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Say no to coal for a greener, safer environment

26 June 2016 11:22 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


If more coal power is introduced, Sri Lanka will be responsible for global warming 

Sri Lanka being a signatory to the Paris Agreement, is committed to safeguard the environment, help reduce global warming and tread in a fossil free path towards development. Amidst such a scenario, the use of coal and renewables for power generation has become a hot topic, heatedly debated on many social platforms with energy experts and environmentalists expressing different views on the subject and its’ significant impacts for the global environment. In a candid interview with the Daily Mirror, Minister of Science, Technology and Research Susil Premajayantha shared his views concerning the use of coal and renewables for power generation, while stressing on the significant role Sri Lanka has to play as a signatory to the Paris Agreement.


Q What is your stance with regard to the use of coal for electricity generation, not only in Sri Lanka but on a global scale?

In Sri Lanka, power generation started with hydro power introduced by Eng. Wimalasurendra; this was sixty years ago. By the early 90s with the development of the country, we couldn’t meet the electricity demand sufficiently. During the same period, Sri Lanka was hit by a severe drought for two years. As a result thermal power was introduced, which generated 100 – 150 MW of power at the time. 
Within a short period of two and a half years, generators were installed in the country as the ideal solution for the time. Even the private sector was allowed to import generators and they commenced operating larger power plants.
When I was in charge of the Ministry of Power and Energy from 2004- 2005 for a period of eighteen months, the IMF, the CEB and other consultants were preparing a generation plan for the next twenty years- from 2005- 2025. 
The affordable rate for power generation was the hot topic then. During that time, hydro power was the lowest and thermal was very expensive in terms of cost. The latter was expensive because we had to spend our foreign exchange and import oil. 
If you calculate the overall price of these, the electricity bill will be higher and perhaps doubled.


However, the Petroleum Corporation subsidised for power generation and supplied oil. Apart from this, the CPC refinery can produce only 55 percent of Petrol, Diesel, Kerosene and other similar products while the other 45 percent constituted of heavy oil. The heavy oil was always used to generate power. After refining the crude oil, we had 45 percent of refined oil for power generation. It should also be noted that oil prices were increasing during this period.
As the next alternative, coal power was introduced after much discussion between consultants and other respective authorities since coal was cheaper than oil. Therefore, generation plans were prepared based on coal power plants. That is how the Noraichcholai coal power plant came into the scene. Scientists and researchers all over the world were researching for alternative energy options such as solar power, biomass, wind power, Dendro, geo-thermal and other sources of energy. Especially after the Fukushima incident in Japan, people started to protest against nuclear power plants on a global scale. Therefore, countries have distanced themselves from establishing new nuclear power plants whereas the current trend that prevails in most countries is centred on renewable energy. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka had a plan promoting coal as an alternative to thermal at the time. Nevertheless, during the last ten years with the development of science and technology and extensive research in laboratories, it has been found that wind, solar and Dendro were much cheaper than coal and thermal.

Q What alternatives would you suggest in place of coal to produce electricity 
in Sri Lanka?

The other alternative apart from renewables would be Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG). Based on the current price trends for LNG, it is evident that LNG is cheaper than earlier and much cleaner than coal and thermal power.

Q In your opinion, do you believe that the combustion of fossil fuel such as coal could have a significant impact on climate change?

As a result of global warming, we experience climate change every day. As an island nation we are experiencing every year. Before the monsoon, we had a depression in the Bay of Bengal that entered Sri Lanka, which caused continual rain for 48 hours while the average rainfall was recorded as over 250 mm. As a result Colombo suburbs such as Kelaniya and Kolonnawa went under water while earth slips were being reported in the hill country. Due to these natural disasters, we lost about 200 lives and nearly half a million people were displaced for at least one week and still people are in a stage of recovery. These natural disasters are evident not only in Sri Lanka but globally. 
After thirty years, Paris is experiencing the highest rainfall and deep flooding. Unusual weather patterns are experienced in every part of the world today due to the intensity of global warming 
and climate change.


During the General Assembly in 2015, the United Nations with the participation of many world leaders representing different nationalities including Sri Lanka, announced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG goals) from 2015- 2030. Among the SDG goals, introducing renewable energy and taking care of climate change gain prominence. The COP 21 Paris Agreement famous for climate change was signed in UNFCCC headquarters in New York in April 22. I had the opportunity to represent Sri Lanka at the signing of the Agreement. Sri Lanka now awaits to ratify the Agreement. So far, 171 countries out of 193 signed the Agreement and by now many countries have ratified the Agreement in their 
respective Parliaments.
We were talking about mitigation and adaptation during this international convention. However mitigation and adaptation are two areas that have already been achieved despite the rise in temperature by 20 Celsius throughout the last decade. If we continue like this, definitely global temperature will rise resulting in the melting of glaciers whereas island nations such as Sri Lanka will be badly affected within the next 25 or 30 years. 
Therefore, the prevailing norm is that every country is responsible to ensure that the increase in temperature will not exceed more than 1.50 Celsius within the next 30 years. One of the main causes giving rise to intense global warming is the continuance of power generation through coal and thermal power plants. Consequently, many countries do away with coal and thermal power and introduce LNG nowadays. Countries such as Germany have planned to have by 2050 the entire power production process centered on renewable energy; solar, wind and other renewable energy sources.

Q  What does the Government intend to do to promote renewable energy 
in future?

We as a Government have a target by 2020 to increase renewable energy up to 20 percent of the demand. At the moment we are somewhere around 8 percent. So the question is if we could reach this target within the next two and a half years? On the other hand we have to deal with the argument that if coal power plants are not commenced in Sri Lanka, we won’t be able to meet the electricity demand by 2020. Currently, we have an installed capacity of 3,800 MW per day. 
Out of 3,800MW, 1200 MW is generated through hydro and the mini hydro generates nearly around 400MW. While 75MW is approximately produced through wind, coal generates 900 MW of power. The balance which is about 1225MW is taken up by thermal power. In case we get rain, then definitely out of 1225MW, we can get 1000 MW from mini hydro power plants. Then the power generated through mini hydro plants will approximately 
amount to 1400 MW.
During daytime of course we do not have much power but if the service sector is growing the demand will go up even 
during the day time. 
Therefore, I think that at the moment our electricity demand is manageable with an installed capacity of 3800MW but the maximum demand during the night as recorded during April this year was 2400 MW due to the increased heat waves. Otherwise during ordinary days, the demand during the night will be around 2100MW. Based on these statistics, if the increase in demand happens by 8 percent, even by 2018 we still won’t be exceeding 3800 MW of power.

Q  With the fast phase of development, the demand for electricity could increase in future. In that case, how will the Government meet the increasing electricity demand of consumers while saying no to coal?

If you start the tender procedures for the coal power plant now, completion of the project will take five - seven years. Say the project is started by January 2017; we will be able to operate the power plant only by 2022 or 2023. If so, definitely we can’t meet the demand even if we start the coal power plant by now. In that case, what will be our next alternative? It should be understood that the entire world is now promoting renewable energy.
As for solar power we don’t have to spend our foreign exchange since we are getting it free. Sri Lanka fortunately is located close to the equator thus has ample access to solar power. There are 41 countries that have got together including India to promote solar. 
France is also a leading country that is promoting this cause. India’s action on climate change is such that they have started fixing solar panels even on houses built with wattle and daub with thatched roofs. 
They have introduced the doubling of clean environment cess on coal from US 200 dollars to US 400 dollars per ton of coal. This is how India is taking steps to address climate change. The whole world including developing countries is targeting to do away with nuclear, coal, thermal and go for other alternatives. Under this scenario, why should we attempt to promote coal? Recently I visited one of the leading Government owned laboratories in Chicago named Argon Laboratory. 
They said that they had more than 1300 Science PhDs in their renewable energy section engaged in research activities. According to their scientists, they say that even if Sri Lanka generates power through renewable energy, say wind, Dendro and solar, we are still not in a position to link it to the national grid since it is not strong enough to support that kind of technology. They also explained that if we have the base power supported with hydro power or LNG, it would be easier to connect the renewable energy to the grid. In the event, the base load is supported with coal, it will not be possible to do this.

Q  In your view, what are the adverse impacts of using coal for electricity production?

If we continue to promote coal there will be plenty of adverse effects. Number one would be our inability to link renewable energy to the grid. On the other hand, we have to spend foreign exchange for coal in the same manner we spend for oil. In addition to this, 500 – 600 acres of land is generally required to store coal. In the event the coal is stockpiled for a period of six months or over a year, the coal could easily get wet during a rain fall resulting in the release of all heavy metals into the soil and streams. If this happens, the entire water bed and vegetation will be polluted. This has already happened as a result of the the Noraichcholai coal power plant. The release of fly ash to the environment is another bad experience we have to encounter as a result of this power plant.
At the time the Noraichcholai power plant was constructed, we were left with no better alternative. However, compared to the past with the advancement in science and technology we have better alternatives in today’s context. My position is that Noraichcholai coal power plant is enough for Sri Lanka and we should not encourage anymore coal ventures into the country. Since the coal power plant cannot be dismantled now, it would be a welcome approach if it could be transferred to a LNG 
run power plant.


Q: Apart from renewable energy, why do you suggest that LNG would also be an ideal approach for electricity production? On the other hand, there is an argument among certain experts that LNG will not be a feasible solution for Sri Lanka due to logistical problems that could be encountered in the process. Is it true?

The next best alternative available will be LNG. The argument that prevails with regard to this is that the installation of LNG terminals will be a bit time consuming and also the investment that would go on to such a project will have to be taken into due consideration. However, we do not have any logistical issues to face with regard to LNG. If you call international tenders from Mitsubishi Company or Qatar which is one of the leading countries producing LNG, introducing LNG to the country will be a possibility. Qatar actually has all terminals attached to ships. By anchoring the ship next to the island, LNG can be transferred to the country through a linking system made between the ship and the power plant. There are many such technical systems in the world that could be applied to our country. However, we have to negotiate the unit price with the company which provides us with LNG. At the moment, LNG prices are stable. So we can fix contracts of three to five years for LNG until we improve other renewable energy sources.


Q: The Sampur coal power plant is caught up amidst lots of controversy with environmentalist taking a stand against this coal venture. What is your opinion regarding this?

The President is in charge of the environment and he is always keen about protecting the environment. He has already informed the Indian Prime Minister about the Sampur coal power plant and I am certain that the Minister in charge of Investment also has discussed with the Mitsubishi Company about the possibility of converting the second coal power plant that is to be built in Sampur into a LNG power plant.


The Sampur coal power plant requires 500 acres of land. By using the same land they can have a solar farm and generate power. In India solar power is currently being promoted and we have an equal and strong possibility to promote solar power in Sri Lanka. As the Minister of Environment, I went through the EIA report for the Sampur coal power plant and had several discussions with my Ministry. The water that will be released after generating electricity will be 40 Celsius above the sea water temperature. All this water is released to the China Bay. What will happen to the coral reefs, the fish and the fisheries industry in Sampur? Most of the folk in Sampur are engaged in the fisheries industry. On the other hand we have to consider what will happen to the environment if this project is commenced and if anyone has calculated the environmental damage that could arise through pursuing this coal venture. We have to compare the two economics; the cost of power generation vs the cost of environmental damage incurred. Once we damage the environment, we will not be in a position to rectify our mistake. Even for an ailment, it is believed that prevention is better than cure and the same applies even to the environment. Why do we promote coal when we have better alternatives like LNG?



Q: As the Minister of Science and Technology, are you satisfied with Sri Lanka’s technological advancement in terms of renewable energy?

If our electrical engineers are willing to study these technologies further, as the Minister of Science, Technology and Research we are ready to help them. We are ready to fund and send them to laboratories in Germany to study renewable energy further. During the last few decades, the power supply in Germany was entirely based on coal, thermal and nuclear power. Now Germany has completely shifted to renewable energy. A country like Germany generates thousand times more power than what Sri Lanka generates. If Germany could reach such heights in development with the advancement of science and technology, why can’t Sri Lanka do the same? We can send small groups of electrical engineers to Germany for a study tour on renewables. They can further study the modern technologies, return to the country and apply them to Sri Lanka. We have engineers who are capable of studying such subjects in a very short span of time.


Q: Do you think that renewables are more cost effective than coal and if so what are the measures that are taken under the present context to promote renewables in Sri Lanka?

Yes. Ten years ago the situation was different. Now the cost of renewables has decreased and it is clean energy with no harm. Currently, we have a plan to go for off grid street lighting as a pilot project. Within the next few weeks this project will be finalized. We have a plan to introduce the technology to produce solar panels with glass; with a silica base for the manufacturing of glass. These solar glass panels will be cheaper than before, environment friendly and most of all we have all the resources necessary to manufacture them. At the moment four physics laboratories based in Peradeniya, Jaffna, Kelaniya and Ruhuna have initiated a project on individual basis with the intention of producing graduates specializing in renewable energy by the next couple of years.



"The Sampur coal power plant requires 500 acres of land. By using the same land they can have a solar farm and generate power. In India solar power is currently being promoted and we have an equal and strong possibility to promote solar power in Sri Lanka. As the Minister of Environment, I went through the EIA report for the Sampur coal power plant and had several discussions with my Ministry. The water that will be released after generating electricity would be 40 Celsius above the sea water temperature"



My argument is based on the environmental change we are currently experiencing. A decade ago, we did not speak about such matters. However, with the development in science, technology and research there are so many inventions. I am sure that by the next five years or so the cost of solar power will also go down by another 50 percent. Even now if you have solar or wind farms, the unit cost is less than coal and similar resources.
Therefore, Sri Lanka being a country close to the equator has a better potential of producing solar and wind power and is one of the ideal country for this purpose. In Germany, floating wind towers have being produced to generate power and they actually float in the sea. As a small country we can’t afford such technology at the moment but it is time that we shift more towards renewable energy which is definitely cost effective than thermal and coal.


Q: Where exactly do you think is the Government currently heading?

Government is about to take policy decisions with regard to power generation and do away with thermal and coal power. Now we can convert the Kerawalapitiya power plant and the Kelanytissa power plants into LNG power plants thereby providing consumers with cleaner and cheaper energy. If we are in a hurry to produce another 500 - 600 MW of energy by 2018 or 2020, the ideal solution would be to introduce LNG in Sampur. Then there will be no question about releasing hot water above sea water temperature. There will be no issue with regard to fly ash, shutting down of coal power plants and so on.
My position is that we should not go for LNG either. As such I am not promoting LNG but if we are in a hurry to meet any future demand, the ideal alternative would be LNG for the time being. As we have represented many international forums on environment and since we are a signatory to the Paris Agreement, Sri Lanka is committed to play a responsible role where the environment is concerned. If we introduce more coal power, definitely Sri Lanka will be responsible for global warming. Combustion of coal will also result in adding more heavy metal and cadmium to the soil. We are planning on organizing a forum with scientists, environmentalists and engineers to have a comprehensive discourse on this subject. As educated citizens we have to get together and try to minimize the damage to the environment. That is the sole purpose of this forum. We must face this reality.


Q: You said that the possible release of hot water to the ocean from the Sampur coal power plant could cause severe damage to the marine environment. Isn’t this already happening with the Noraichcholai coal power plant and if so what measures has the Government taken to curtail this situation?

The Noraichcholai coal power plant has being already installed and all we can do now is to mitigate the damage it could cause the environment. There are scientific solutions that are always available to mitigate such damages to the environment. When the power plant was built, we had no idea of the adverse effects it could cause to the environment.


Q: Do you think that Sri Lanka has the potential to completely wipe out coal and replace it with renewables for a greener and safer environment?

Most of the countries in Europe protect their environment with strong environmental laws. They have enough funds to proceed with renewables for power generation. However, they have an economic return on this because they don’t have much experience with natural disasters. These countries are very often self-sufficient with food and their environment is clean.
Sri Lanka should be encouraging tree plantation as much as possible. Recently, our President made it very clear that he will take all possible measures to restore the forest at any cost. The Prime Minister is also in full agreement with the concept of protecting the environment. We should have a strong policy which promotes only renewable energy while saying no to coal and thermal. 

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