In December 2015, the 21st Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held in Paris where the landmark Paris Agreement on Climate Change was adopted by all Nations. At this summit meeting, President Maithripala Sirisena addressing the conference said “the impact of climate change threatens our very survival. In Sri Lanka, the adverse impacts are already obvious” and further said “We have embarked on the challenging task of moving away from fossil fuel-based energy, towards renewable energy”.
Realizing the President’s pledge
However, almost three and a half years after the President’s pronouncement, there are no signs of the country moving away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. Sri Lanka has not even developed a firm policy for moving away from fossil fuels to renewables for generating energy as declared by the President, other than certain cabinet decisions taken on an ad-hoc manner. In 2017, an Indian Consultancy Firm, sponsored jointly by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), prepared a report describing the potential for Sri Lanka to phase out fossil fuels totally by 2050 by adopting renewable resources (https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/354591/sri-lanka-power-2050v2.pdf), but this report has not been adopted by the Government of Sri Lanka.
In 2016, the total energy supply in Sri Lanka was 520 PJ and it comprised 42% of petroleum oil, 38% biomass (mostly traditional use), 11% coal, 7% major hydro and 2% non-conventional renewable energy (NCRE) sources such as wind, solar, mini-hydro and dendro power, as shown in Fig. 1. The breakdown of petroleum oil imported is shown in Fig. 2.
The main components are diesel (30%), crude oil (36%), gasoline (20%) and LPG (7%). In the total energy mix of 520 PJ, petroleum oil comprises 220 PJ (42%). In order to achieve the President’s aspiration, it is necessary to look for renewable energy (RE) sources that could replace this amount of petroleum oil and 57 PJ (11%) of coal. The total generation of electricity in 2016 was 14,148 GWh which gives the per capita annual consumption as 603 kWh. This is among the lowest in Asia.
The present energy mix has two major RE components, traditional biomass and major hydro, jointly comprising 45%. There are other renewable energy (ORE) sources which comprise dendro power plants, mini-hydro power plants (<10 MW), solar panel systems and wind energy systems. The present hydropower capacity (> 10 MW) and their average annual generation are given in Table 1.
Table 1. Hydropower capacity and generation potential
|Kelani – Laxapana
|Mahaweli & Kotmale
The CEB is in the process of constructing 3 more major hydro power plants – 120 MW plant at Uma Oya, 35 MW plant at Broadland on Kelani Ganga (the last in the Laxapana cascade) and 30 MW plant at Moragolla (below confluence of Kotmale Oya with Mahaweli Ganga). In addition, there are four other sites that have been identified for development by CEB which are Gin Ganga (20 MW), Thalpitigala (15 MW) and Seethawaka (20 MW). In between 2016 and present, 25 MW of capacity was also added at Moragahakanda. It is the general opinion that once these plants are developed no more large (> 10 MW) hydro power plants are possible.
There is, however, another site which can be developed with minimum cost by converting a run-of-the-river (ROR) project to a plant with storage, which the CEB has not included in its plan. When the Upper Kotmale Project was planned, a small pond (0.8 Mcm) only was built at Talawakelle to minimize environmental impact and presently the plant is operated as a ROR project to generate power only for meeting the peak demand. As a result, water is allowed to flow unutilized for major part of the day. This water could be made use of by building s reservoir below the St. Claire’s waterfall and taking water along a low-pressure tunnel to link up with the existing shaft taking water to the turbines. This will enable the generator to work throughout the day thus increasing the plant factor of the power plant. This plant has a head of 473 m, being among the highest, and it is a crime to allow this water to go unutilized.
Other renewable energy sources
The large number of cascading water streams found in the central highlands has enabled establishing many mini-hydro power plants. However, in most of these sites, there is no regular flow throughout the year, and on environment considerations, these are limited to run-of-the-river (ROR) projects. As of end of 2016, altogether 172 mini-hydro plants with an aggregate capacity of 342 MW were in operation. The capacities of individual power plants were in the range 0.1 MW to 9.9 MW, with about 53 plants having capacities below 1 MW. The GOSL, as a matter of policy, is permitting only plants below 10 MW to be built by the private sector.
The share of capacity of different ORE sources is shown in Fig. 3, and their generation in 2016 is shown in Fig. 4.
The highest is from mini-hydro plants operating as ROR projects. Wind power plants are located mostly in the NW coastal belt and a few in the central hills. In dendro power plants, biomass is first gasified before combustion, while in biomass power plants, biomass is directly subject to combustion. A summary list of utility scale RE systems in operation in 2016 is shown in Tables 2. Their total contribution as a fraction of total generation in 2016 has been 8.22%. These sources were earlier referred to as non-conventional renewable energy (NCRE) sources. In Sri Lanka, a hydropower plant with capacity more than 10 MW is referred to as a large power plant.
Table 2. Summary of utility scale ORE projects in operation in 2016
|Generation in 2016 GWh
|Plant Factor %
|Mini hydro (<10 MW)
|Solar PV systems
|Total from RE systems
|Total from all sources
|Percentage from RE
Source: CEB Sales and Generation Data Book, 2016
Incorporating ORE sources in the LTGE Plan
The long-term generation expansion (LTGE) Plan developed by CEB for the period 2018 -2037 has made provision to add ORE sources at regular intervals as shown in Table 3. The Plan includes addition of annually 5 MW capacity biomass plants, 10-15 MW capacity mini-hydro plants, 54-104 MW capacity solar plants and 25-120 MW capacity wind plants. It should be noted that unlike fossil fuel powered power plants, the generation output from these plants varies with the type of plant and the capacities given in megawatts are not comparable. For example, a biomass plant can generate power throughout the day provided there is an uninterruptible supply of biomass; a mini-hydro plant can produce the rated output only if there is an adequate flow in the waterway as they are mostly ROR plants; a solar plant output depends on the incidence of solar radiation which is present only during the day with clear sky, with an effective period of 5 hours a day; a wind plant operates only if there is wind which is internment depending on the site and season.
Fig. 3 also gives the estimated generation from the planned ORE systems and its share as percentage of total generation. However, with many uncertainties in achieving these targets, their presentation to a decimal fraction has little meaning. The LTGE Plan prepared by CEB is subject to approval by the Public Utilities Commission Sri Lanka (PUCSL), and the approval of the more recent Plan for 2020 – 2039 submitted by CEB is still pending.
Table 3. Planned additions of renewable energy sources in the CEB Plan 2018-37.
|Capacity additions to the national grid in MW
|Annual generation from ORE Sources
|% of total generation
Source: CEB LTGE Plan 2018-37
Integration of ORE sources into the grid poses certain problems with regard to stability of the system. Increasing the penetration of ORE systems into the grid is a topic that has been studied extensively. These studies have found that integrating of variable renewable energy generation into a national system of the order of 20%–35% of energy on the national grid are technically feasible, but certain operational changes and improved transmission access are necessary (https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy12osti/54666.pdf).
There are, however, ways and means of circumventing these problems. One is to use utility scale storage systems such as batteries. Another is to generated direct current (DC) output from solar and wind plants, which could be then used to generate hydrogen through electrolysis of water and use the hydrogen to operate a bank of fuel cells. The output from the fuel cells could be inverted and fed to the grid as and when required depending on the demand. To implement such technologies, CEB has to undertake some research and development activities as mandated in the CEB Act.
ORE projects approved by the Cabinet recently
The Cabinet has been granting approval for ORE projects proposed by the Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy (MP&RE) in order to promote the utilization of ORE systems as shown in Table 4.
Table 4. ORE projects that had received approval of the Cabinet
|Build 60 solar plants of 1 MW each
|Solar Power Park
|Floating Solar Power Energy Plants
|Hybrid Energy Park
|Release of abandoned and uncultivated paddy fields for building solar plants
|Western and Sabaragamuwa
|Invite proposals to build 90 solar plants each of 1 MW capacity
|Contract awarded to build at 63 hospitals, 13 schools and 01 DS Division,
|Contract awarded to build 60 solar plants close to 20 sub-stations
|Contract awarded to build solar plant on Build, Own and Operate basis
|Building Wind energy farm with ADB funding
|Contract to be awarded to build the solar plant on Build, Own and Operate basis
|Invite proposals to build solar plants in Model Village Housing Schemes
|Building 28 Solar Power Projects each with capacity 1 MW by private investors
|5 locations in NCP and EP
The most significant programme for promoting solar power has been the ‘Soorya Bala Sangramaya (SBS)’ launched by the President on 06.09.2016 at a function held at the President’s Official Residence. The objective of the programme is to provide roof-top solar power for one million houses, which is to be implemented with the participation of the Ministry of Power, Energy and Business Development (MPE&BD), Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), the Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority (SLSEA) and other related organizations. Speaking at this occasion, the President said that the new program will not only assist the development of the country but also will help to raise the living standards of the people by fulfilling their daily needs for power.
A power consumer could participate in this programme as a power producer by getting a solar panel installed on his roof top with capacity to match his daily demand. The system will be connected to the service line through a net meter which will record the power received from the grid and power fed to the grid from the solar unit. The consumer will be charged for the power actually consumed less that fed to the grid, under three options of accounting. A consumer having high consumption will benefit from this scheme more than a small consumer. A loan scheme to assist householders wishing to take part in the programme has also been arranged through commercial banks to provide loans amounting from Rs.150,000 up to Rs.350,000, for the purpose of implementing the plan more effectively.
The proposed SBS programme received formal Cabinet approval on 16.08.2016 when it was decided to increase the current renewable energy fraction of about 50% to 70% by the year 2030. In order to achieve this target, it will be necessary to construct wind power plants of capacity about 600 MW and solar energy plants of capacity 200 MW by 2020, 1000 MW by 2025 and 3,000 MW by 2030. However, the additions of ORE systems included in the CEB Plan falls short of these targets. For example, biomass capacity addition is only 5 MW annually in the Plan, while the mini-hydro capacity addition is only 10-15 MW annually. These are far below the actual demand for building these power plants. It appears that the CEB and the MPE&BD are not operating in unison in planning installation of ORE projects, despite the fact that the President has given priority for moving away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.
CEB’s refusal to approve solar projects
In a sudden turn of events, the CEB has announced last month that a decision has been taken to stop entertaining applications for approval of roof-top solar projects, particularly from high-end consumers. According to media reports, CEB has taken this decision to curtail adding solar system to the grid because of the saturation of their transformer capacity in outstations to absorb power generated from solar systems, and that once their distribution system is upgraded this curtailment would be removed. However, there is another version for this course of action; that is the effect the roof-top solar systems have on the cash balance of CEB, because of the loss of revenue from high-end consumers once they opt for solar systems. It is noted that CEB’s revenue mostly comes from this category of consumers and hence the need to safeguard it.
In the meantime, as reported in the media, the Solar Industry Association (SIA) has petitioned to the President, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet of Ministers to instruct the Ministry of Power and Energy and the CEB to immediately revoke these measures and revert to the existing systems at least until the target of generating 1000 MW of roof-top solar is achieved. According to SIA, “During the last four to five years, solar power generation has added nearly 20,000 solar systems with cumulative capacity 250 MW to the system. More than 10,000 people are employed in this industry. Shutting down net plus will result in the reduction in the contribution of solar power to the national grid. This shortage will be filled by power purchased at higher rates. Emergency power can be as high as Rs. 30 kWh, compared to a cost less than Rs. 18 kWh for solar power,” SIA Secretary said.
Removing barriers against shifting to ORE projects
The Cabinet considered at its meeting held on 12.03.2019 that due to the legal and policy differences existing between the CEB and the PUCSL over the development of electricity power stations, decided to amend the Sri Lanka Electricity Act, No.20 of 2009 as amended by the Act, No.31 of 2013, with the objective of overcoming the impediments in procuring the electricity generated by the renewable energy resources and to adopt a more flexible method when electricity is purchased from Non?Conventional Renewable Energy sources equal to or less than 10 MW capacity. However, to date a bill covering the proposed amendments has not been made available to the public.
One of the problems faced in accepting RE projects is the ambiguity in the wording in the Sri Lanka Electricity Act No. 31 of 2013 where reference has been made to several options for granting approval such as certification by the Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority, inclusion in the CEB’s LTGE Plan, Government to Government projects and need to call competitive bids. The interpretation of the Act appears to be dependent on the reader. The result is that officials in the CEB interprets the provisions in the Act in one way while the SIA members interpret them in another way. Hence, the proposed amendment of the Act will hopefully remove these ambiguities and understandable without referring to attorneys.
President’s change of heart
The on-line news magazine Economynext released on 10.06.2019 reported that “President Sirisena announced the cancellation of a 500MW coal plant in Sampur in 2015, which was on the verge of being tendered, causing tens of billions of rupees of losses to the country each year. At a recent meeting with power sector officials and union of power engineers, the President had denied that he banned coal, saying he objected to the coal plant due to some clauses, sources familiar with the matter say”.
However, people who kept track of power sector developments as well as video footages of public meetings where President spoke on this issue will show what President said with regard to stopping the Sampur coal power plant. It is surprising that now he denies objecting to Sampur coal power plant when he was shown on electronic media that he wanted the coal power plant replaced with a gas power plant during meetings with heads of state in India and Japan.
Further, when a public interest organization filed action against Sampur power plant for violating the rights of people by causing environment pollution, and when the court took up the case for hearing, Secretary to the Ministry was reported to have told the court that the government had decided to stop proceeding with the coal plant, and the case was withdrawn. If the bone of contention was only a clause, the logical action would have been to remove or amend the clause and not cancelling the project!
New policy on energy mix for power generation
A Sunday weekly published on 13.05.2018 reported that the Cabinet of Ministers has approved a new Electricity policy envisaging a “firm energy mix” constituting 30% Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) or, indigenous natural gas, and 30% high-efficient coal power and the balance 40% comprising 25% major hydropower and 15% furnace oil together with NCRE sources, based on a proposal submitted by the Minister of P&E and Minister of Special Assignments. The policy calls for the acceptance, in principle, “the necessity of strategically developing all the practically developable energy sources, and exploiting the non-conventional alternative renewable energy sources such as solar power, wind power, biomass, geothermal, wave and solid waste and high efficient coal power technologies, LNG, indigenously available natural gas and nuclear power, in a timely and appropriate manner”.
According to a recent Cabinet paper, it has been stressed that coal power should be there in the energy mix of the country. As environmental conservation is a primary policy objective, it has been proposed to employ clean coal technologies using super critical or ultra-super critical coal plants. Subsequently, the Cabinet meeting held more recently decided to grant approval to build three new coal power plants, each with capacity 300 MW (Island 05.06.2019). Two of these will probably be located at Norochcholai adjoining the existing coal power plant and the third at Foul Point at the southernmost point in Koddiyar Bay. According to the CEB’s LTGE Plan for 2018-37, three of 300 MW coal plants are scheduled to be commissioned in 2023, 2024 and 2025, respectively.
Such a decision to build coal power plants without considering alternative options is against the government’s accepted procurement procedures, according to which competitive bids need to be invited for power plants meeting the published specifications on performance and emissions irrespective of the technology and fuel used. It is well known that coal power plants cause heavy pollution of the environment whether the plant is of supercritical or subcritical type. The recent Auditor’s Report has described that the operations of the Norochcholai coal power plant had been temporarily shut down for a total of 489 days during the period from January 2016 to April 30, 2018, with Phase One closed for 291 days, Phase Two for 94 days and Phase Three for 103 days during the period under audit. Though pollution control equipment may have been installed, it was reported that they were not functioning during most of the period. Even with the new plants, the same could happen. This is despite the fact that Chinese technicians are present at the plant carrying out maintenance work. The question is if the CEB cannot maintain a conventional low efficient coal plant, whether they can maintain a high-efficient more advance type of coal power plant?
Further, installation of coal power plants at Norochcholai and at Foul Point will cause spread of fly ash throughout the North Western, North Central and Eastern provinces. Fly ash will come from Norochcholai during South Western monsoon period and from Foul Point during North Eastern monsoon period. The Cabinet has on a number of occasions has approved decisions to take measures on maintenance of the Norochcholai plant (20.02.2019) and to prevent pollution by building wind barriers (09.01.2018) and disposal of fly ash accumulated (11.09.2018 and 14.11.2017). The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) Report of the Norochcholai plant has shown that the 900 MW plant would cause ambient concentration of Sulphur Dioxide to reach 80% of the level permitted in National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Hence, if additional coal power plants are built at the same location, it will most likely exceed the permitted levels making it hazardous for people to live in exposed areas.
A more logical course of action is to publish specifications on performance such as minimum efficiency, maximum permissible amounts of gases emitted from the stacks, fuel consumption per unit of electricity generated, cost of maintenance and externalities as well as levelized cost of generation. Bids could then be invited for both coal power plants (efficiency will determine the technology) and natural gas fired combined cycle gas turbine plants. Once bids are received, it will be possible to determine which plant offers the most economical generation of power satisfying the specifications, and then take a suitable decision. It is most illogical to prejudge which type of plant is more economical based on plans formulated many years ago with outdated prices. Seeking expert opinion from economists on this highly technical matter is of little relevance.
Promotion of biomass energy
The Cabinet of Ministers at its meeting held on 05.11.2018 has decided to launch a special project called “Biomass Energy 2022” with a view to reduce the consumption of fossil fuel for energy generation by developing 1000 entrepreneurs for growing of biomass energy plantations and processing of agricultural waste as biomass energy through the establishment of 50 biomass energy collection and processing centres across the country. It is noted that currently about 20% of the entire import bill goes for importing fossil fuels for energy generation. The implementation of this project necessitates growing of trees, their harvesting, cutting them into smaller sizes for transporting and preparing for combustion in boilers or gasified for use in thermal power generation.
Various species of trees are being used for energy generation including rubber wood and Gliricidia even now. Sri Lanka already depends on biomass as a source of energy in households and industries amounting to about 12 million tonnes annually with 38% share in total energy supply in 2016. A significant source of biomass is rubber plantations when they are uprooted for replanting which is carried out once in about 25-30 years. To feed the proposed biomass energy centres, it will be necessary to fell trees from either rubber plantations or energy plantations grown for this purpose, have them cut into logs for transporting to the centres. If the use of chain saws is disallowed as announced by the President recently, the launching of Biomass Energy 2020 programme will get directly affected and may not even take off the ground. It is a pity that the President was not properly briefed by his officials on this matter. With the proposed ban on chain saws, it will not be possible to clear a highway promptly when a tree falls across the highway during a storm.
Out of the 12 million tonnes of biomass consumed annually, 8 million is estimated to have been consumed in households for cooking. The thermal efficiency of cooking stoves used in cooking is no more than 10% and as a result, 90% of the energy content in biomass is wasted. If technology is adopted to utilize this wasted energy, much biomass could be saved which could be made use of to replace fossil fuels currently used for generating thermal energy. One technology often practiced is to gasify biomass and use the resulting syngas to fire stoves and internal combustion engines. However, this has its disadvantages as syngas contains carbon monoxide and any leakage could be lethal. Hence, it has to be produced at site without transporting in pipelines.
Another option is to process syngas further to produce a substance which could be used as a replacement for fossil fuels. One option is Dimethyl Ether (DME) which could be used as a substitute for diesel and LPG. It is a gas at normal pressure and temperature and could be liquefied under mild pressure and filled into cylinders for easy transport similar to LPG transport. However, there is a certain loss of energy when converting syngas into DME which could be used as a source of energy for cooking and transport either by itself or blended with LPG or diesel. DME is widely used in Europe and China. The development of the technology for the production of DME from biomass could even be attempted locally which could be then used for the conversion of biomass into DME which will enhance the efficiency of use of biomass for cooking. The necessary biomass could be sourced from dedicated energy plantations grown on district basis island wide to minimize the transport costs. Such a project is compatible with the recent cabinet decision to grow energy plantations and establish 50 biomass centres to promote use of biomass for energy generation.
In order to develop an industry, it is essential for the country to have a firm policy which will attract investors to put money into developing the industry and also give directions to lending institutions enabling them to grant financial assistance to investors. However, in the power sector, though several useful initiatives have been taken by relevant organizations from time to time to develop the industry, the policies have been vacillating. Also, there has been conflicting moves among policy makers, regulatory organizations and implementing organizations which is not a healthy situation. This is evident from the conflicting decisions taken at Cabinet level supported by the line Ministry, long-term plans developed by the CEB, directions given by PUCSL as the regulator, with regard to developing utility scale power generation.
There have been also conflicting policies with regard to introducing renewable energy systems between the Ministry and the CEB resulting in the collapse of the solar industry and failure to meet the targets set forth by the Cabinet. Even in the development of biomass-based power generation, directions given by the President appear to be in conflict with decisions taken by the Cabinet. It is therefore time for all the stakeholder organizations to agree on a course of action that needs to be followed in order to develop the industry to meet the country’s energy requirements at least economic cost and least impact on the environment, bearing in mind that Sri Lanka is close to the bottom of the per-capita energy consumption scale in Asia both in total energy and in electrical energy.