Dr Tilak Siyambalapitiya, in The Island, 8 December 2020, where the title reads “Wind power in Mannar,now a reality”
On a windy day, way back in 2002, an engineer from the CEB, approached the Mannar island, searching for a location to set up a wind measuring system. Those were difficult times, with the ceasefire taking hold, but a flareup between the two warring sides was imminent. He precariously crossed the makeshift bridge, on the Mannar causeway, previously blown-up in the war. Moving toward Thalaimannar, the road was deserted and full of potholes, the result of years of neglect during the war. With calculations and estimates in hand, he knew Mannar would be a superior location for wind power, compared to Hambantota, where a pilot wind power plant had been fixed three years back, in 1999.
till looking for a location to fix the measuring instrument, taking a left turn after Pesalai and now walking along a narrow, tarred road covered with sand dunes, the engineer reached the Navy detachment in Nadukkuda, on the western sea front of the Mannar island. Navy officials readily agreed to “take good care” of the measuring instrument, standing 40 meters tall, fixed in close proximity to the camp. Thus, began the wind measuring “campaign”, in wind industry terminology, to collect wind data in Mannar.
Well, before many of the present-day promoters and guardians of renewable energy ever dared to venture, wind measurements were being collected and analysed. “Wind power is too expensive”; “there is no wind in Sri Lanka but only doldrums or trade winds”; “this will be an utter failure”, said the wind sceptics. “Wind power can provide all electricity requirements of Sri Lanka”, “pay us 3 UScts per unit and we will build wind power plants and supply electricity”, said the over-enthusiastic lot, who had no data in hand.
This week will mark the soft opening of the Mannar wind development zone, Sri Lanka’s first world class wind park. The ongoing work, when completed, will deliver 100 megawatt of electricity when the wind flow is good, and zero megawatt when the wind flow is below its start-up speed. The road to Mannar wind power generation was indeed, literally, a road full of potholes and obstacles.
The conflict flared up again in 2005, and Mannar being hardly accessible, went out of focus, and wind development focused on Puttalam-Kalpitiya, perhaps a consolation price, for any wind power enthusiast. Although not as good as Mannar, Puttalam wind zone was available for development, soon after the government streamlined the approval process: the newly-formed Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority (SLSEA) managing the approval process and a technology-specific cost-reflective feed-in tariff, paid by CEB for electricity produced by private investors using wind energy. The proliferation of wind turbines observed in Puttalam and on the way to Kalpitiya, is a result of the policy, streamlined in 2007.
The first wind power plant in Puttalam commenced producing electricity in 2010. Sceptics were never in short-supply. Similar power plants in Tamil Nadu were producing less electricity; how come? Wind turbine blades will get detached and fly all over; birds will hit the turbines and get killed. Opinion makers were many, but the government stood firm in the resolve that renewable energy development has to be facilitated, but the road to a renewable energy future will be slow but steady. Within weeks of the first power plant in Puttalam showing good performance, the sceptics turned enthusiasts, were now falling over each other, to make investments on wind power plants. The price formula was breached, and the price paid for electricity produced from private wind power plants hit the roof: Rs 25 per unit. The investor “queue” was breached, and the price formula was manipulated, and in 2012, the government said: “no more at this price”. No new wind power plants were allowed from 2013. The inability of Sri Lankan investors and their hidden representatives in state institutions, some in Parliament, too, to build and enjoy guaranteed profits from wind power, was lost for several years.
Sri Lanka currently has 16 wind power plants in operation, all by the private sector. Data published for 2018 for 15 of them (the 16th commenced operations recently) show that they produced 325 million units of electricity, at prices ranging between Rs 13.05 and 25.80 per unit, working out to an average of Rs 20.40 per unit. That is only the production cost. Since wind is seasonal, there have to be other power plants standing by, to come-up when wind does not blow. Such standby capacity cost was Rs 3.09. Transmission and distribution expenses were Rs 4.36 per unit, said the Public Utilities Commission (PUC), in its approvals.
Although electricity costing is not that simple, an approximate cost of producing and delivering a unit of electricity from existing wind power plants in 2018 was Rs 20.40+3.09+4.36 * 27.85 per unit. The average selling price of electricity to customers was Rs 16.70 per unit, fixed by the same PUC.
Buy at 27.85 and sell at 16.70. Such a business cannot survive. The promotional prices offered had to come to an end, and the end was reached through two initiatives: competitive bidding for wind power from private sector, starting 2015, and the CEB building its own wind power plant in Mannar. These two actions established new benchmarks for sizing and pricing of electricity produced from wind power plants. The government or the CEB has never defaulted on commitments already made; therefore, even if wind equipment prices have decreased and financing is cheaper than in 2010, agreements signed at difficult times, at higher prices, are being fully honoured.
With the conclusion of the war, focus shifted again to Mannar, and a new wind measurement “campaign” commenced in 2012, re-confirming the good potential to produce electricity. The potential for wind power generation in the Mannar District alone was assessed to be 375 megawatt, with minimal disturbance to other social and economic activities. With a master plan complete by 2015, the next step was to proceed to establish building and other land-use regulations, to facilitate harnessing the full potential. However, all that was not to be, and ended up only with a 100 megawatt power plant. Whether the balance 275 megawatt will ever be built, is a question that has no answers, at least for now.
So, at what price does wind power come from Mannar? According to published information, the power plant cost USD 130 million, and produce a conservative estimate of 345 million units per year. The power transmission line from Mannar to the wind power plant cost USD 26 million. Including a modest maintenance budget, the production cost would be Rs 10.03 per unit of electricity produced. This price is half the price of production from the existing fleet of wind power plants, which are smaller, located in not-so-good wind zones, and built at times when investment risks were higher.
So, using the same assessment, wind power can be delivered to your doorstep at a price of Rs 10.00+3.09+4.36 * Rs 17.48 per unit, still more than the present selling price of Rs 16.70. The backup for wind power has to come from thermal power plants, and a future pumped storage power plant, and when they become cheaper, perhaps from batteries.
Many who significantly contributed to making the technological feat a reality must be happy, especially the landowners who parted with their plots, to facilitate this nationally important project. Their names will not be etched on the plaque—surely there will be those of many others, on the Mannar coastline, glorifying politicians.
So, what about the engineer who went on foot in 2002 to locate the first wind measuring equipment at Nadukkda in Mannar? Surely, he is happy, silently, and anonymously, and will be seen but not heard in Nadkkuda when the power plant commences producing electricity this week.
The wind power plant in Mannar begins producing electricity this week