Is Sri Lanka Punching Above Its Weight?

By Thameenah Razeek | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 31 2021
Focus Is Sri Lanka Punching Above Its Weight?

By Thameenah Razeek

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ordered that plans be made to meet 70 per cent of the country’s electricity demand through renewable energy sources by 2030.

The President said so chairing a meeting at the Presidential Secretariat to discuss the future plans of the Solar Power, Wind and Hydro Power Generation Projects Development State Ministry. 

“We should harness renewable energy sources as much as possible for our future generations to experience a sustainable development,” President Rajapaksa added.

In light of global environmental demands, a majority of countries have agreed to achieve “net-zero carbon status by 2050.” Sri Lanka has also joined them, with the goal of achieving the ideal state “by 2050,” according to the country’s Energy Policy.

The Ceylon Electricity Board Engineers’ Union (CEBEU) criticised the President’s “aggressive” goal of generating 70 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2030 as “unfeasible,” claiming that the Government will jeopardise the well-being of the poor because a large sum of money is required, which the Treasury lacks.

The Union appealed to the President to reconsider the Government’s power generation plan.

The Union’s President, Engineer Saumya Kumarawadu, stated that the country will need to add massive capacity of intermittent or variable renewable sources such as wind and solar to the systems to reduce its reliance on imported fuel for electricity generation and increase its renewable energy share. A significant amount of money should be spent upfront to update the existing electricity grid in a bid to accept a significant amount of ‘wind’ and ‘solar’ energy.

The country has a Long Term Generation Plan developed by the State-run Ceylon Electricity Board, where cheaper thermal plants have been deployed and expensive stopgap plants are usually installed after each crisis. 

A new long-term generation plan is currently being developed. 

Fears have been expressed that the connection of small renewable plants should be phased, so that system stability is not undermined until investments are made. 

President Rajapaksa had said projects should be approved within 14 days, and if it takes more time it should be considered as having been approved.

Kumarawadu stated that the Government will have to invest billions of dollars in new 220 kV and 400 kV transmission lines, 1,000-1,500 MW of batteries, gas turbines/diesel engines (ramping up and down with variations in solar and wind), ICT (Smart Grid Concepts), and other special equipment for the system to stabilise the frequency and voltage during the initial period.

He said investing billions of dollars in a short period of time (between 2022 and 2026) will be impossible at a time when the country’s foreign reserves are limited.

While acknowledging that nature’s ‘wind’ and ‘solar’ are free and that we can save money by generating electricity with these natural sources, Kumarawadu stated that when an excessive amount of such intermittent sources is connected to the system, exceeding a certain level that is dependent on a country’s network attributes, the overall cost of supplying electricity increases.

“If the Treasury does not bear this high energy cost as a result of excessive variable renewable energy (VRE) penetration, most of our country’s other businesses will suffer. Some of them may relocate to Bangladesh, increasing the country’s unemployment rate,” he said.

High price for outdated technology 

Regarding the next potential issue, he stated that growing technologies in the renewable energy industry, as well as battery storage systems, are rapidly developing, and resulting in increased efficiency and lower costs. Therefore, attempting to develop very significant cumulative RE capacities within a short space of time, such as 3-8 years, will force the country to pay a high price for relatively less-advanced technology.

According to him, this will not provide the country with the best benefits, and thus, the country should take a more balanced, gradual approach to RE development over a longer period of time.

Observing that the country has limited large-scale renewable energy resources/sites that must be carefully managed and optimised, Kumarawadu stated that developing all of these limited sites in a rapid phase with older RE generation technology is not feasible because the sites will be underutilised for the next 20-30 years. He underlined the need for a methodical and steady approach to the development of renewable energy resources/sites.

“If we rush RE integration, we will not be able to maximise these limited resources/sites, and the country will not reap the full benefits of RE sources. Because of the aforementioned factors, as well as other country-specific characteristics, our neighbours India and Bangladesh have set targets such as 40 per cent RE by 2040. Some of Europe’s wealthier Nations, such as Germany, which has extensive network links with neighbouring countries, have already committed to high levels of renewable energy, with wind and solar accounting for a large share (28 per cent),” he said.

Citing these examples, Kumarawadu stated that, with the exception of New Zealand, no other country in the world has set targets in the range of 70 per cent renewable energy generation by 2030. They already have over 80 per cent renewable energy (65 per cent hydro and 15 per cent geothermal), with VRE accounting for only 5 per cent of total. Therefore, their future VRE target is in the 20-30 per cent range, which is achievable. Our economy, on the other hand, is nowhere near that of New Zealand.

Only five countries in the world are not networked, but have more than 50 per cent RE, according to current data.

According to the Union, Sri Lanka is the only developing country without network connections to other countries, despite its goal of generating 70 per cent or more renewable energy by 2030. The Union said if CEB is forced to switch to renewable energy for 70 per cent of its generation by 2030, 950 MW of thermal power plants in the current approved Long Term Generation Expansion Plan (LTGEP) 2018-2037 that were planned will be decommissioned. 

“Land acquisition, Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), and tenders are typically time-consuming operations in a large-scale, low-cost thermal power project. So, if a significant portion of targeted RE development on a scale never seen before in the world does not materialise by 2030, there is no way to return to the original plan in a shorter time frame, resulting in power outages or the purchase of high-cost ‘emergency power’ costing billions of rupees,” he said.

Finally, the CEB will be blamed for failing to meet the Government’s RE generation target in full and for any resulting power shortages, but the true culprits will be let off the hook.

Consistent approach

The CEBEU believes that the Government’s RE generation policy can be realised in the long run through a consistent approach aimed at gradually and carefully increasing the renewable energy share of electricity generation over a reasonable time period, without being hasty, at an affordable level to the country’s economy.

This should be done while ensuring the country’s electricity supply with alternative energy sources until large-scale renewable energy resource zones are ready for investment and the transmission network is strengthened. 

Meanwhile, State Minister of Solar, Wind and Hydro Power Generation Projects Development, Duminda Dissanayake, suggested a tariff committee to anticipate challenges that may develop with solar power projects, as Sri Lanka aims to expand renewable energy use to 70 per cent by 2030. 

Citizens are keeping their eyes peeled about the Government’s moves. The Government is obliged to protect people. 

By Thameenah Razeek | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 31 2021

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