We need to scrutinize the approval and the monitoring process rather than discouraging entrepreneurship, which would make more sense.

    In simple terms, We can’t set fire on our own head to get rid of lice, likewise this issue should be handled sensibly.

  • 0
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    The central point of the essay is that the harmful impact on the natural environment is ignored by enthusiasts for alternative energy as is the adverse effect on local cultivation.
    We should appreciate these issues; and many countries of the world have lessons for us.
    What is needed is a holistic approach.

    Although NGO involvement is not enough reason for rejecting a case, it is wise to keep the NGOs at arms length. They have ways of worming their way into any popular struggle to subvert it.

  • 0
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    Sriyantha Perera:

    Don’t trust most of the comments that make you discouraged. These people may be supporting the other party.

    Just get a Team supportive to you. Trobule shoot the problem and fight against these corrupt businessmen and politicians.

    Envionmentally conscious manufacturing and Ethical manufacturing are very important. Mostly people in those so-called developed countries know how businesses have desteoyed everything and how they have tos uffer. Introduce the concepts of environmentally conscious and ethical business practices to Sri lanka.

  • 1
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    In response to comment made by “Curiosity”, please note that 50 is the number of waterfalls already destroyed. 200 is waterfalls, streams and rivers that are affected. Some mini-hydro projects target waterfalls, some target small streams and others are built on rivers.

    • 1
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      Sriyantha,

      Thanks for the clarification.

      Also, I would appreciate if you clarify the other points that I have raised, including the misrepresentation of facts from Generation performance report 2014.

      Why are you silent about Mega projects especially central highway, which would cause much higher damage than hydros to environment & rain forests.

  • 0
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    Having had a Foreign education for over two decades, I returned to my beloved Island nation and discovered that Greed had taken over our culture after Independence.Subsequently i lived with the Veddhas and the citizens of interior villages. One wise old man told me ” Kanduwal perlandai gnagawal harawandai apti ayythi naa. Manussyata kisi Iyythiyak na Parisarya vennas keranta” . Transalated in simple English he says ” Mowing down hilloks and diverting rivers is not mankind’s business.
    We have no right to change the face of nature”. Yes we must learn to live with and within natures boundaries. Our Greedy businessmen have felled our forests mercilessly after Independence – by over 50% and has caused this dramatic change in our weather pattern to the detriment of our natural livelihood, where the village farmers suffer the most. Now this diverting of our precious tributaries and streams effects our major rivers. This is very clearly seen over our Island nation. Our President is from a village farming family and is an ardent conservationist.I trust he will take necessary steps to stop this carnage. MK. Nawala

  • 0
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    What most of you have missed here is that the developers don’t invest a single cent out of their pocket. Instead they apply for a bank long usually 3 times higher than the actual cost. Assuming 75% of the loan gets approved, the investor has already made an equivalent sum to his investment cost which is also a loan. And this loan is usually at a much lower interest rate as its called renewable energy (no country any longer accept damming rivers sustainable. for example study Elwha dam removal or Clamath river basin restoration. Project pro pent invests his extra earnings from the bank loan applied and get a handsome interest/retun on it which will pay off the bank loan easily. In addition they apply for CDM and get thousands of dollars as carbon credits which destroying entire aquatic ecosystem in addition to ecological, sociological, hydrological and climatic disasters they create. I guess most of the people who have commented here seem not to understand the fact that the entire world is urging for undaming rivers and looking at more sustainable energy sources such as wind solar and wave energy. We have got support and an offer from Finland govt to develop wave energy and several private investors to operate waste to energy plants on a BAO basis. But the policy makers are not looking at these alternatives because we always do the good things wrong way. It could’ve been better if at least a couple of mini hydro project was developed with a fish ladder and a properly maintained natural e-flow which is not the case in SL. And we are talking about Sola sangramaya and etc whereas the CEB mafia is against it because that seem not to earn big money for them. My friend who installed a solar plant at his rooftop spending hundreds of thousands are still struggling the the board to get his net metering fixed despite PUCSL order to make it expedite. I guess those who have spoke without a clue what damage a mini hydro development has caused must first study the holistic picture of the issue and make them familiar with the overall energy mafia in this country.

  • 0
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    Project appraisal is centered around money. Cost / benefit is measured in rupees and cents. Environmental cost is real, but because it is not monetised, or the cost or benefit accruing as a consequence over the project period and beyond, is not calculated in rupees and cents, it does not get the prominence in proportion to its long term significance.

    This is true of all projects in all sectors.

    Lopsided economics, lopsided value system. Future generations will be the greatest victims of this short sightedness!

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