Sri Lanka recently experienced a series of blackouts. While the reason was attributed to human error, energy experts claim its high time Sri Lanka moved into renewable energy generation. The Norochcholai coal power plant has experienced repeated breakdowns, and this has been an excuse for various entities to opt for purchasing emergency power. The purchase of emergency power has taken a heavy toll on the country’s economy and energy experts have repeatedly said it is only a money-spinner for the country’s largest electricity company – the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB).
“Right now, the country cannot even afford it,” said engineer and industrialist Keerthie Wickramaratne, who was the former chairman of the Sustainable Energy Authority and architect of the “Soorya Bala Sangramaya” concept.
In a candid interview with DailyMirror,
Mr. Wickramaratne spoke about the solar energy concept, why renewable energy is the way forward in a post-COVID era and how Sri Lanka is equipped with all the resources to move forward in this process.
- SL one of the best places in the world for solar energy
- Hydropower is the cheapest
- SL has best quality materials to make batteries and solar panels
- Those who invest in diesel power should now invest in renewable energy
Q Tell us about the Soorya Bala Sangramaya concept.
Prior to the pandemic, we were importing oil to generate energy. In the previous years we were spending USD 5 billion per year to generate electricity. Earlier somehow we were spending that much because the CEB was generating a part of it with coal and the other part with diesel, where diesel was the most expensive part. Sri Lanka had no other choice than to go for diesel power.
In order to setup a power plant the initial cost was high and the renewable energy cost was also high. When I started the Soorya Bala Sangramaya (SBS) in 2016 a Kilowatt would cost Rs 750,000. There were many companies registered under the SBS at the Sustainable Energy Authority and we were able to get many tax benefits, tax reductions for all these items. Then the price came down to Rs 150,000. At the time there was a high demand for installation of solar panels among intellectuals. Two years after, we were able to install a lot of solar panels.
Q Does SBS benefit large scale electricity generators as well?
We have started SBS to equip one million households with solar panels. We also had different categories and we were promoting one Megawatt (MW) solar plants. There were 10 MW solar plants as well. We wanted to install household panels due to scattered generation, and therefore it was easier for the CEB system to absorb all of that. If you put up a single solar plant you need battery backups and other facilities to stabilise the system.
Q How’s the progress of the project?
We have installed about 260-270 MW solar plants and we were able to save about Rs 10 billion. It is ongoing but there are some people who are not interested in installing solar panels. So far we have installed three plants that generate 10 MW and thereafter a few other plants were installed. With that we are nearing 300 MW in solar in Sri Lanka. On the other hand, by producing 10 MW from solar energy you can reduce 15,000 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide emissions.
"When the Soorya Bala Sangramaya (SBS) in 2016 a Kilowatt would cost Rs 750,000. There were many companies registered under the SBS at the Sustainable Energy Authority and we were able to get many tax benefits, tax reductions for all these items. Then the price came down to Rs 150,000"
Q The Norochcholai coal power plant has experienced several breakdowns. In turn the CEB keeps purchasing emergency power. Do you think this is a viable option?
When Norochcholai generates power, it’s cheaper than diesel power generation. But with coal power the environment pollution is high. Even coal-producing countries don’t produce energy with coal anymore. Countries like Germany won’t do it anymore and they want to ban coal. The environmental cost is much higher than what you gain from it. When you talk about solar energy generation in Germany, per year there is 1200 KWh generated. But in Sri Lanka the generation is much higher than that. Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world where you can generate solar energy at a low cost. There’s one plant in Hambantota which generates 10 MW and there’s a similar plant in India, but the engineer says we generate 30% more power here.
Q But how did purchasing emergency power become a solution?
They go for emergency power because it is the easiest. As of late, the CEB hasn’t installed any other plants except for hydropower plants. They had to go for an alternative, and the easiest was to buy a generator. But right now, the country can’t even afford it. The nearly USD 15 billion income has minimised and we can’t afford to buy expensive diesel. We don’t have foreign reserves either. So we have to opt for renewable energy.
Q What about wind and hydropower?
We had 300 MW of hydro where you can generate energy from but we haven’t given them the chance to do it. This is equivalent to 800 MW of solar and that too is a good source. It could also be used as storage. Small hydropower plants could be switched on whenever it’s required. We think we can generate another 300 MW from those applications. We have another 200 MW of mini hydros we can install in water canals. There are canals in Mahaweli and other projects. This is another cheap way of making another 200-300 MW and this could be done to save money. If you do a reforestation in the catchment areas where you have all these reserves, another 20-30% more hydro power could be generated. If you go to Randenigala or Rantambe you can see mountains and no trees. With reforestation the catchment will be much bigger. But now since there are less trees and since it rains fast, there are flash floods and after 2-3 days there’s no water. The government should think of that as well. Hydropower is the cheapest.
Q But in the case of a dry season?
We have proposed floating solar systems as well. Since there’s no forest coverage in most areas around 30% of water evaporates under these conditions. With floating solar you can use that area which isn’t used for anything as the water content is 30% more since there’s no evaporation. Therefore solar generation of floating solar panels is at 10-20%.
"We have started SBS to equip one million households with solar panels. We also had different categories and we were promoting one Megawatt (MW) solar plants"
Q Can the entire country fully function only with renewable energy?
We have enough technology in the world to do that. The CEB does a lot of expansions and invests money. But if we put that money and energy into the system definitely we have space to move to renewable energy. The CEB has the best engineers in the country. Therefore they should be able to do this part.
Q What are the immediate loopholes that need to be rectified in order to achieve this target?
The future of the world will be solar and battery, which is also known as an energy storage system. If we start right now we will be one of the first countries to do that, and we will be able to save a lot of money and will be a global player in the solar and battery concept. Sri Lanka has the best quality materials to make batteries and solar panels. So we can make use of those raw materials and be one of the leading countries producing renewable energy on a global scale. We have titanium metal, the world’s best graphite – one of the key factors in the energy sector in the world, and the best quality silica to make solar panels. The President too wants to develop the country from its own resources, and I think this is the way forward.
Q How can the country benefit from renewable energy taking into consideration the mafia which exists in the energy sector?
Following the pandemic we have seen a reduction in foreign income, textile exports and tourism. The way forward is to develop our own resources. I once did a presentation in the presence of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and presented the plan for the energy sector in the country. I think this is the right time to invest in solar energy. Therefore we invite those who have invested in diesel power to become our partners and invest in renewable energy instead.