While the country remains mesmerized and partially paralyzed by the daily revelations of security lapses over a period of several years, the failure to carry out long-term policies on energy production, updating of agriculture and industry to keep pace with climate change, population growth etc., will cause irrevocable systemic collapse causing more prolonged misery than the short term shocks of Jihadists. Many of us, who have written articles pointing the way forward, since many decades, wonder if this all futile, or if there are still some capable groups, in the government or in the private sector, who will hear the message and seize the opportunity.
Surely, given that the biggest single expenditure faced by most nations is in meeting energy costs, and given that the availability of cheap energy is the single determining factor essential to all types of development, that is where the strongest effort of the government and the private entrepreneur should be. At a time when clean energies like solar energy and wind power were not competitive, it made sense for Sri Lanka to include coal power in its energy-mix. So the plans of the 1990s, if they had been carried out as planned, would have ensured that Sri Lanka today would not be facing a power crisis. In fact, it would have been ready to mothball the old technologies and rapidly move to new sustainable technologies.
Instead, the government has once again commissioned new coal-power plants in a knee-jerk reaction. This is a long-term commitment to highly polluting fossil-fuels energy already undercut by cheaper, cleaner alternatives that can be deployed more rapidly than coal plants. The annual import of coal to the Norochcholai (Horagolla) plant alone costs some 2.5 billion, and it will triple with the new plants. To compound the folly, the government continues in oil and gas explorations in the Palk Straits, not observing how weak but oil-rich countries have become enslaved by powerful nations that rob their oil using compliant puppet regimes who in turn keep the people under the jack boot. Furthermore, off-shore oil sources are environmentally far more damaging than land-based oil exploitation.
The Solar Industry Association of Sri Lanka alleges that the ‘Surya Bala Sangraamaya’ program, launched in 2016 is about to collapse. This is despite its great success with over 15,000-18,000 installations and a combined energy capacity of nearly 200-250 MW added to the national grid. This solar energy saves emissions of noxious nitric oxides, SO2 acid rain, toxic metal residues, and some 200,000 metric tonnes of CO2 per Annum. And yet, new legislation terminates the purchase of solar power from small rooftop producers, claiming that the CEB will “end up subsidizing” consumers of 60 units/month or less at Rs. 4.68 a unit. Surely, these consumers will necessarily consume more than 60 units before long. While failing to encourage solar energy, coal power and thermal stations that burn oil at great cost to the consumer and the environment are embraced.
Sri Lanka does NOT NEED fossil fuels of ANY SORT. In my first article in this series (Colombo Telegraph) I explained how, since 2009, I had advocated the installation of floating solar panel arrays located on hydro-electric reservoirs; the solar power generated is fed to the grid as needed or used to pump up water back into the reservoir. That is, solar power is stored as water head, and no storage batteries are needed. In fact, even pumping up the water can be dispensed with, by simply RETAINING the equivalent quantity of water instead of sending it down into the hydro-turbines. The presence of solar panels on the water saves some 30% of the evaporation by wind and sun. That is, the mere placing of the floating solar arrays on ten hydro-power reservoirs is equivalent to building some three new hydro-power reservoirs at only a comparatively negligible cost!
Wind power, installed around reservoirs can also be stored as water power, without the need for batteries, using the same concepts. The development of mini-hyropower should be highly discouraged as their environmental impact is much greater per Kwh produced.
The average life-cycle cost of solar energy production in Sri Lanka is of the order of 15-20 rupees per unit. Biomass energies can be much cheaper, and employ more people sustainably. While energy from bio-mass is not as clean as hydro-energy, the growth of biomass has a corrective effect on climate change, reduces the catastrophic decline in biodiversity, loss of pollinating insect species etc., by reducing habitat loss and increasing green space. The agriculture sector is on the whole in decline, partly due to unscientific meddling by politicians who have absorbed partial truths and common myths about the environment, or frightened into going back to so-called “Toxin-Free” traditional agriculture. Tea, Rubber, coconut or even a staple like paddy are not prospering.
In my second article on how to deal with the energy crisis (Colombo Telegraph) I showed how the coconut plantation sector can be revived by making it an energy giant by using the coconut biomass for energy production. In that article I showed that there is enough energy in the currently produced coconut husks to supply ALL of Sri Lanka’s energy needs in a sustainable way, causing much less pollution than from the use of fossil fuels. At present, these husks are used for the production of low-value fiber products, and such industries have little or no future, unsafe to workers and cause much pollution. Their future is in moving into the energy sector.
However, it is not just the coconut plantation sector that can re-vamped. Sri Lanka’s Rubber Industry Master Plan needs to include its bio-energy potential to further improve its prospects. It is imperative that the rubber plantations move towards greater profitability. If not, these prime lands, often with road-and-bungalow infrastructure will be rapidly converted to housing or tourist chalets, asphalt roads, concrete buildings, night clubs, casinos and bars. The enormous loss of green habitat is catastrophic to the biosphere. Although having plantations is not as good as having virgin forests, they are the next best defense against continued habitat encroachment by humans. Making rubber plantations more profitable by moving them towards bio-energy production, we are resolving the energy crisis, and also safeguarding the environment.
But how do we convert the rubber plantations to energy-producing power-plants? I don’t propose anything as naive as felling the rubber trees and burning them as fire wood, as rubber is not a rapid-growth biomass. Instead, we exploit the currently wasted rubber seeds. New hybrids or bio-engineered plants with a high SEED YIELD should be planted. Existing trees will be tapped as usual for the latex since the annual world consumption of natural rubber is increasing at about 3-4% . Seeds of any kind of tree are packets of energy stored for the seed to grow. In all cases, seeds make better fuel than other biomass. That is, if the seeds are burnt, shell and all, the heat produced can be very profitably converted to electricity using high-efficiency burners which are now a standard part of bio-electricity technology.
Malaysian researchers Satyanarayana et. al. [Int. J Green Energy, vol. 7 pp. 84-90, (2010) ] found that rubber seed is a viable option for bio-diesel, and has low CO2 and nitrogen oxide outputs among potential biofuels. In this article we do not examine bio-diesel production for use in motor vehicles, but simply the burning of seeds in high-efficiency generators to produce electricity.
Elementary calculations show that using rubber seed to make energy is profitable and sustainable. A yield of 100-400 kg of nuts per hectare per year is typical for the south-Asian region including Sri Lanka, while China has clones which produce 1500-2000 kg/ha/year [Wei-Wei et al. China Oils Fats, vol.30, pp. 63-66, (2005)]. According to Selle et al (1983), Rubber seed has a total energy value of about 7000 kcal/kg.
Sri Lanka has some 130,000 hectares of rubber plantations. Hence assuming a yield of 300 kg of nuts/ha and a collection efficiency of 66%, the annual rubbernut output can produce some 200-250 GWh of electricity by burning the seeds, using a Carnot-Rankin efficiency of 25-30%. The use of Chinese clones with high seed yields boosts outputs to 400 GWh. In addition, rubber other biomass from the plantation can be used. Effective, safe herbicides like glypohsate have been restored to the rubber industry. Hence crops like castor can be economically inter-cropped in plantations to provide additional high-energy biomass, and hence a near-term target of 400-500 GWh, i.e., about 5% of Sri Lanka’s electricity needs, is quite realistic.
Since the infra-structure, raw materials, etc., are already in place, the main cost is the installation of the burner-generators which can be amortized over 10-15 years, making it quite cheap compared to the cheapest coal. The additional profits from a hitherto wasted resource, namely, rubber seeds should be considered in Lanka’s Master plan of the rubber industry.
The expression of oil-synthesis genes in seeds is controlled by known transcription factors like LEC1, LEC2, and WRI-1. Genetically modifying plants by including a mutation in the cgi58 gene results in the accumulation of lipid droplets even in the leaves. Of course, there is a whole lobby of Luddites who oppose “GMO” technology just as many in the 19th century opposed steam engines. But in the end, the advantages and enhanced safety of such new technologies makes them prevail. Furthermore, converting the energy in the rubber nuts using fuel-cell technology instead of directly burning them is a method of beating the Carnot-Rankin energy loss. Then a near 95% efficiency can be achieved. But such technologies are still a matter for the research labs.
What has been said here about rubber or coconut industries can also be adapted for cinnamon and other Industries. So there is no excuse for our planners to opt for fossil-fuel energies. Solar- Wind and bio-energy are unequivocally available as cheap, non-polluting, firm power implementable within a shorter time scale compared to the commissioning of coal power stations.
In summary, there is no excuse WHAT SO EVER for our planners to continue to go for fossil-fuel based energy. The alternatives of solar energy and bio-energy are unequivocally available as firm energy which is cheaper, non-polluting, sustainable and implementable within a shorter time scale compared to the commissioning of coal power stations.
*The author is attached to the National Research Council of Canada, Ottawa and the University of Montreal.