Nuclear power: Sri Lanka

can do without it – I

By Dr Janaka Ratnasiri

I write with reference to the news item on "Sri Lanka might go nuclear" which appeared in The Island of 17.11.12. The news item said, "Sri Lanka might have to opt for a Nuclear Power plant to meet the increasing demand for electricity. The government had given the green light for seeking the assistance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in preparing a feasibility report". In my opinion, there is absolutely no justification for Sri Lanka to opt for nuclear power considering the problems and risks involved when better alternatives are available.

Future power demand forecasts

The news item indicates that nuclear power is necessary to meet the increasing demand for electricity. Now, what is this increasing demand? If one looks at the generation and sales figures published by CEB for the period 2001-2010, the average annual growth of demand was only 5%. However, in its Long Term Generation Expansion Plan (LTGEP) for 2011-2025, CEB has made forecasts for future demand assuming an annual growth rate varying between 6.1% and 6.6% and has arrived at a figure of 32,367 GWh for 2030 under base load scenario, along with an estimated capacity forecast of 7,323 MW. Naturally, this forecast will give an over-estimate.

Even previously, forecasts made by CEB have exceeded the actual values by a wide margin. For example, in its generation plan for 1996-2010, CEB has forecasted the demand under base case scenario for 2010 to be 15,044 GWh. However, the actual demand in 2010 has been only 9,268 GWh according to CEB’s Statistical Digest. Thus CEB’s forecasts had been over estimated by 38%. We could therefore safely assume that the future growth will continue at the same rate as in the past decade that is at 5%, which will give the demand for 2030 as 25,300 GWh. The corresponding generation would then be about 30,000 GWh, and the capacity to generate this energy would be about 5,800 MW, rather than 7,323 MW as forecasted by CEB.

Current and committed capacity

Sri Lanka’s current and committed generation capacity is a total of 4,720 MW comprising 1,510 MW of large hydro, 2,354 MW of thermal plants and 856 MW of renewable energy plants. The thermal plants include plants operated by both CEB and independent power producers (IPP) and comprise 535.5 MW of diesel, 598 MW of combined cycle gas turbines, 275 MW of gas turbines and 945 MW of coal plants (CEB). The renewable plants comprise both commissioned and plants for which permits or provisional approval have been granted. According to Sustainable Energy Authority (SEA), the 856 MWs of renewable sources include 470 MW of small hydro, 141 MW of wind turbines, 243.5 MW of biomass- fired plants and 1.4 MW of solar panels. It is expected that all these plants will come into operation soon.

The CEB generation plan for 2011-2025 envisages adding altogether 4,253 MW of capacity under base load scenario by 2025, while retiring 842 MW of existing diesel and gas turbine plants. The proposed additions comprise 3,745 MW of coal plants, 354 MW of hydro plants, 110 MW of gas turbines and 44 MW of diesel plants. So, with the existing 4,720 MW of capacity, the total capacity available by 2025 would be 8,131 MW, which is far in excess of the 5,800 MW estimated earlier for the capacity required to meet the demand in 2030. It may be noted here that the capacity mix for a given scenario is determined on the criterion of least cost option without considering any externalities such as environment and health damage costs.

Potential for renewable sources

In addition, SEA has estimated that by 2020, the contribution from renewable resources will be about 2,210 MW, comprising 600 MW of small hydro, 1,000 MW of wind plants, 360 MW of biomass plants and 250 MW of solar plants. The gross capacity that would be available by 2025 will therefore exceed 10,300 MW of capacity. Even beyond 2020, energy generation could be developed further with indigenous resources. Both the estimates given by SEA for wind (1,000 MW) and biomass (360 MW) capacities to be added by 2020 are gross under-estimates. Provided adequate incentives are granted by the government to investors and infrastructure developed by CEB such as strengthening the grid, the wind energy capacity could be increased several fold without running into any risks as in the case of nuclear plants. Technology is available today to absorb a greater share of wind energy into a grid system.

In the case of biomass too, its capacity could be increased far beyond the estimated 360 MW, utilising the land under coconut and tea cultivations, land without any regular cultivation, abandoned paddy land in the wet zone and home gardens. In coconut and tea land, already gliricidia is grown either as an under-growth or as shady trees. The lopped branches are not made use of at present. According to Census and Statistics Department data on paddy cultivation, since 1975 about 47,000 ha of paddy land have been abandoned in the low country wet zone. These blocks of land could be handed over to potential entrepreneurs willing to undertake growing gliricidia. According to Energy Forum, "National land use statistics indicate the availability of more than 1,700,000 ha of degraded, unproductive, sparse and abandoned lands, mostly in the dry zone. These areas could readily be used for the establishment of gliricidia plantations" (

Divineguma Programme

Under the proposed Divineguma programme, the government envisages setting up of one million home garden based economic units where the poor villagers could engage in agriculture or live stock rearing or some cottage industries. In addition to doing these activities, gliricidia could also be grown, particularly in land not so suitable for agriculture and where water is not readily available. Unlike growing any vegetable crop where the price fluctuates according to the season and drops if there is surplus production, cultivation of gliricidia will give the grower a guaranteed price irrespective of the season.

There is a great potential for eradicating poverty among the villagers if they could grow gliricidia and supply the wood to a power plant to generate electricity. Assuming 1 kg of wood fed to a gasifier could produce 1 kWh of electricity (Energy Forum), and assuming 1 ha of gliricidia produces on an average 30 t of dry fuel wood annually, ( a 120 ha of dedicated gliricidia cultivation could sustain a 500 kW generator, operating at 80% plant factor. If an attractive price is paid for delivered gliricidia – say at least Rs. 5 a kilo rather than Rs. 3.60 a kilo as presently paid, which is inadequate to meet the cost of lopping and transporting to the plant site, the success of the programme could be guaranteed. Compared to the cost of coal or oil, the alternative fuels, this is still cheaper for the plant operator.

Embedded power generation

Concurrently, there should be small electricity generating units in the range 500 kW to 1 MW installed in areas where the harvested wood could be used as fuel. These should be spread out evenly ensuring transport of wood to the plant will cost a minimum. It will not be a problem to set up such plants provided CEB extends its cooperation and the government grants some concession such as releasing land wherever it is available and also give some tax concessions for such investments. Embedded generation of power is considered a better option than central generation in view of the low burden on the transmission grid and reduced losses. If these plants are located within regional industrial estates, the waste heat from the plant could be utilised to generate steam for use by industries, thus improving the overall efficiency of the system.

Assuming that a minimum amount of 1 million ha is available from all the above resources (coconut and tea land, abandoned paddy land, home gardens and sparse forest land) it could generate 30,000 GWh of electricity annually using a generation capacity of 4,280 MW. This is far greater than the capacity of a nuclear plant that might be proposed for installation here. Hence, there is no need to go through the hassle of getting a nuclear plant approved and monitoring it closely, when suitable safe indigenous options are available as alternatives. If the country opts for nuclear power, only the hardware and fuel suppliers overseas and their local agents as well as decision makers will benefit and not the villagers or the general public. Further, it will give a boost to the Divineguma programme and will help in the eradication of poverty in the country.

(Part II will appear tomorrow)

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