A Professorial Collective in The Island, 3 March 2022, …… deploying this title “Role of solar energy in overcoming Sri Lanka’s energy crisis”
We are writing this article after watching the Derana TV “Aluth Parlimenthuwa” – “Viduliya Mahajana Peminilla” on 26th January 2022, and after reading a newspaper item where the State Minister of Solar Power, Wind and Hydro Power Generation Projects Development, Duminda Dissanayake has stated in Parliament that the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has not provided the connections for 40MW roof top solar panel systems for almost two years after they were installed on the roofs of homes. It is strange that the Minister has no power to take action against individuals in his own Ministry who block the entry of solar energy to the national grid and provide us with a way to overcome the current power crisis.
Duminda Dissanayake reminded Parliament that the project to supply power through solar panels for low-income earners had already been approved by the Cabinet. He stated that there is a project proposal to install solar panels on the roofs of 100,000 low-income Samurdhi beneficiary families. This is a laudable venture which will benefit both the Samurdhi families as well as the government since a 5 KW solar roof will provide Rs. 12,500 under the net-plus scheme. Out of this, even if the Government pays Rs. 2500 as the samurdhi allowance, Rs. 10,000 is available to pay back the bank loan. After the loan is paid in about seven years, this full amount of Rs. 12,500 is available for the betterment of livelihoods of these poor people. If each low-income household is provided with a five kilowatt solar roof this would amount to a power generation of 500MW, more than the capacity of the Victoria Hydropower Plant (300 MW) or half of the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant (900 MW), and provide more power than any of the diesel thermal power plants. If this 100,000-solar-roof programme can be implemented soon it will have considerable economic benefits since building extra diesel power plants to provide 500MW will cost much more. Furthermore, this solar project can be completed in about two years while building a thermal power plant will take at least five years.
The writers of this article have carried out research on solar energy for over three decades and organised several international conferences on solar energy from the 1990s. We, along with other academics, involved in solar and renewable energies, have had similar experiences to that stated by the Minister during their campaign to promote clean energy applications. From their reluctance to implement solar roof programmes, the CEB appears to love fossil fuels (Coal, Oil and Gas), and apply brakes and obstacles on projects with alternative and indigenous energy sources such as solar, wind and bio-mass. One of the reasons for the CEB to block the incorporation of solar energy may be because of various other personal benefits which these officials get by purchasing extra emergency power from private diesel power plants.
During an energy conference, organised by the writers’ academic network in the early 1990’s in Colombo, a CEB senior staff member presented their energy policy for Sri Lanka as “Coal, Coal & Coal”. We noted that some of the same CEB officials, during the “Aluth Parlimenthuwa” programme, saying that they have given full support to implement the renewable energy programmes in the country! This “double game” is the main reason we are heading towards a major power crisis in the energy and power generation sector in the country; saying positive things in front of the camera to satisfy the public and the government and implementing completely the opposite behind the curtain. It is imperative for the present Government to deal with these few senior individuals in the CEB who continuously obstruct the implementation of the solar energy projects and to demand that they work for the benefit of the Nation and not for personal gain.
Because of the colossal use of fossil fuel, global warming, climate change and other health- related issues have been created, and the whole world is working hard to move away from a carbon-based economy towards a carbon-neutral-economy and finally to a hydrogen-based economy. Sri Lanka is a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement which came into effect in 2015 and one of the key features here is the total incorporation of renewables by 2050. This Government’s manifesto (“Saubhagye dakma”) too had an ambitious goal of achieving a target of 70% from renewables. These policy decisions, at global level, were further enhanced and endorsed by the recent U.N. (COP26) climate summit held in Glasgow in November 2021 where representatives from about 200 countries agreed to shift away from coal and develop renewable energies to generate electricity in their fight against climate change. The summit ended with calls on governments to return next year with tougher pledges to slash greenhouse gas emissions. However, the CEB authorities still live in the past, talking about intermittency of solar and wind energy sources! Even young schoolchildren understand the intermittency of solar and wind, but the CEB staff during the ‘’Aluth Parliamenthuwa’’ were spending so much time explaining these simple matters. The whole world is working to produce hydrogen by ‘’water splitting’’ using solar and wind energy to completely remove this intermittency and decarbonise the world. Some decision-making individuals in the CEB seem to go in the opposite direction. Many countries in Europe where solar energy is more intermittent compared to Sri Lanka, are successfully promoting solar energy as a viable alternative. CEB engineers are always coming out with the excuse that it is not possible to balance the grid to incorporate more than 10% of the total energy but Germany is already using 50% of its energy requirement from renewable energy sources. Maybe the CEB has a fear of going for the latest technology on grid balancing. During a recent lecture at the Institution of Engineers, Prof. J.B. Ekanayake, an expert on power transmission, told the audience which had many senior engineers of the CEB on how this can be done. These engineers meekly listened to this lecture but when they go back to their offices, they continue to stick to their old habit of discouraging solar energy use.
Incorporating renewable energy (RE) to the national grid definitely has certain technical challenges since we are not equipped with ancillary systems to support the grid in a high RE scenario. A strong ancillary system is required for a higher level of penetration by RE and grid balancing is presently done only through hydropower. A comprehensive ADB/UNDP report titled “100% electricity generation through renewable energy by 2050 for Sri Lanka” gives the technical details of procedures that should be adopted to achieve this 70% target.
Another ruse adopted by the CEB is that there is no legal provision in the SRI LANKA ELECTRICITY ACT, No. 20 OF 2009 to include solar energy projects. Solar Industries Association wants this rectified and gazette RE target of 70% by 2030 to give legal cover to fast track dozens of backlogged projects that could add 1.5 gigawatts to the national grid. To our amazement these projects are pending approval for the last four years and the Power and Energy Ministry is not doing anything to clear this backlog through an appropriate mechanism.
To reduce the huge fossil fuel import bill of Sri Lanka, alternative energy sources must be developed and introduced rapidly, and fossil fuel burning should be gradually phased out. In the transport sector, to reduce the burning of petrol and diesel, it is essential to encourage and provide incentives for the use of electric vehicles (EV) and to install charging units powered by solar and wind energy. The President’s suggestion last week to introduce electric buses is a commendable move in this direction. Electric trains, at least in the Colombo suburban areas, is another viable possibility in this direction.
In the UK, it is government policy now, that as of 2030, there will be no newly manufactured/imported sale of vehicles fitted with combustion engines. This does not mean that the UK will stop the availability of petrol/diesel as a fuel for existing vehicles. To gear up to the 2030 target, the UK Government has provided tax incentives to the private sector to introduce EV charging points, as well as a 100% exemption from annual road fund tax for EV’s. Furthermore, a cash grant has also been given to EV owners to fit rapid charge electric outlets in their own homes/garages, etc., so that the EV can be re-charged safely at home based on domestic electricity tariffs.
Similarly, in Sri Lanka, incentives can be offered to allow the import of EV only to impose a reduced vehicle duty and/or a reduction or full exemption from the annual Licence Fee.
In addition to the private sector involvement in adding EV rapid charging outlets, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation/CEYPETCO and/or the SL Sustainable Energy Authority (SLSEA) can install EV rapid charging stations in the existing network of petrol filling stations, car parking areas, etc.
It is a shame that Sri Lanka with an abundance of solar power has to resort to more and more carbon emitters like coal, LNG, diesel and naphtha to supply the power needs of the country. The Government should take a firm stand on the future energy generation plans and provide both legal cover as well as financial incentives to achieve a greener Sri Lanka.
The writers: Professor I. M. Dharmadasa, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, United Kingdom. Dharme@shu.ac.uk, Professor L. Dissanayake, National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Kandy, email@example.com and Professor O. A. Ileperuma, Emeritus Professor, University of Peradeniya,