Sampur coal-power is necessary

Are renewable-energy evangelicals doing themselves a disservice?


Cheap, essential power; but environmental downside also

Mile upon mile of solar panels in north China deserts

by Kumar David

OK let me clarify the title which was chosen for brevity. It need not be at Sampur, it can be elsewhere. It need not be a 500 MW Indian plant and a 1200 MW Japanese plant (the two offers on the table) if better offers to be on-line within ten years can be clinched. If gas can be shown to be as feasible as coal, that too is fine. Written out in longhand what the title is attempting to say is that 1500 to 2000 MW of additional thermal capacity is needed, unavoidably needed, within the next decade. This is not a crusade, campaign or conspiracy against renewable energy which accusers and abusers allege I am spearheading. It is just coming to terms with the unavoidable. If politics is the art of the possible, so is electricity sector expansion planning.

Let me get the abusers and accusers out of the way first. They are paltry, but it is a Lankan trait that we do not discuss topics but abuse and insult persons; or we go off the track damning people but unable to explore ideas. I do not refer to myself as I am not the worst sinned against; that honour on Lankan websites goes to Dr Dayan Jayatilleke. Politically, I have zero to do with DJ, but I spurn specious spats and despise cowardly anonymous commentators who indulge in ad hominem insults.

What prompted the previous paragraph? I had a piece on the electricity sector recently which I concluded with the aside that a thermal plant as outlined in my opening paragraph was needed. It was greeted on the web with personal abuse and phony tirades (there were productive contributions as well). One donkey accused me of being an LTTer and a Tamil racist; even if true what has that to do with electric power? I was challenged to produce my CV and prove I had a single refereed journal paper on any aspect of renewable energy. I do, and have conducted a graduate course on the topic at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) in Sweden; but that is beside the point. The point is that the asinine focus is on a person one dislikes, not on the topic. A few of my former students – displaying the heroism of anonymity (look I don’t grade your coursework any longer) - lamented that their former lecturer had decayed into a senile fuddy-duddy. OK, but still you must discuss the substantive topic at hand. A few did and they are the ones who shunned anonymity. OK subject closed.

Case for renewable energy

Climate change, environmental concerns and in consequence or for other reasons, vigorous pursuit of electricity generation from renewable and non-polluting sources is our moral obligation to our children - in my case grandchildren. That’s a categorical imperative and needs no repetition; case closed again. As always however the devil is in the details; in what steps (time-frame) and in what ways (technologies) to do it, and what intermediate measures to take in the interim. Every Sri Lankan green-energy evangelical I have come across flops on this score; well ok, there are exceptions, but the more your passion – god bless your sainted soul - the more likely it is you overreach. I will return to a challenge that I have thrown at renewable-energy evangelicals, but a little about technology first.

There are three credible technologies for large-scale green electricity generation in Lanka – solar, biomass and wind. Solar is promising; the technology is advancing and location problems are the least. Biomass and wood burning (including ‘dendro’ plantations) are small scale, a few kW at a place, and even with the best effort will not exceed a few tens-of-thousands of units. A total of 100 GWh per year will be a marvel. (GWh, giga-watt hour, is one million of those things we call ‘units’ when the meter-reader comes calling; the technical name is kWh, kilo-watt hour).

There are very few outstanding onshore sites for wind generation in Lanka; offshore is expensive and the sites are no good. I have not examined the latest wind-power potential maps but I would hazard the guess that 100 GWh per annum within a decade would be a very generous estimate. OK, be more lavish, call me mean, multiply biomass and wind by an order of magnitude and declare all can be done by Superman within ten years. Still compared to the output of a 1700 MW thermal plant at 80% load factor (12,000 GWh) it is peanuts.

That brings me to solar, the most credible option. My attention was caught by a report in the Economist, 16 April 2016 of a proposed 160 MW solar park on a 5 sq km site at Ma’an, Jordan. The site is one of the best in the world with 330 sunny days a year. Still the sun does not shine by night (not even in Jordan) and by day it is directly overhead for only a few hours. We have to estimate the equivalent-time when the plant will generate a full 160 MW. I propose 30 to 40% equivalent-full-power-duration. How much energy is this? Trust me; it is 420 to 560 GWh per annum. Since this is on a five sq km site it works out at 84 to 112 GWh per sq km per year for this top-class site.

A ball-park number, if actual studies are unavailable, is that 1MW of installed solar capacity at a really good site gives 1.5 to 2.5 GWh a year; less than 1.2, junk the project! The MW capacity per unit area should, as a rule of thumb, be the same at all sites since one wants to extract full power at ‘cloudless high noon’, even if that duration be short. Design power determines plant acreage and it is reasonable to think of 35 MW or thereabouts of solar installed capacity per sq km. Levelized cost of modern, already operating, solar in the best desert locations is about Rs 12 per kWh.

Anil Cabraal has sent me a spread-sheet where he estimates that 12,000 GWh of solar powered electricity can be obtained per year from hypothetical 110 sq km of good sites in Lanka. This is 109 GWh per sq km per year and near the top of my Jordanian estimate. He is optimistic (where in Lanka can you get 330 cloud free days?) but let that pass; technology is on his youthful side in that solar panel efficiency is rising year by year. For convenience – an important consideration at my age when the multiplication table gives me goose pimples – let us optimistically compromise on a future 100 GWh per sq km per year. Then to get the 12,000 GWh - equivalent to the proposed Sampur thermal plant - we need 120 sq km of prime land, all plant commissioned, technical complexities sorted out, and electricity squirting into the grid by say 2025. Is this reasonable? If you were the CEB would you stick your neck out for this option? Manic speed-merchants (I do not include Cabraal) do not stick out their own necks; no, smartasses stick out other people’s necks – "those who should do it", the CEB, the government, etc. QED, another chapter closed.

Minister Champika Ranawaka’s


Let me digress for a moment. What amazes me is not that the Minister previously in charge of the CEB for five years makes statements that would make the public think the place is a nest of rogues and vermin, especially the engineers. No, what astounds me is that the present minister Ranjit Siyambalapitiya is taking it lying down; and not a squeal from the CEB, its Chairman, Board of Directors and A/D/X/Y GMs the place is crawling with; nor a whimper from the usually loud trade unions. (The unions may have made a grovelling statement but have been careful to ensure it gets minimum publicity). If a senior Cabinet Minister calls your corporation a nest of thieves what is the Corporate and Managerial top doing about it? Isn’t silence acceptance of complicity? What is Siyambalapitiya doing? Does he agree with his Cabinet colleague; if so what action to root out ‘massive corruption’ is he taking?

Does he reject it; then why does he not call a press conference and tell his buddy to shut up and stop talking through his lower orifice? And finally, what are President and PM doing? If they concur they should send in the riot squad to clean up the CEB; if they dissent, collective responsibility dictates that they rid the Cabinet of a reckless stirrer.

Ranawaka was minister in charge of the CEB for many years. Did crooked engineers sprout out of thin air the moment he left? What did he do when he was there to root out venality? I am not in the political know of what political game he is up to since I don’t hob-knob in high circles, but I repeat, it is not Ranawaka’s ranting, it is the cowardice of the other parties who I named that has got me shaking my head. Speak up, otherwise bend your heads in shame and don’t tell anyone that you graduated from Peradeniya EFac, or for that matter Moratuwa.

My challenge to the evangelicals

There is a challenge that I have thrown but has thus far found no takers. The purpose is not to put down anybody but to force manic renewable-energy evangelicals to be serious on the time-frame issue. The CEB will need about 20,000 GWh (20 TWh or terra-watt hours) in 2020 or thereabouts; 50 percent of this is10 TWh and a quarter five TWh. I ask evangelicals who declaim that all, half or a quarter of Lanka’s electricity needs "can easily" be met from renewables within a decade to cough up concrete proposals. Halt your clamour lovely ladies and kind gentlemen and get out your data bases and laptops.

I am asking you for a list of projects, concrete proposals, specific and concrete, that the worthies claim can generate five, 10 or 20 TWh (depending on how manic your optimism) within a decade. No finessing data or evangelical exuberance; let’s have specifics, including:-

Location of projects: Not vacuous "in Hambantota, around Jaffna, floating on Minneriya Tank".

Technology details: E.g. wind 10x100 kW turbines; solar project outline, etc. Land needed; proof that land is available, or people to be displaced and forest cover to be felled. Proper engineering estimates of annual energy production of each project. Proper and convincing explanation projects can be completed within a decade. Reasonable proof they can be linked into the grid and integration issues solved; estimates of capital costs and comparison with Sampur. Energy costs per GWh and comparison with Sampur.

If evangelicals can’t make concrete proposals adding up to five, 10 or 20 TWh to be done within 10 years, they should descend from Mount Sinai and join us mundane folk to work on realistic ways to increase renewable content over time. Realistic 5% solar penetration by about 2025 means about 40 MW distributed in about 10 sq km of sites. In the meantime Sampur is a necessity. And what after the best renewable sites are used up (as already with hydro)? Our visionaries would do well to mull over the longer term as well.


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