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Opinion

Role of solar energy in overcoming Sri Lanka’s energy crisis

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We are writing this article after watching the Derana TV “Aluth Parlimenthuwa” – “Viduliya Mahajana Peminilla” on 26th January 2022, and after reading a newspaper item where the State Minister of Solar Power, Wind and Hydro Power Generation Projects Development, Duminda Dissanayake has stated in Parliament that the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has not provided the connections for 40MW roof top solar panel systems for almost two years after they were installed on the roofs of homes. It is strange that the Minister has no power to take action against individuals in his own Ministry who block the entry of solar energy to the national grid and provide us with a way to overcome the current power crisis.

Duminda Dissanayake reminded Parliament that the project to supply power through solar panels for low-income earners had already been approved by the Cabinet. He stated that there is a project proposal to install solar panels on the roofs of 100,000 low-income Samurdhi beneficiary families. This is a laudable venture which will benefit both the Samurdhi families as well as the government since a 5 KW solar roof will provide Rs. 12,500 under the net-plus scheme. Out of this, even if the Government pays Rs. 2500 as the samurdhi allowance, Rs. 10,000 is available to pay back the bank loan. After the loan is paid in about seven years, this full amount of Rs. 12,500 is available for the betterment of livelihoods of these poor people. If each low-income household is provided with a five kilowatt solar roof this would amount to a power generation of 500MW, more than the capacity of the Victoria Hydropower Plant (300 MW) or half of the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant (900 MW), and provide more power than any of the diesel thermal power plants. If this 100,000-solar-roof programme can be implemented soon it will have considerable economic benefits since building extra diesel power plants to provide 500MW will cost much more. Furthermore, this solar project can be completed in about two years while building a thermal power plant will take at least five years.

The writers of this article have carried out research on solar energy for over three decades and organised several international conferences on solar energy from the 1990s. We, along with other academics, involved in solar and renewable energies, have had similar experiences to that stated by the Minister during their campaign to promote clean energy applications. From their reluctance to implement solar roof programmes, the CEB appears to love fossil fuels (Coal, Oil and Gas), and apply brakes and obstacles on projects with alternative and indigenous energy sources such as solar, wind and bio-mass.  One of the reasons for the CEB to block the incorporation of solar energy may be because of various other personal benefits which these officials get by purchasing extra emergency power from private diesel power plants.

During an energy conference, organised by the writers’ academic network in the early 1990’s in Colombo, a  CEB senior staff member presented their energy policy for Sri Lanka as “Coal, Coal & Coal”. We noted that some of the same CEB officials, during the “Aluth Parlimenthuwa” programme, saying that they have given full support to implement the renewable energy programmes in the country! This “double game” is the main reason we are heading towards a major power crisis in the energy and power generation sector in the country; saying positive things in front of the camera to satisfy the public and the government and implementing completely the opposite behind the curtain. It is imperative for the present Government to deal with these few senior individuals in the CEB who continuously obstruct the implementation of the solar energy projects and to demand that they work for the benefit of the Nation and not for personal gain.

Because of the colossal use of fossil fuel, global warming, climate change and other health- related issues have been created, and the whole world is working hard to move away from a carbon-based economy towards a carbon-neutral-economy and finally to a hydrogen-based economy. Sri Lanka is a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement which came into effect in 2015 and one of the key features here is the total incorporation of renewables by 2050. This Government’s manifesto (“Saubhagye dakma”) too had an ambitious goal of achieving a target of 70% from renewables.  These policy decisions, at global level, were further enhanced and endorsed by the recent U.N. (COP26) climate summit held in Glasgow in November 2021 where representatives from about 200 countries agreed to shift away from coal and develop renewable energies to generate electricity in their fight against climate change. The summit ended with calls on governments to return next year with tougher pledges to slash greenhouse gas emissions. However, the CEB authorities still live in the past, talking about intermittency of solar and wind energy sources!  Even young schoolchildren understand the intermittency of solar and wind, but the CEB staff during the ‘’Aluth Parliamenthuwa’’ were spending so much time explaining these simple matters.  The whole world is working to produce hydrogen by ‘’water splitting’’ using solar and wind energy to completely remove this intermittency and decarbonise the world. Some decision-making individuals in the CEB seem to go in the opposite direction. Many countries in Europe where solar energy is more intermittent compared to Sri Lanka, are successfully promoting solar energy as a viable alternative. CEB engineers are always coming out with the excuse that it is not possible to balance the grid to incorporate more than 10% of the total energy but Germany is already using 50% of its energy requirement from renewable energy sources. Maybe the CEB has a fear of going for the latest technology on grid balancing. During a recent lecture at the Institution of Engineers, Prof. J.B. Ekanayake, an expert on power transmission, told the audience which had many senior engineers of the CEB on how this can be done. These engineers meekly listened to this lecture but when they go back to their offices, they continue to stick to their old habit of discouraging solar energy use.

Incorporating renewable energy (RE) to the national grid definitely has certain technical challenges since we are not equipped with ancillary systems to support the grid in a high RE scenario. A strong ancillary system is required for a higher level of penetration by RE and grid balancing is presently done only through hydropower. A comprehensive ADB/UNDP report titled “100% electricity generation through renewable energy by 2050 for Sri Lanka” gives the technical details of procedures that should be adopted to achieve this 70% target.

Another ruse adopted by the CEB is that there is no legal provision in the SRI LANKA ELECTRICITY ACT, No. 20 OF 2009 to include solar energy projects. Solar Industries Association wants this rectified and gazette RE target of 70% by 2030 to give legal cover to fast track dozens of backlogged projects that could add 1.5 gigawatts to the national grid. To our amazement these projects are pending approval for the last four years and the Power and Energy Ministry is not doing anything to clear this backlog through an appropriate mechanism.

To reduce the huge fossil fuel import bill of Sri Lanka, alternative energy sources must be developed and introduced rapidly, and fossil fuel burning should be gradually phased out. In the transport sector, to reduce the burning of petrol and diesel, it is essential to encourage and provide incentives for the use of electric vehicles (EV) and to install charging units powered by solar and wind energy.  The President’s suggestion last week to introduce electric buses is a commendable move in this direction. Electric trains, at least in the Colombo suburban areas, is another viable possibility in this direction.

In the UK, it is government policy now, that as of 2030, there will be no newly manufactured/imported sale of vehicles fitted with combustion engines.  This does not mean that the UK will stop the availability of petrol/diesel as a fuel for existing vehicles.  To gear up to the 2030 target, the UK Government has provided tax incentives to the private sector to introduce EV charging points, as well as a 100% exemption from annual road fund tax for EV’s.  Furthermore, a cash grant has also been given to EV owners to fit rapid charge electric outlets in their own homes/garages, etc., so that the EV can be re-charged safely at home based on domestic electricity tariffs.

Similarly, in Sri Lanka, incentives can be offered to allow the import of EV only to impose a reduced vehicle duty and/or a reduction or full exemption from the annual Licence Fee.

In addition to the private sector involvement in adding EV rapid charging outlets, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation/CEYPETCO and/or the SL Sustainable Energy Authority (SLSEA) can install EV rapid charging stations in the existing network of petrol filling stations, car parking areas, etc.

It is a shame that Sri Lanka with an abundance of solar power has to resort to more and more carbon emitters like coal, LNG, diesel and naphtha to supply the power needs of the country. The Government should take a firm stand on the future energy generation plans and provide both legal cover as well as financial incentives to achieve a greener Sri Lanka.

The writers:

Professor I. M. Dharmadasa, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, United Kingdom. Dharme@shu.ac.uk, Professor L. Dissanayake, National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Kandy,  makldis@yahoo.com and Professor O. A. Ileperuma, Emeritus Professor, University of Peradeniya,

oliveri@pdn.ac.lk



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Opinion

The lasting curse of Janasathu

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Kataboola tea estate

Let me begin with two anecdotes.

In the 1960s, my father would pull into the local Shell petrol shed and a smiling pump attendant, smartly attired in a uniform (khaki shirt and shorts) would come up to the driver’s side and inquire what was needed. While petrol was being pumped, the attendant would wipe the windscreen and check the engine oil. The toilet was clean. The air pump worked. To my delight, large, colourful road maps were given out, for free. Sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? All this for about Rs. 1 (one) for a gallon of petrol!

The next anecdote. In 1978, I visited Brian Howie, a former classmate, at Kataboola Estate in Nawalapitiya. Brian was an SD – assistant superintendent – and his bungalow was in a remote corner of the estate, so remote that it had its own mini hydroelectric plant. Mrs. B’s government, which had nationalised the estate, had recently fallen and the estate was now under new management.

The bungalow was sparsely furnished, and I noticed that a corner of the living room was blackened. Brian told me that the previous occupant, a former bus conductor turned “SD”, had not known how to use the kitchen stove, so he put some bricks together and had created a lipa in the living room to do his cooking. Meanwhile, every appliance and item of furniture in the bungalow had been stolen by the same man.

Janasathu has a false ring, meaning “owned by the people”. But, as everyone knows, the term instead means a nest of thieves, running up millions in losses at the cost of the people. A place where friends and political supporters are given employment, showered with generous perks, and given a free run to plunder. Government owned corporations, companies, and “other institutions” run into the hundreds, and perhaps a handful make a profit. The rest are leeches, sucking the blood of the nation.

Do we need a corporation/board for salt, ceramics, timber, cashew, lotteries, fisheries, films, ayurvedic drugs, handicrafts? For a publisher of newspapers? They are so swollen with employees that their raison d’être appears to be employment, perks and plunder that I mentioned above.

I recently read that Sri Lankan Airlines, the CTB, the Petroleum Corporation, and the Ceylon Electricity Board are the biggest loss makers. The Godzillas among them appear to be Sri Lankan Airlines, which reportedly lost Rs. 248 billion in the first four months of this year, and the Petroleum Corporation, which lost Rs. 628 billion in the same period. (The Petroleum Corporations is owed billions of rupees by both Sri Lankan Airlines and the Ceylon Electricity Board.) The Ceylon Electricity Board appears to be a mafia, subverting efforts to promote renewable energy, while promoting commission-earning fossil fuels. While the poorest among our population are starving, the crooks that run these organisations continue to deal and steal.

In Hong Kong, where I lived for 20 years, no airline, bank, petroleum company, telephone service, LPG or electricity supplier is owned by the government. The buses belong to the private sector. In Japan, where I live now, in addition to the list from Hong Kong, even the railways and the post offices are privatised and provide a courteous, efficient service. In Japan, the service at petrol stations is reminiscent of Ceylon’s in the 1960s that I described above.

At least in one instance, Mrs. B attempted to correct her folly in nationalising plantations. The de Mel family owned thriving coconut estates in Melsiripura. After nationalisation, the estates declined to such a sorry state that Mrs. B personally invited the de Mels to take them back. Today, the estates are thriving under efficient management.

As a nation, we need to admit that janasathu has failed, and take steps to remedy the situation ASAP.

GEORGE BRAINE

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Opinion

Road to Nandikadal: Twists of Kamal and Ranil actions

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I am re-reading retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne’s book “Road to Nandikadal ” these days. This is his first hand experience of the battle against LTTE, and his journey in the Sri Lankan army from Thirunelveli in 1983 to Nandikadal in 2009, where the final battle took place. Thirteen years have passed since the defeat of the LTTE in 2009 under the political leadership of former president Mahinda Rajapakse and the then secretary of defence Gotabaya Rajapakse. As we all know, Gotabaya became the president of Sri Lanka in 2019, and resigned last July, due to public pressure, and is currently travelling from country to country without a set destination.

In his book, Kamal has written an interesting chapter titled “A final chance for peace” and detailed the peace process followed by the then government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the prime minister. This is Kamal’s narrative about the memorandum of understanding (MOU), brokered by the Norwegian government and signed by the then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in 2002. “According to the MoU, members of the LTTE political wing were allowed to enter government controlled areas to commence their political activities. The first group of such LTTE political wing members entered the government controlled area from Muhamalai, singing and cheering, as if they had won the war. They insulted and jeered at the soldiers manning the checkpoint with impunity whilst the poor soldiers, under strict instructions not to react, helplessly looked on. The Navy, which arrested a group of terrorists, was immediately instructed to release them. Upon release, the terrorists threatened the sailors and lifted their sarongs, baring their genitalia at the stunned sailors, who could do nothing but simply look down in shame. Such developments intensified the apprehension we held of things yet to come and prepared ourselves to face untold humiliation in the name of the Motherland”.

Kamal further writes, “At the time of drafting the MoU, experienced officers like myself, knew it was premature to enter into peace negotiations. On the one hand, LTTE could not be trusted to keep their word, as past experience had taught us bitterly, and on the other hand, negotiations should be ideally undertaken from a position of strength”. He continues, “The government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was very confident of the peace process and strongly believed there would never be a war again. They did not have any confidence in the Army, which spurred this belief and therefore pursued peace at any cost”.

Kamal’s criticism of the Wickremesinghe administration continues: “The step motherly treatment the Army received during this period was terrible. Strict instructions were given to cut costs and the ever obedient army reduced many of our facilities and benefits. The army even stopped the annual issue of face towels to soldiers, given as a benefit for decades. It felt like they wanted us to live like ‘Veddhas’ without a bit of comfort”

Now the same Ranil Wickremesinghe is the President and Commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and Kamal Gunaratne, who was highly critical of the Wickremesinghe administration, is the trusted Defence Secretary of the president. Is it a twist of fate or twist of faith!

LIONEL RAJAPAKSE

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Opinion

Need for best relations with China

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(This letter was sent in before the announcement of the government decision to allow the Chinese survey vessel to dock at Hambantota – Ed.)

I once met Pieter Keuneman sometime after he had lost the Colombo Central at the general election of 1977. We met at the SSC swimming pool, where he had retreated since his favourite haunt at the Otters was under repair. Without the cares of ministerial office and constituency worries he was in a jovial mood, and in the course of a chat in reference to a derogatory remark by one of our leaders about the prime minister of a neighbouring country, he said, “You know, Ananda, we can talk loosely about people in our country, but in international relations care is needed in commenting on other leaders”.

Pieter, the scion of an illustrious Dutch burgher family, the son of Supreme Court judge A. E Keuneman, after winning several prizes at Royal College, went to Cambridge in 1935. There he became a part of the Communist circle, which included the famous spies Anthony Blunt, later keeper of the Queen’s paintings Kim Philby, and Guy Burgess. Eric Hobsbawm, the renowned historian commenting on this circle, wrote of the very handsome Pieter Keuneman from Ceylon who was greatly envied, since he won the affections of the prettiest girl in the university, the Austrian Hedi Stadlen, whom he later married. Representing the Communist Party in parliament from 1947 to 1977, soft-spoken in the manner of an English academic, Pieter belonged to a galaxy of leaders, whose likes we sorely need now.

I was thinking of Pieter’s comments considering the current imbroglio that we have created with China. Our relations with China in the modern era began in 1953, when in the world recession we were unable to sell rubber, and short of foreign exchange to purchase rice for the nation. The Durdley Senanayake government turned to China, with which we had no diplomatic ties. He sent R G Senanayake, the trade minister, to Peking, where he signed the Rice for Rubber Pact, much to the chagrin of the United States, which withdrew economic aid from Ceylon for trading with a Communist nation at the height of the Cold War.

Diplomatic relations with China were established in 1956 by S W R D Bandaranaike, and relations have prospered under different Sri Lankan leaders and governments, without a hint of discord. In fact, in addition to the vast amount of aid given, China has been a source of strength to Sri Lanka during many crises. In 1974, when the rice ration was on the verge of breaking due to lack of supplies, it was China, to which we turned, and who assisted us when they themselves were short of stocks. In the battle against the LTTE, when armaments from other countries dried up, it was China that supported us with arms, armoured vehicles, trucks, ships and aircraft.

It was China and Pakistan that stood by our armed services in this dire crisis. More recently, amidst the furore, created by Western nations about human rights violations, China was at the forefront of nations that defended us. A few weeks ago, it was reported that the UK was ready with documents to present to the UN Security Council to press for war crimes trials against the Sri Lankan military, but the presence of China and Russia with veto powers prevented it from going ahead with its plan.

It is in this context that we have to view the present troubles that have engulfed us.President Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the short period he has been in office, has won the sympathy of people by the speed with which he has brought some degree of normalcy, to what was a fast-disintegrating political environment. On the economic front, his quiet negotiations and decisions are arousing hopes.

A shadow has been cast over these achievements by the refusal to let in the Chinese ship to Hambantota, a decision made on the spur of the moment after first agreeing to allow it entry. The manner in which it was done is a humiliation for China, one administered by a friend. We must remember that these things matter greatly in Asia.

These are matters that can be rectified among friends, if action is taken immediately, recognising that a mistake has been made. The President should send a high-level representative to assure the Chinese leadership that these are aberrations that a small country suffers due to the threats of big powers, to smoothen ruffled feelings, and normalize relations between two old friends. The American-Indian effort to disrupt a 70-year old friendship, will only lead to its further strengthening in the immediate future

ANANDA MEEGAMA

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