Energy in the years ahead: The environmental disquiet

Published in the Daily Mirror on 03 June 2008

By Parakrama Jayasinghe - President, Bio-Energy Association of Sri Lanka

The present situation is more a financial crisis than an energy crisis due to the overdependence on imported sources of energy and the escalation of world prices over which we have no control at all. It is also unfortunate that when the energy needs of the country and the present crisis is discussed, only the electrical energy requirements are discussed. The nation must appreciate that out of the total energy consumption only 10% is electricity. (ref. National Energy Balance - Energy Conservation Fund) The major proportion of the balance is taken for transport and industrial thermal energy demands. The cost of domestic energy is also a substantial problem for the ordinary householders with increased gas and kerosene prices.

Therefore the primary requirement for the country is to focus on indigenous sources of energy which would also be the more environmentally benign as well as the cheaper option, if even a fraction of the attention and concessions and facilities provided for use of the imported fossil fuels are granted.Coal is an imported fuel and is no longer a cheap fuel. The price of coal has risen from about $ 20.00 per ton to more than $ 140.00 per ton in the producing countries themselves. Sri Lanka, with no indigenous coal resources will have to use oil burning shipping facilities to transport the coal to our power plants and thus the delivered cost of coal at the power plant will be substantially more. What the level of pricing will be when the Norochcholai power plant is commissioned is anybody’s guess.What is more important to note is that the same amount of energy from a kilo gram of coal can be obtained from 1.5 kg of fuel wood which would cost only Rs 5.00 and the money will flow into the rural economy in Sri Lanka.

Norochcholai coal power plant as a means of meeting the urgent energy needs on the short term, we may even have to settle for the 500 MW proposed at Trincomalee to meet the medium term energy needs at what ever coal prices prevailing, as coal will remain cheaper than oil.

However, dependence on more and more coal power plants as is currently being proposed , including expansion of Norochcolai plant up to 900 MW, and any more expansions at Trincomalee or elsewhere , is fool hardy to say the least, in the light of current price of coal and inevitable escalation of prices in the coming years. The huge demands by India and China for any available coal resources will not only drive the prices up and small countries like Sri Lanka will have to pay premium prices to obtain our needs. Thus taking this route as the major avenue to fulfil the country’s major energy needs in the future is falling into the same trap that we fell in to, in the eighties by over dependence on oil.Sri Lanka is not obliged under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce its Green House Gas emissions.Even if we are not under any international legal mandate, we should accept the moral responsibility to not contribute any more to the global warming, even ignoring the health and other environmental hazards from coal usage.It is important to understand the environmental hazards that the two coal power plants will necessarily create in quantitative terms, given the unfortunate situation we have been pushed into.The two power plants of capacity 900 MW and 500 MW will consume a total of about 4,000,000,000 tons of coal annually. These will add more than 10 million tons of Carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, thus making a Sri Lanka also a significant contributor to global warming.

Even assuming that we are successful in purchasing the best low sulphur coal of 1.0 % sulphur content, this means that 40,000000 tons of sulphur will be released inevitably. The power plants are expected to introduce necessary devises to prevent this amount of sulphur being emitted in the stacks. However, there is no guarantee that such devises will capture 100% of the oxides of sulphur and how the efficiently of such devises will be maintained year after year. On the other hand the captured sulphur will only be converted to liquid or solid form which will never the less remain in the Sri Lankan environment. There is still no clear indication as to what will be done to dispose of the huge quantities of ash, both fly ash and bottom ash which will result in the combustion of the 4.0 Billion tons of coal. On a conservative estimate this will be at least 2%The customary solution is to use such flu ash in the cement industry, Can our cement industry absorb the total of this 80 million tons annually.

It is important to consider the above hazards which we are now forced to accept due to the inevitability of the two power plants in Norochcholai and Sampur coming in to being shortly.

But it is not necessary for us to aggravate the problem further by venturing in to more and more coal power plants. It is high time that all concerned did take a very look at the advisability of such a precipitate step.

What about acceptable alternatives? It is unfortunate that our available resources are underestimated and underplayed by those in authority, at any forum where such topics are discussed. They are given scant attention in the misguided belief that they are not substantial. Given adequate recognition and support the indigenous and cheap resources can be developed very fast to overcome the impending crisis without mortgaging the welfare of the future generations, to a continued dependence on imported dirty fuels.

The substantial development of mini hydro resources is a case in point. The current 90 MW of mini hydro power plants were developed by local entrepreneurs due to some progressive steps taken by the state, even in the face of some obstructions from certain quarters. Some 200 -300 MW of additional mini hydro potential still exist, which can come on line within two years, if some technical barriers, which are well within the capacity of the state utility to overcome, are removed.

Our energy demands however, are greater. But we have energy resources which can be developed in the same time scale as the proposed coal power plants, if the necessary steps are taken immediately.

Of these the most abundant and easily developed resource is the sustainably grown fuel wood species such as Gliricidia Sepium, which is indigenous, renewable, cheap and moreover, is a source of multiple other spin off benefits. Such benefits have been underlined by the Bio Energy Association of Sri Lanka and published in their web portal ww.bioenergysrilanka.org

When ever the subject of renewable energy is discussed it is the practice to talk about solar energy and wind power as the only or the primary options. While these are technically viable options to be targeted in the medium to long term, an unbiased evaluation will show that in the current situation they are expensive and not easily developed. These resources will not make any appreciable contribution to the energy needs of the country in the present situation nor will they be cheap sources of energy.

The contribution already made by solar PV to provide electrical lighting to the rural villages remote from the national grid is very laudable and will need to be expanded. However in terms of the national energy needs their contribution is a minute fraction. It has been pointed out earlier that a major component of the country’s energy demand is for thermal energy for industries and domestic use. It is in this respect that the contribution by sustainable grown fuel wood becomes even more valuable.In reality the current import of 400,000 tons of petroleum products used by industries, just to generate steam or hot air can be replaced by fuel wood immediately. This would require only some 65,000 Ha of fuel wood plantations. No new technology is needed and only minimal changes are needed in the existing equipment and facilities. The cost of such changes can be recovered in a few months by the saving in energy costs.

On the other hand the total potential for electrical power generation using Dendro resources is estimated to be in excess of 4000 MW using available sparsely used lands, if only the country has the will and the courage to develop the necessary energy plantations. There are many investors both local and foreign who will be ready to invest on the power plants if the fuel wood supply is assured.

It has been mentioned that Sri Lanka has no, legal obligation to met any targets under the Kyoto Protocol. But we are well placed to benefit from the Clean Development Mechanism under the protocol by venturing in to the Carbon Trade which has seen spectacular increase in price of carbon credits. The chart below I a very conservative estimate of the annual CDM potential in Sri Lanka.

At current price of about Euro 15.00 per CER this represents an enormous avenue of revenue for Sri Lanka. It will be noted that the largest contributions will come from the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable fuels and form renewable energy generation. As such not only will we be able to get  our energy from indigenous renewable resources and thus avoid the huge drain in foreign exchange, but we stand the chance of earning additional income in foreign exchange as well.

The government has taken some meaningful steps to develop the renewable resources. The newly established Sustainable Energy Authority has a very great challenge in converting the Nation Energy Policy to a reality. They have an even greater responsibility to ensure that the state officials acknowledge the vast potential of renewable resources in Sri Lanka and proactively contribute towards achieving the very conservative targets already set.

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