Coal and renewable energy should go hand-in-hand
ontradicting environmentalists’ view that coal should be abandoned in the process of electricity production, Managing Director of Resource Management Associates Dr. Tilak Siyambalapitiya states that coal has an important role to play in electricity production as much as renewable energy sources. Speaking to the Daily Mirror, he said that a mix of both coal and renewable energy sources was required in the process of producing electricity for Sri Lanka in a cost-effective manner.
Q Do you think that the continual use of coal is a good initiative that will benefit the public?
Coal is not a new initiative. It is only a continuation of the country’s coal fired power development programme. In summary, I would say that continuing the coal power development programme is a strategy required to ensure that a stable electricity supply at affordable cost will be available to the public, in the longer term. Coal has withstood the volatility of the energy market, to provide the base requirements in almost all the developed economies, in the period since the 1940s.
Q Could you explain in detail, why you consider that coal power should be continued?
Producing electricity through coal is a good initiative, firstly because it is cost effective. The second reason would be the support it offers to build more renewable power plants, since renewable power plants, most of which produce electricity intermittently, have to be supported with a larger power plant. When the sun goes down, coal takes over. When the wind goes down, coal takes over. A drought sets in, and coal takes over.
"On various calculations we can look at how much Sri Lanka spends on renewable energy and coal. Sri Lanka’s coal-fired power production cost is about Rs. 8, and going up in the scale, the next generation of wind power should cost about Rs.12 and solar power should cost about Rs. 14. So, if people want renewable energy, it can be provided to them given that they are willing to pay double the amount they currently pay for electricity"
Q Why does Sri Lanka focus more on coal power plants than in renewable energy sources? In addition to this, environmentalists point out that renewable electricity is comparatively cheaper than coal. What is your opinion regarding this?
Yes, of course. On various calculations we can look at how much Sri Lanka spends on renewable energy and coal. Sri Lanka’s coal-fired power production cost is about Rs. 8, and going up in the scale, the next generation of wind power should cost about Rs.12 and solar power should cost about Rs. 14.
So, if people want renewable energy, it can be provided to them given that they are willing to pay double the amount they currently do for electricity. On the other hand, we should keep in mind that renewable energy cannot stand on its own. We currently have 120MW of wind power in operation.
However, none of them will be in operation during the month of March because the wind is very low during this month. How do you propose to produce electricity, when the wind flow reduces in the months of March and August, and during other times of the year?
On the other hand, we should keep in mind that the sun doesn’t shine during the night. How do we propose to provide electricity only through renewable energy then? In power system engineering and power economics, all technologies to produce electricity have their due places, working as a system, not in isolation. To get your favoured technology implemented, one does not have to kill other projects or run down other technologies.
Q Do you think that battery storage of solar power is cost effective for the public?
You can store excess solar power at a cost Rs.14 into a battery, but the charging and discharging of power would cost 40% of the electricity. So, when the electricity is sold out of the battery, it will be Rs. 23 plus the cost of the battery. The question is whether you are willing to use coal power at a cost of Rs.8, use solar power at Rs. 17 or use a battery to charge and discharge power where the cost would amount to Rs.23. It is the responsibility of the environmentalists to reveal this to the public and see if the public wanted their electricity bill effectively doubled or probably tripled, or go for a mixed approach that will harness renewable energy to the maximum, but keep the base intact.
Q It is understood that both Noraichcholai and Sampur coal power plants are expected to supply electricity to the public at a cheap rate. Does the cost of constructing the Sampur coal power plant include the cost borne on infrastructure such as the power line and the jetty cost?
It is included. If it is not included, then it must be included. As for Noraichcholai, the total cost was USD 1,380 million for a 900 MW of capacity. It is generally the world’s average cost for a coal fired power plant. Finally, what matters is the power plant that is going to be purchased and its ability to provide electricity at the lowest possible cost. Secondly, we will have to ensure that the power plant will provide the technical characteristics necessary, so that it can be run at any time of the day. Stability of the power plant and the transmission network is also a very important factor.
The 10% of the electricity supply from small renewable energy power plants we already have are possible only because we have coal power. If you don’t have coal power, you cannot add renewable energy in the quantities one would like to add. It is a mixture of both coal power and renewable energy, and other sources when they become cost competitive, which is required to produce electricity.
Q When it comes to the Noraichcholai coal power plant, many environmentalists point out that it is a total environmental disaster. Firstly, because the hot water released from the plant is directed to the ocean resulting in the destruction of the marine life. They also state that this has affected the lives of people engaged in the fishing industry in addition to the coal dust that is evident in the area. What is your opinion on this?
What evidence do they have to support these statements? Have they taken a count of the fish before and after the power plant was established?
Whatever the environmentalists say, it should be supported with proper scientific evidence. Has the fishing industry thrived after the power plant, or not. Has the Thalawila Church been washed out into the sea, as claimed by the environmental lobby? However, there is onepiece of visible evidence related to the coal dust. In that case, necessary actions should be taken to control the situation. There are mechanisms in the power plant to control dust and in case the system is broken down, somebody has to take CEB (Ceylon Electricity Board) to court.
Q Many developed countries are converting their coal power plants into renewable energy plants. Why do you think that Sri Lanka isn’t following a similar trend but is planning to build more coal power plants in the future?
All major countries in Asia, including Japan, are building more coal power plants. Yes, some developed countries are not converting but retiring coal fired power plants. Sri Lanka will shut down coal power plants when the US, India, China, Japan and all other countries, shut down their last coal power plants.
Currently Sri Lanka has only one coal power plant whereas US, India and China each have about one hundred coal power plants each, from which they choose to shut down a few. It should be understood that renewable energy has to go hand in hand with conventional energy. The US National Policy analysts are currently analysing to go 80% on renewable energy for electricity production by 2050. Only analysing, not deciding.
Sri Lanka is already at 40% with renewable energy in our system. However, US is still only in a talking stage with regard to the 80% renewable energy for electricity production, and are conducting of the required mathematical, dynamic and economic analyses on the subject.
It is important to understand that the support of base load power plants such as nuclear, coal, gas or oil-fired power plants, renewables cannot be developed, with the presently proven technology.
The base power plants provide the stability to the power system. If we had a 100% renewable system today, during a drought, we will have full electricity supply only for four hours a day.
"You can store excess solar power at a cost Rs.14 into a battery, but the charging and discharging of power would cost 40% of the electricity. So, when the electricity is sold out of the battery, it will be Rs. 23 plus the cost of the battery. The question is whether you are willing to use coal power at Rs.8, use solar power at Rs. 17 or use a battery at Rs.23. ....."
On the other hand, no country in the world is supplying electricity to a public network by storing solar power in a battery and giving it out. Electricity users have to be provided with an economical electricity supply. It should be cheaper to the public in the long term, and support economic growth. Secondly, the electricity supply should be stable. For an example, when a cloud blocks out the solar power plant or when there is a change in the wind pattern, we cannot afford to have a blackout in the country.
Thirdly, the oil power plants we are running at this moment can be replaced with solar because oil is more expensive than solar energy. This was not so 10 years ago. If we replace the most expensive oil-fired power plants with solar energy at Rs. 14, electricity consumers will have a lower bill. Additionally, we should keep in mind that to run a power system in the country, you need a quick start type of power plant to address any calamity, and that can be provided only by an oil-fired power plant. Not even a coal-fired power plant can provide that quick start capability. On the other hand, it should be noted that all power plants cannot be replaced with solar energy either. Therefore, I am a person who looks rationally at the power system operation and the stability of the power system in the country. Finally all these sources, working together as one integrated system, have to provide low cost electricity to the consumers.
Q In your opinion, do you think that the current and future demand for electricity generation is sufficiently met in Sri Lanka?
As for the current demand, we have sufficient electricity generated without the aid of a second coal-fired power plant. According to the Long Term Generation Expansion Plan, the planning process starts off with a demand forecast depending on economic growth, population growth, income growth and mathematical models related to the subject. Based on this information, electricity demand is mathematically predicted for the future. In 2015, the demand for electricity in Sri Lanka grew by 6%.
It is true that we do not need Sampur today but we will need in another three years’ time when the electricity demand increases. It should always be a mixture of renewable energy, remaining hydro power plants and coal that is used to generate electricity.
Q Environmentalists argue that Trincomalee is a strategic location with rich marine bio diversity. If so, do you think that constructing a power plant at such a location would be ideal?
We need a list of locations with “rich” biodiversity, to see how many such locations are there. ‘Unquantified’ statements have no place in science or engineering. An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was conducted with regard to this project and was repeated again because the Central Environmental Authority (CEA) was not happy with the initial report. Therefore, after further studies by an international team of experts, the Sampur Power Plant Company had to repeat the EIA. After further studies and evaluation, the CEA has given a conditional approval for the EIA report submitted by the Sampur Power Plant.