IESL lecture by Asoka Abeygunawardhane on achieving 100 percent renewables by 2030
Islandwide blackouts, planned and unplanned breakdowns of service, price hikes, price manipulations, service lapses, service ignorance, accidents, engineering snags and snafus, consumer dissatisfaction, rumours of corruption, proof of corruption, confusion, trade union thuggery, economic pressure at the level of macroeconomics as well as micro-wallet.
These are, and have perennially been, part and parcel of the Sri Lankan citizen’s hate-love, lose-win relationship with the monopolist service provider of electricity, the CEB. Fifteen years ago, the citizens rumbled that it was high time something was done. Since then, that rumble occurred each time they were forced to sit in the dark or light candles and those times became more and more frequent despite the fact that the long suffering public was almost resigned to never getting the type of service they paid for and deserved. With the spate of island wide blackouts over the last few months the situation is no longer one that the public is willing to tolerate. Indeed, it is not something that the state can tolerate either. Something had to be done. But what? And How? And when? And by whom? And at what cost? And with what sort of future-proofing?
These key questions that impact national energy security, citizen well-being and overall national security were addressed by Mr. Asoka Abeygunawardhane at his lecture on THE ELECTRICITY SECTOR - A VISION FOR THE FUTURE: 100% RENEWABLES BY 2030 held on the 26th of May 2016 at the auditorium of the Institute, Engineers of
Sri Lanka (IESL).
To lay the groundwork for his answers, he asks a key question of the electricity sector in Sri Lanka: when the world has decided that rise in temperature has its original and its continuance in the fact that the world continues to burn fossil fuels and bound itself legally to sustainable energy based on renewables, why is the CEB continuing with the coal, coal, coal mantra as a solution to Sri Lanka’s energy issues? When it is proven that coal is the most expensive fuel for use in Sri Lanka why is the CEB claiming it is the cheapest? When the national policy and the policy under which President Maithripala Sirisena was elected was based on 100% renewables, why did the CEB submit a long term generation plan for 2016-2034 that was based to the tune of 85% on coal? When the rest of the world was trying to figure out what to do with their existence fossil fuel infrastructure because they were pushing towards renewables, why was the CEB actually trying to build more power stations that used coal which nobody in their right minds was promoting anywhere in the world? When there was proof that there was ample opportunity to renegotiate so-called “committed” coal power stations such as Sampur, why was the CEB reluctant to do so despite the issues at the Puttalam coal power plant that is threatening national energy security? How did they manage to wire up their transmission system in such a way that when one single transformer blew the entire nation was plunged into darkness not once but thrice in six months? When renewable energy technologies have improved dramatically over the last five years, why was the CEB still harping on issues with these energy sources that were no longer present? Why did they plan only for large hydro among all the renewables in their generation optimisation plan and didn’t even consider other sources?
Why do they say “Whatever the manifesto of the president of the country and the aspirations of the people, we will do what we want!”? Well, some of the reasons are answered in the questions themselves. Ignorance of technological development in renewable energies indicates either engineering astigmatism or more likely, a deliberate choice to remain ignorant in order to keep promoting the most expensive fuels at cost to the national economy and the wallet of the consumer. Believing they can act with impunity indicates strong reliance on the ability of the oil & gas mafia to exert sufficient pressure on the government as it has always done in the past. The fact that the transmission system was so badly designed was a clear indication that the generation fuel was already determined to be coal and the transmission system created to cater to that source when in actuality, transmission systems should be designed along with generation strategies and be independent of the specific fuel that is being used so this is an indication of a complete lack of professionalism on the part of CEB engineers.
However, none of those provide a clear reason why the CEB is so allergic to renewables except for large scale hydro and perhaps large scale wind. The real reason as Asoka points out is that renewables are difficult to monopolise because they are small in size and scattered in location, and, the minute the ability to control the energy source is removed, the CEB is no longer a monopoly, it cannot continue to be inefficient, it cannot continue to dictate service standards and pricing to the market and it cannot continue to be high-handed with either the state that created it or the public that uses its services. However, as Asoka pointed out, the game that the CEB has been playing with the public and the state for years is now up. The PUCSL and the Ministry of Power and Energy rejected its long term generation plan citing the fact that it was not in line with government policy of achieving 100 percent renewables by 2030 and that it simply chose to maintain renewable energy sources in its generation plan at the 20% level which was agreed to before the present government came into power.
The fact that the CEB’s high handedness has been condemned and literally thrown out of the window should be a slap that stings then badly Asoka implied. Next, he went on to prove that micro-generation of power either through hydro or dendro or solar would instantly turn consumers into producers, ensure that money that hitherto went to the energy mafia would now be channeled directly to the citizens of the country generally and specifically to the rural poor who engage in providing biomass for micro-dendro plants scattered throughout the country and generating about 500MW of power. He also pointed out that Sri Lanka can utilise about a million rooftops in the country to generate electricity and can significantly tap into the energy potential of its seas (wave energy) and use such source to cater to thermal comfort related applications in urban centers. He also had a firm counter to the claim of variability of renewable resources that the CEB constantly harps on and stated that creating about 3000 MW of pump water storage will manage this issue for the next few years. He also justifiably said “renewable technology will advance with the global push to a level where power variability will no longer be an issue”. He stated that the path to energy security for Sri Lanka was not through coal or LNG or any other fossil fuel but by ensuring the 100% renewables. The overarching implication of his talk was that the world was at the end of the era of reductionism driven by fossil fuels and moving soon to a holistic development paradigm based on renewable fuel sources. He observed that the CEB was still living in the stone ages .