Friday, March 7, 2008

Oil Mafia - 3

The urgent need for alternate energy sources


Fuel subsidies it is argued discourage the entry of renewables into existing markets

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

With increasing energy consumption the world over calling for policy initiatives to switch from fossil fuel based energy resources to renewables largely to save this planet from threatening carbon emissions, Sri Lanka’s commitment to exploring alternative energy sources remains a low priority.

With some two billion people in the developing states expected to benefit if the world undertakes a serious renewable energy drive, despite standing to benefit, Sri Lanka’s focus is on dealing with an impending power crisis.

At present, there are some 3.3 million grid connected households with the energy demand growing at an annual rate of 8%.

According to Chairman, Central Environmental Authority (CEA), Udaya Gammanpila, "It is about policy, programmes and commitment to improving the ecological status of the world." "Wherever renewables have been successful, the state policy has been supportive," he says.

Situation in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka however does not view renewables as a viable option for base load supply or for efficient supply mechanisms. It is largely the "consciousness" about green energy that makes the island encourage private sector development of alternative energy.

According to energy expert Tilak Siyambalapitiya, renewables could best serve rural consumers through small-scale community based projects.

Though the developed world is making serious commitments to generate 10% of their entire power supply with renewables, detractors argue that fossil fuel resources will be the cheapest source of clean energy for the next century.

The policy so far, according to Power and Energy Minister John Seneviratne, has been a state commitment to clean energy by encouraging private sector investment in Build, Operate and Own (BOO) and Build Operate and Transfer (BOT) clean energy initiatives. "For renewable projects, unsolicited proposals were accepted," he explained.

The renewable thrust goes back to 2002 when some importance was attached to this as a "green conscious" step. In the government’s policy statement on ‘Economic and Social Objectives of the Power Sector Restructuring 2002,’ it was stated that Sri Lanka wished to reduce dependence on imported energy, supported energy diversification and the optimisation of indigenous energy resources such as hydro electricity, biomass, wind, solar etc.

Economical means

"Renewable energy has been now accepted as an economical means of supplying rural areas with electricity. The initial cost of generation and installation of grids in villages may cost, but on the long term, they could produce power at a lower rate," noted energy expert Dr. Tilak Siyambalapitiya.

In Sri Lanka, the most popular source of alternative energy is solar, though it is wind power that is now receiving state patronage in a big way.

A consumer purchasing a solar home system should pay the full cost up front at present but the savings from fuel costs come only later. By contrast, a consumer connected to the grid does not bear the generation or grid installation costs as they are borne by the government or spread over a large number of consumers.

"To popularise, initially, a policy of aggressively supporting renewables is a must. But after about 20 years, it will be the more overall economic solution," adds Siyambalapitiya.

According to the Energy Managers of Sri Lanka (EMSL), fossil fuels for transport are heavily taxed, both at the point of production and heavily at the point of consumption in most countries. "It will only require some adjustments in policies and subsidies to give renewable energy a significant boost," argues Siyambalapitiya.

"In the long run, costs could be brought down and renewable energy would become the natural choice in developing countries, whether on or off grid," he says.

Commercial popularisation

Yet for countries like Sri Lanka, grappling with an impending power crisis and shifting to coal based energy to seek urgent solutions, it is difficult to think green.

According to Minister Seneviratne, the state should create opportunities for renewables. Further, there should be commercial popularisation after the initial introduction, as it happened with the solar PV systems, he says.

However, he believes that despite heavy lobbying, renewable energy technologies have failed to merge as a prominent component of the energy sector here and elsewhere.

"For the developed states, the story is different. They already have the technology and capital. They only need the political will to make a commitment to generate a sizeable amount of energy through renewables which is a policy concern," he says.

Developing states have as yet, made very little investment in the renewable energy sector. By 2020, the world power generation capacity is expected to reach 5915 gigawatts (GW) but it has benefited just one alternative energy source — wind which has become one of the fastest growing energy sources post 1990.

The biggest obstacle in the way of renewable technologies is low fossil fuel prices. Next is the fuel subsidies that discourage the entry of renewables into existing markets. There is also little research and development on alternative energy.

"Creating conducive economic conditions is a must. Renewables can sway markets with government support. In the long run, they can also lead to much lower energy investments compared to fossil fuels," notes Tilak Siyambalapitiya.

According to case studies conducted by the UN, Sri Lankan projects have demonstrated the initial viability of a ‘micro finance model’ in which solar home systems have fared well.

Government assistance lacking

Then again, private establishments like Sarvodaya have championed the cause of solar energy on their own steam. There has been no government assistance in subsidising or popularising the concept.

In 2000, the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) undertook to complete a national survey on the availability of commercial biomass, mini hydro potential and the wind regimes, and popularise the use of renewables such as solar PV systems, micro hydro systems and wind farms. The other undertaking was to popularise solar powered home systems, which is supported by the energy sector for community based off grid generation purposes.

According to Ministry statistics, there are 130 community owned village hydro schemes presently supplying electricity to about 6000 households in rural communities. Approximately, 17000 remote and rural households are supplied with solar PV systems.

At present, the CEB has identified the wind potential in Narakalliya near Puttalam where a 30 MW wind farm is to be set up. Sri Lanka’s total wind potential is assessed to be around 250 MW. A few households are also supplied by off grid wind turbine systems mainly in southern Sri Lanka.

At present, fuel wood based Dendro projects are also supported by the government. Meanwhile, Minister John Seneviratne’s belief is that there should be more emphasis on greater energy efficiency to conserve energy.

Garbage for power generation

While solid waste is an ever-increasing problem in Sri Lanka, the island will soon have its first power generation project based on Colombo’s solid waste.

Ravi Wijeratne, formerly of Burns Environmental Technologies Pvt. Ltd. had formulated a concept to generate 10-15 MW of power from garbage. The daily requirement of solid waste for this purpose is about 1000 tonnes of garbage. Feasibility assessments have been completed for this Indian technology driven project which is currently awaiting the final stamp of approval.

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