Raising Sri Lanka’s firm energy capacity rapidly and cheaply by 20-30% without coal, LNG, solar or wind or biomass!
Posted on February 4th, 2020

By Prof. Chandre Dharmawardana

Mr. G. A. D Sirimal (GADS)   has lobbied consistently for  a  continuation of the  traditional and well-tested energy plans of earlier decades  in his writings  to the Island newspaper, and calling for the further expansion of coal-burning power plants, even though  the Norochchollai power plant is limping between shut downs and choking in its own spit. In an Island  article (1st February) GADS elatedly clutches  at straws and refers to  Dr. Kamal Wickremasinghe (KM) who  using very qualified arguments on environmental aspects”, is said to have argued  for coal.  I had missed this article (29 January, Island), but  returned to it after reading GADS, only to be very disappointed.   

KW ‘s key thesis is simple and patently false. He says:

The decision to expand the Norochcholai facility is a rational and safe decision because the hysterical demands against it, …  are based on … unscientific theory of global warming and …. The … policy prescriptions of the elites .. ignore increased energy …  for economic development of the poor”.

So,  it is alleged that the opposition to coal is based on the unscientific theory of global warming?  KS, a  retired  Australia administrator is in full resonance with his prime minister! However, the case against coal  (e.g., presented in my articles in the Island newspaper)  is  based purely on economics.  Coal is more costly, and takes longer to set up than the available options discussed below. The negative effects of green-house gases from coal plants, or the danger  to  human health, are unnecessary in deciding to reject coal.  

Electricity from coal, oil or gas requires much infrastructure and  long term import contracts  signed at today’s prices. Such projects are also loved by politicians and their business friends because they are a great source of fat commissions. So it is an irony of history  that  the place name Norochchollai”  is derived from the old sinhala name – Horagolla”. It was surely the manipulations of the hora” politicians in and out of power that led to the sordid saga of coal power contracts that were canceled and re-issued to fit other pockets, and not due to hysterical” environmentalists.

KW and GADS should ask how much does a  100 MW coal plant cost?, how long does it take to set it up, and what are its annual operational costs, even without including the collateral costs of  ill-health within its wind zone and costs of getting rid of flue ash and pollution?  Then KW and GADS should ask, what are the alternatives  available to produce power  more cheaply, more safely, and with shorter installation times. The writings of GADS and KS show that in their view, there is no other alternative.

In fact there is an alternative, especially in the context of Sri Lanka.

Unlike most countries, Sri Lanka has an abundance of water and many   reservoirs coupled to electric turbines.   There are in fact some 33 major  hydro-electric plants and numerous mini-hydroplants; the latter can be ignored  in this discussion, except to say that mini-hydro plants can be extremely damaging to the environment per KW of energy generated. The major hydro plants produce almost 50%  of Sri Lanka’s power capacity. During the peak rain season, when the reservoirs are full, they can supply up to 70% of Sri Lanka’s needs. However, on the average, the reservoirs are full up to about 40%, and deliver only about 20% of the power needs of the country.

There are two very simple and inexpensive means of raising the hydro-capacity of the reservoirs without having to build any new reservoirs, or resorting to any advanced technologies.  The first of these is to prevent the evaporation of water from reservoirs. The evaporation loss occurs day and night (due to wind) and depends on the water surface area and reservoir heat capacity (use Penman’s equation). If the reservoir surface is covered to prevent evaporation, the saved water may be as much as 50%  according to some Australian studies. In Sri Lanka, one may estimate that on the average we can easily and cheaply  increase the hydro-electricity power output by 25-30% simply by covering the more wind-swept surface areas of the  33 major reservoirs. A further increase of up to 10 % is possible by carrying out scheduled de-silting of the major reservoirs that are actually in neglect!

So we already have enough FIRM POWER to meet even the peak demand by raising the hydro-power capacity by some 20-30%.. If GDAS and KW disagree, they can do their own calculation and make more conservative estimates and admit that we can indeed  increase capacity by 20% by wind-shielding and de-silting.

Adding in solar energy sources.
So far we have not called for solar energy, wind or biomass energy. We have only considered the exploitation of existing hydropower facilities in an efficient manner.

Let us just consider how to efficiently include solar energy.

Instead of covering the water surface with mere wind-shielding floats, we can cover the surface with  floating arrays of solar panels. Then the floats not only save water by wind shielding, but also generate electricity during the day. If that electricity had not been produced, a certain  amount of water would have been sent down into the turbine to generate that electricity. So, instead of sending that water down, SAVE the water and use the solar electricity during the day. This is equivalent to having stored  the solar electricity as head water in the reservoir to be used later – without using any storage batteries!

The solar arrays cut sunlight and reduce the growth of algae and prevent the growth of aquatic weeds like water hyacinth (Japan Jabara”) that asphyxiate the water. The net environmental impact  of  floating solar arrays turns out to be  beneficial!

How much solar electricity can we get from solar arrays? Ten  sq. meters of common solar panel can produce about 1KW of power. But the solar conversion efficiency is increasing daily, and  the cost of panels (now at Rs 50 per Watt) is dropping rapidly, unlike in June 2009 when I proposed floating solar panels to officials in a talk at the residential secretariat. However, most trained professionals  resist thinking  outside  their work manual, and we have writers like Kamal Wickremasinghe who use  a rogue form of Marxism to support the most reactionary of energy policies. The same Kamal W who is now supporting coal based power  came out against the use of glyphosate, championing environmental causes”,  even though not even significant parts per billion of  free glyphosate has been detected in Sri Lanka’s paddy fields.

KM and  GADS  believe that coal is the cheapest means of producing the needed amount of firm power for Sri Lanka. This is barely true for stereotyped   turn-key”  dirty-coal plants  from many  engineering companies. The proposed clean-coal” plants are very expensive and NOT turn-key. Even the standard coal plants  take 8  to 10 years to be operational. Constant deliveries of coal are needed.  Maintenance is costly and the deterioration of the plant is high. Insurance costs as well as waste flue ash begin to pile up high. The poor people within 50km of the plant begin to get asthma and lung diseases. Their incapacity for work, absentee rate etc.,  begin to increase dramatically. The flora and fauna in the affected area   become stilted and diseased.

All this has nothing to do with global warming, but are a direct result of  acid fumes, sub-micron particulate dust etc.  generated from burning coal. KS  pins hope on pie-in-the sky clean-coal. It is most likely that the  people affected by future coal plants  will be  the poor that KW attempts to champion, while those who collected the commissions, or  the tradition-bound engineers and  risk-averse businessmen will have their air-conditioned houses to live in.  

[A slightly different version of this article appeared in the Island, 4-Feb-2020.]

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