We are all quite aware of the mess in the electricity sector in the country. Both quality and continuity have been compromised and there seems to be little done to rectify the matter. The consumer suffers constantly due to blackouts, breakdowns, price hikes and manipulation, horror service and customer response, insane engineering decisions, all sorts of rumors related to corruption, citizen confusion and trade union thuggery. The pressure is seen not only in macroeconomics but in micro-wallet. These are the normal conditions under which the Sri Lankan citizen lives... in a 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 wellbeing 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 ground work 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 matra 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 no body 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 Sampoor, why was the CEB reluctant to do so despite of 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 are no longer present? Why did they plan only for large hydro among all the renewables in their generation optimization 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 a 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 monopolize 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 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% 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 further added that the growing of such plants was part of the broader national strategy of the government to move swiftly to sustainable development with a parallel exercise in toxin-free agriculture that would overall reduce the food production related energy costs, improve rural economies, stabilize the environment and instantly improve the overall health of the country.
He also pointed out that Sri Lanka can utilize about a million rooftops in the country to generate electricity and that Sri Lanka can significantly tap into the energy potential of its seas (wave energy and ocean thermal conversion) and use such source to cater to thermal comfort related applications in urban centers such as air conditioners.
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 3000MW of pump water storage will manage this issue for the next few years. After that, Asoka justifiably states, “renewable technology will advance with the global push to a level where power variability will no longer be an issue”.
Asoka not only clearly stated that the path to energy security for Sri Lanka is not through coal or LNG or any other fossil fuel but by ensuring the 100% renewables target but was also equally clear that the government was committed to demand side management which, if managed well with the citizens executing their responsibilities could reduce overall energy usage by as much as 40%.
The overarching implication of his talk was that the world was at the end of the era of reductionism driven by fossil fuels, motor transportation, centralization, profit and large businesses and moving sooner rather than later to a holistic development paradigm based on renewable fuel sources, IT / Public & NM transportation, distributed systems, satisfaction and cottage industries. He observed that the CEB was still living in the stone ages with the former paradigm while the present government of Sri Lanka under President Maithripala Sirisena was forward thinking according to the later paradigm and with the political commitment to deliver on the promises made to the people, neither the CEB nor its supporters who were (and still are) bent upon the destruction of Sri Lanka’s environment, the impoverishment of its people and the ruination of its economy.