4 June, 2023


The Energy Trap

By Ranil Senanayake

Ranil Senanayake

In Sri Lanka, in December 1979, an official communiqué was issued by the Government and displayed in the nation’s newspapers stating,  “No oil means no development, and less oil, less development. It is oil that keeps the wheels of development moving”. This defines with clarity what is to be considered development by the policy makers of that Nation. Here was a fundamental and fateful decision that cast a deadly policy framework for the nation. The energy source that was to drive the national economy would be fossil.  Our addiction to fossil fuels (Coal, Oil, Gas ) is clearly seen in the growth of oil and gas imports. Even today, that same policy framework and its adherents continue. The public discussions on the irrationality of clinging to coal, oil and gas for the development of our power needs in the face of the modern technologies, clearly demonstrate serious flaws in the current energy policy.

After the heat energy of biomass used for the hearth and local industry, electrical energy is the fundamental force that drives modern civilization. Human ingenuity has developed technologies that have moved our reliance on fossil fuels as source of energy to generate electricity.   Today there is a choice of from a multitude of other sources, hydro, solar, wind, bio, tidal etc.  All of them being ultimately driven by the power of the Sun.

With such developments the old arguments that   ‘economies need to industrialize in order to reduce poverty, but industrialization leads to emissions’   rings hollow.  Industrialization, if so desired, need not lead to emissions, if modern technologies are used and a caring government is in place.  A vision of development based on the profligate use of fossil fuel, may never be attainable.  However a vision of power for our homes and industry based on ‘renewable’ sources of energy is attainable .  Indeed one indicator of ‘development’ could be ‘the per capita consumption of power’ if that consumption of power is non fossil in generation, sustainable development goals could be reached .

The consumption of power is a double-edged sword. While it will improve the quality of life, it will like a drug, create dependency on that level of input to maintain that quality of life.  This relationship has been exploited by politicians and salesmen to promise an increasing supply of power, without considering the cost to the future.  To a nation that is rapidly modernizing, there is a great danger of investing in fossil fuel dependent infrastructure and centralized, energy production.

It is commonsense that, as the demand accelerates and price increases, fossil energy based power production will move to cheaper ever more problematical, and polluting sources such as coal or high sulphur oils.

The fact that all fossil fuel dependent countries are in deep trouble is indicated by two trends.  One is that the cost of fossil fuel is a driving factor of inflation . The other is that, in a warming world, the call for punitive taxes on the use of fossil fuel will get stronger with each climate crisis. At such a time, if development policy focuses on fossil energy based acquisitive consumerism, there lies a recipe for ‘the perfect storm’ of debt, suffering and despair, in a resource hungry world.

For all the commitments on paper, the inequality of health, wealth and trade the world over, continue to rise.   The ethic of ‘He/She who consumes the most is the best’ still rules the world and propels us, blindly, to a frightening future.  Commenting on the bright displays of advertising lights of consumerist London 1920, A.M. Hocart  Ceylon’s Archaeological  Commissioner  observed  that,  “ Every one of them has been placed there in chaotic confusion by a cold calculating purpose.  Each one is designed to make a gaping crowd desire what they never dreamt of desiring before and what they had been perfectly happy not to desire.  It is intended to destroy that happiness and take away from the soul its rest until it has satisfied the newborn desire.” The creation of desire has not slowed any and inequality not lessened. This model of development has brought us to this precarious present.

Develop we must, but cautiously – with the full awareness of the long-term consequences of each processes.  Development must be determined by protecting the fundamental rights of the people and of the future generations. Clean air, clean water, access to food and freedom from intoxication, are some of these fundamental rights.  Any activity that claims to be part of a development process must address these, among other social and legal fundamental needs.

The energy that propels such development process must come from non fossil sources and as it has been amply demonstrated the generation of electricity does not depend on fossil fuel.

The energy used in electricity generation is one half of the energy trap, the energy used in the production of our foods, fibre and medicines is the other.


Much has been written about the pros and cons of ‘modern agriculture’ the focus always being on the levels of crop production or on the ‘feeding the hungry’. Irrespective of the global scandal of feeding much of the crop to livestock and industry, when people still go hungry. It is salutary to examine the basis of the crop increase gained by the so-called ‘Green Revolution’(fig 1). The natural defences and modes of feeding of the plant have been done away with, these needs now being supplied by the farmer through the use of fossil fuels. Competition and predation by pests are taken care of by chemicals and the roots and shots made small so that there will be much energy left over for seed production. Traditionally ‘improved’ seeds perform well without  such high fossil based inputs, but a problem with modern agriculture is that farmers are forced to use ‘modern’ varieties and methods where increases in productivity are only made possible by a high input of fossil energy.

Fig 1. Traditional Wheat and Improved Wheat

The ecological impact of increasing energy input into a system has been well documented.  In any ecosystem an increase in the flow of energy tends to organize and simplify that ecosystem, with the destruction of many homeostatic mechanisms of the original system.   Field studies on identified ecosystems at various levels of organization have confirmed the loss of original stability following a large influx of energy into those systems.  A good example is provided by experiments which looked at the effects of sewage (as an energy source) as it was added to a stream whose biotic composition was known.  The effect was to drastically reduce the number of species in the original community, producing a new community made up of large populations of very few of the original species.  In studies of insect communities, Pimentel has shown that pest outbreaks are characteristic of systems with lowered species diversity.  The application of fertilizer or the use of mechanical energy in a field situation produces the same ecological effects.

An increase in the input of energy to an ecosystem often provides a useful measure by which ecosystem modification can be addressed.  Thus in a heavily energy dependent agricultural system the natural or biological system has been dispensed with and an artificial environment has been created to allow production (fig 1) .  Such a system of production is sustainable only as long as the inputs are provided , it also raises many  biological questions, for this system is clearly not sustainable in a biological sense.  It also raises economic questions, especially in regard to input costs and subsidies.  Further, this process has been demonstrated to be increasingly dependent on a steadily increasing quantum of energy input to produce a unit of output. It is estimated that for US agriculture over twice the amount of energy gained by eating a potato, is used to produce it using fossil energy. The dependence on fossil energy for food production in Sri Lanka is so bad that agricultural productivity is being maintained through a subsidy payment for chemical fertilizers of over 60 Billon Rupees annually. When the demand for tractors, transport and processing, all based on fossil energy keeps increasing, the fossil carbon footprint of the food we eat will also enlarge.

So, much the same as in the area of power for the generation of electricity, power to ensure sustainable food production has also fallen prey to fossil fuel. It is in this context that we should examine the role of fossil fuels in today’s development vision.

What are the assumptions and costs ?

“It is oil that keeps the wheels of development moving” says the Government of Sri Lanka who have no oil of their own and has to depend on imports for every drop.

“Oil represents the spirits of the dead, to ask it for power you sacrifice your children” Says the Shuar, an Amazonian tribe under whose feet lie reservoirs of oil that they will not allow drilling for.

Indeed, the reality of climate change and acceleration of development diseases would seem to justify the concern of the Shuar that , “to ask it for power means sacrificing the future of our children”. Are the unlettered Shuar more sensitive to global needs than the Government of Sri Lanka ?

The bottom-line question is “ Is the current development policy increasing the national dependency on fossil fuels ? “. If the answer is yes, and everything we see about us seems to confirm that reality,  we are being herded into an ‘Energy Trap’ where we will become totally reliant on fossil fuels to sustain our society.  Not the way to develop into an independent nation !

The price of addiction is a neglect of the well being of the public , in pursuit of  power. In the rush to establish, dirty coal fired power plants, they have been sited where the maximum damage to public health and our national heritage will be wrought.  Perhaps India’s experience with coal-fired power plants (table 1) will make us think twice.

Table 1. Estimated annual health impacts and health costs due to PM pollution from coal-fired power plants in India, 2011-12


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Latest comments

  • 0

    They had plenty of oil for long time and what happened ?
    Politicians got developed (got rich)

  • 0

    you can’t have the eggs and egg hoppers at the same time.

    the current mass scale energy producing sources are coal power, nuclear power, hydro power, diesel power. There is no other. Get this right on to the brains. have no illusions.

    Now ponder what do we have in Sri Lanka.

    Hydro power. all big opportunities exhausted.

    Diesel power. Very Very expensive. SL should be a Singapore GDP sized economy to afford diesel.

    Nuclear power. – Sri Lanka is too small for nuclear. The scary part is even our guys cannot run coal power plant without it breaking down every other day. imagine our guys running a nuclear power plant and scary thoughts of radiation leaking in a small Island.

    Solar power. – Stop day dreaming. SOlar cannot produce 1000MWs of affordable power.

    Only choice left is coal power.
    1st we need to learn how to build a plant that won’t break down often.
    Then evolve from Veddha genes and plan the future now. not wait for the rain to come to build a house.

    Start building the 2nd coal power plant NOW. So that we won’t have blackouts in next 5 years.

    • 0


      /*Sri Lanka is too small for nuclear. The scary part is even our guys cannot run coal power plant without it breaking down every other day.*/ – we are currently within 320km of the Kalpaakkam nuclear plant and 225km from Kudankulum… both the Wayamba province and the Northern province are sitting on a leakage threat we can’t control even if we wanted to. That reality should give us something to think about.

      /*Only choice left is coal power.*/ The price of coal tripled over the last decade as far as I am aware and coal reserves and peak production would top off in 2015 (beyond that, the amount of coal produced globally in a given year will be less than the coal consumed by the plant in the same year) so it is not a solution at all and we will slam against a brick wall before 2020 if we go that route.

      /*SOlar cannot produce 1000MWs of affordable power*/ What Ranil is talking about is harvesting sunlight. Not just solar power. This can be through biomass as well as photovoltaic technologies. We do have reserves of about 4000Mw of wind + solar + biomass combined. It may not be a solution at present, but we will very soon have to factor it in. The world has already committed to ensure that 20% of its energy requirements by 2030 would come from renewables.

    • 0

      All ways We have Rotten eggs,As Like you guys.

      So you will enjoy with H2S,

      Coal Power is not suitable for Sri Lanka.

      It is only good for coal producing countries and Commission Kakkas in governance Like Dajha Jarapassa Clan.
      They Jarapassa Malabari clan already inked the blue prints to sell power and energy to Indians and get Fat commissions.

      Definitely you and your future generations and ours too, will get Blackouts,
      and You will see STARS also WHEN YOU GET CANCER, RESPIRATAY DECEASES, Cardiac Arrests and other HEART Problems with the Coal power plants in the Neighbour hood.
      it will spread to all the areas wit monsoon winds and poison our soil, air, water resources and the flora and fauna.
      So, you live in green pastures and wants destroy our country?.

  • 0

    The problem is in the alternatives Ranil. As far as I am aware, renewables such as solar and wind are unable to provide the base load because of its unpredictability. One does take cognizance of the fact that of all the energy sources used in Sri Lanka, biomass was around the 50% mark at the turn of the century.

    The situation is a complex one and not easily handled by so-called green energy. Its a much touted mantra, indeed, as an environmentalist myself, I’ve done the same but deeper analysis has make me realize that taking everything into consideration (not just the science of it) such as generation costs, fuel costs etc. switching is not either that trouble free or that economical.

    Granted, an alternative had to be found quickly, but it is not as easy at it is made out to be. Europe, for example, estimated in 2013 that if green energy is used to generate 30% of Europe’s energy needs, there would be a 23% increment in the tariffs.

  • 0


    I am not against solar or green power but pointing out the real choices out there for power generation. It is nice and looks forward thinking to talk of having solar, bio mass, wind for power generation. But in reality they have not come to age for mass electricity generation, unfortunately.

    If you want some expert advice/inputs meet Dr Thilak Siyambalapitya who is one of the expert in this field with vast amount of knowledge and experience. As per his trending prediction if Sampoor coal power plant construction is not started now we will have blackouts in 2017.


    • 0

      mmm… Sumith, I’ve heard the Argument from Dr. Siyambalapitiya :) The rationale has many holes in it. One of them is wastage, another is the fuel cost, a third is his “investment for the future” argument which is not in coal – not for us nor for the world. He forgets that coal costs (indeed most fossil fuel costs) will become quite prohibitive by 2015 unless they start extracting fuel from shale. I think our current transmission and distribution waste statistics are around 13%… maybe it has reduced to 12% or even 11% but is still a far cry from 7% which is the global norm. Reducing waste by 1% will remove the requirement for a 100Mw plant (I think) and the arithmetic of waste management therefore becomes far more important than the arithmetic associated with the number of new plants that are required.

      The arguments are quite complex … it can’t be really treated at a surface level nor by “hanging on to pet solutions” on all sides. Like the other three big crises of food, climate and finance, one would require a cocktail of drugs to keep the patient tottering along, living something of a half-life for a few decades more :)

  • 0

    Ranil, commentators, teachers, parents, ….

    Please let me comment on something else – pollution by chemicals.

    A lot of chemicals are flowing from our landmass into the surrounding seas (= Indian Ocean).

    A very small fraction of the chemicals is the bleach we use for white school uniform. Why not switch to Blue/green/purple/red/maroon/grey/yellow or something like that takes extra burden off poor families too.
    It will also cut down the energy used for ironing the white stuff (of course we iron coloured stuff too but small tucks instead of broad pleats may do away with a lot of ironing too.

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