No big call for renewable energy in today’s political manifestos
Posted on July 29th, 2020

Chandre Dharmawardana

All the political parties have now issued their manifestos. A large part of the government’s foreign exchange budget goes for purchasing fossil fuels for generating electric power, and for feeding the fleet of vehicles, tractors, trains and other internal combustion engines used in Sri Lanka. These total some 8-10 million engines. All this costs some 5 to 6 Billion US dollars, approximating half the total export earnings. The burnt fuels are a major cause of sub-micron particulate dust, heavy-metal deposition and gaseous environmental pollution, leading to increased respiratory diseases, allergies, cancers, etc.

So, any scheme to cut down Sri Lanka’s fossil fuel imports would be a large step forward. Unfortunately, while there is much agitation about things like the Bhuvaneka audience hall, or Karuna’s loose talk, matters most relevant to the nation are ignored. Where is the agitation against fossil fuel?

As the SLPP is the party most likely to win the election, it is worthwhile looking at their Manifesto. Page 58 deals with energy. While the manifesto mentions wind and solar power, its main emphasis continues to be on fossil fuels.

The manifesto states that:

* We will also expedite the exploration of natural gas, identified in the three zones of the geological survey, to ensure that the people of this country would reap the benefits in the next three years.

Those who benefit from natural gas, in the next three years, are those who will collect commissions! This is a project most dangerous to the environment, and least compatible with a future of non-polluting renewable energies. Furthermore, if significant amounts of natural gas, and other fossil fuels were found, global oil cartels will attempt to control the resource. Countries in Latin America, Africa, etc., that possess such resources, have been taken overs since World War I.

The manifesto says:

* The oil refinery, located in Kolonnawa, which is 40 years old, will be modernized, while the oil storage tanks, in Trincomalee, will also be re-constructed and developed so that they can be used for the economic development of the country.

We have already seen how attempts to re-command the oil tanks in Gokanna (Trincomalee) have failed. The proposal to build oil storage in Hambantota is adding NEW infrastructure for fossil fuels, rather than attempting to WIND DOWN their use.

The manifesto says:

* Roof top solar systems will be encouraged so that households and small businesses would have access to low cost energy, which will be done in the course of the next five years. The total cost of such investments would be made available through bank loans with low/concessional interest rates. The government will also introduce a new method to release excess power generation to the national grid in improving solar energy utilization.

* We will remove all impediments and incentivize the private sector and entrepreneurs interested in setting up renewable energy projects i.e. solar and wind, and to this end, the government will provide assistance.

The major impediment to the complete winding down of fossil fuels is the claimed lack of a means of storing solar and wind power. They are generated only when the wind blows, and when the sun shines. The use of ever larger storage batteries is not a solution. It is increasingly expensive, and disposing of used batteries is a problem. It is as bad as turning to coal, oil or LNG as a “solution” to meeting the nation’s power needs. Turning to huge storage batteries is NOT a solution.

Sri Lanka is fortunate in having many reservoirs, of which some 22 (e.g., Gal Oya, Victoria, Moragahakanda, etc.) are equipped with turbines for hydro-electric power generation. They enable a simple inexpensive scheme that can be implemented within a few years. The rooftop solar panels, and wind-power sources, wherever they be, have to be connected to the central electricity grid. When they generate electricity, the power generation by the 22 hydro-electric turbines can be reduced or shut off, saving water in the reservoirs. The saved water can be used later, at times when the sun is not shining, and when the wind has waned. This simple means of saving power adds NO costs, needs no batteries, pumps or storage tanks.

It only requires the use of modern algorithms to synchronize the operation of the hydro-turbines with the distributed output of solar and wind energy.

Even as it is, the operation of turbines is controlled by input-output algorithms. They have evolved from the hand charts originally used for the purpose. These “single-sheet” charts can be made into multi-sheet charts (or layers) which, when coupled together, evolve into what are known as neural-network algorithms. For instance, while some of the layers contain the same information as used today, new layers will have “nodes” that are “trained” to deal with information about power from solar arrays, wind turbines, etc. Data from a few seasons can be used to “train” the neural algorithms for optimal control of the system, so that there is firm power available all the time. I have discussed the principles behind neural network algorithms in section 2.2.5 of my book “A Physicist’s View of Matter and Mind“, (World Scientific, 2014).

The amount of electric power available can be boosted by some 25-30%, even if the sun does not shine, by the simple process of positioning solar panels on floats placed on reservoirs. The 25-30% boost comes from the fact that floating panels cut down the evaporation of reservoir water by wind, and SAVES water day and night. The use of floats cuts down the growth of water weeds and algae. So the environmental impact works out to be very positive. The 25-30% saving is enough to cover even a three to four month drought, and actually increases Sri Lanka’s hydro-electric capacity of some 2000 MW to 2600 MW.

The actual increase is even larger because the floating solar arrays, occupying up to about 60% of the surface area of 22 reservoirs, will also generate electricity during the day time, and this electricity will be saved as head water in the reservoirs themselves. Of course, the introduction of floating solar panels on reservoirs is a gradual process. However, the speed of implementation depends on the motivation of the government, the time needed to move the extremely sluggish bureaucracy of the power administrators in Sri Lanka, and in keeping the fossil-fuel lobby under control.

Another approach to storing power generated from roof-top solar panels or wind turbines is to use the batteries of the motor cars, vans, buses, tractors, trains, etc., owned by the government, businesses, and private individuals. Sri Lanka has some eight million such “engines”. If these were all hybrid vehicles storing an average of 50 kWh, these when integrated by connection of the vehicles to the grid will create a spatially distributed mega-battery of 40 GW capacity. Such a possibility means that the cost of the giant battery is divided among eight million owners and costs very little to the government.

Vehicle-to-grid storage is still a new concept but almost ready to jump off the research lab to industry. It requires dedicated two-way charging devices that communicate with the vehicles using high-level aggregator control systems. However, this technology already exists. Nissan offers a limited vehicle-to-home (V2H) system that lets people use their cars to store energy from roof-top solar panels until nightfall, when power is needed. However, the integration to the grid is a task that the AI-engineers who are in charge of the grid should develop, according to the local needs, by integrating the V2H systems with the grid.

I have only considered the 22 reservoirs usually described as dedicated hydro-electric reservoirs in the above  discussion.  If the reservoirs dedicated to irrigation ( at least 12 more)  are also included in the analysis, the use of floating solar arrays on them can be used to increase the available water as a very robust buffer against drought by cutting the evaporation from them.  The electricity generated from those floating solar panels can also be used to save water in the hydro-electric reservoirs. Hence the estimates given in the previous sections are a modest lower bound to what can be down.

Unfortunately, there is a great reluctance to move away from the well-trodden path of coal and oil that the older power engineers of Sri Lanka learnt during their “E-Fac” days. Most of the hydro-power potential in Sri Lanka has already been harnessed. The politicians and senior managers are lobbied by the well-heeled fossil-fuel merchants who come with so-called “turn-key solutions” to the Nation’s energy problems, but at the price of a long-term commitment to being bled for ever; sapping the nation’s wealth, and also its health and environmental well being. Such long term issues are of no interest to politicians who are assured of a pension after even one term in office, with near absentee attendance in parliament.

Chandre Dharmawardana

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