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Site for tourism,fisheries or coal power plant?


By Dr. Janaka Ratnasiri

I refer to the feature article written by a Concerned Citizen under the caption "Tourism or Fisheries" appearing in The Island of 09.09.2019. The correspondent fears that building a fisheries harbuor at Mawella will destroy the pristine beach which is a tourist attraction not found in many places in the country.

However, a more damaging proposal is the CEB’s plan to build a coal power plant at this site as described in its Long-Term Generation Expansion Plan 2020-2039 (May 2019), accessible via the link:

Page 4-12 of this publication, claimed to be only a draft, describes CEB’s plans as "Mawella Coal Power Development Project: The Mawella site was studied under a pre-feasibility level as a candidate site for coal power development together with the other thermal options in 1988. The study proposed 600MW coal power plants at the site. Further the above-mentioned recent Pre-Feasibility Study for High-Efficient and Eco-Friendly Coal Fired Thermal Power Plant in Sri Lanka has also identified Mawella Site as a suitable candidate site for future coal power development".

As mentioned by CEB itself, it attempted to build the first coal power plant at this site in the late 1980s, during President Premadasa’s tenure, but he disallowed it due to protests from the public and the academic community. The attraction of Mawella site for development of power plants is the sudden drop of the sea bed to a depth more than 20 m close to the shoreline. This facilitates bringing of coal carriers or even LNG carriers close to the shore.

If the government decides to give priority for power development at this site over tourism or fisheries, it is far better to build an LNG power plant rather than a coal power plant there, because of the low environment impact of the former. With an LNG power plant, there will not be even a gramme of ash produced unlike a coal power plant. Even a so-called high-efficient eco-friendly coal power plant of capacity 600 MW will consume about 1.5 million tonnes of coal annually, producing between 0.2 – 0.3 million tonnes of ash depending on the ash content in coal.

Even after eight years of commissioning the country’s first coal power plant at Norochcholai, CEB has not been able to solve the ash problem there, which continues to affect the livelihoods and the health of people living in this area. Even the staff working, in the power plant, have complained of health problems arising due to high air pollution at the site. So, why create another problematic situation at Mawella for which CEB has no solution?

Further, CEB still depends on Chinese technicians to operate and maintain the coal power plant which is a low-technology conventional sub-critical type. If the plan is to build a high-efficient plant, it has to be of super critical type which operates at higher temperature and pressure and demands higher technical skills among the operators. It will be difficult to expect such high skills from CEB technical staff as evident in Norochcholai.

The staff at Norochcholai appear to have not assimilated knowledge to do the operation and maintenance of this low technology plant working with Chinese technicians for such a long time. They will therefore certainly not be able to do so with a high-technology power plant and will have to depend on foreign personnel throughout, enhancing the cost of operation and maintenance. On the other hand, the country runs several combined cycle gas-turbine (CCGT) power plants, the type used with natural gas, operated and maintained by local staff for many years.

CEB talks about energy security by adopting coal power plants, but what is the guarantee that the Chinese will work forever at the plant site. In any case, will dependence on foreign personnel to operate and maintain power plants ensure energy security of the country? What will happen to the energy security if the Chinese suddenly decide to quit the place? Even over-dependence on a single entity such as CEB is dangerous for energy security, as demonstrated by its trade unions when they threatened to switch of the power supply to the country if the President did not accede to their demand of accepting their Plan for adding more coal power plants, which the President was compelled to do going back on his own pledges given to foreign heads of state.

When it comes to costing, a CCGT power plant will cost only half that of a super-critical coal power plant and little expenditure on maintenance compared to very high expenditure on maintenance and also in mitigation of pollution due to ash accumulation, emission of Sulphur dioxide and particulates, which are non-existent in a gas power plant. Hence, these low expenditures associated with a gas power plant will off-set any high expenditure on the fuel. Therefore, a logical selection should be a gas operated plant rather than a coal operated plant at Mawella, in the event the government decides to give priority for power generation at Mawella.

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