[Echelon column] Sri Lanka Plugging into the Sun, with caution

Column published in Echelon business magazine, November 2016 issue.

Cartoon by Ron Tandberg

Cartoon by Ron Tandberg

Plugging into the Sun, with caution

By Nalaka Gunawardene

 One of my favourite cartoons on energy was drawn by Australian cartoonist Ron Tandberg. It shows two men standing on a bare land and looking intently at the ground. Says one to the other: “There must be a source of energy down there!”

Overhead, meanwhile, the sun looms large and blazes away…

For too long, despite living on a tropical island, most of us have looked everywhere for our energy needs — except skywards. Is that about to change? Is the government’s new solar power drive likely to be a game changer?

Plugging to the sun is not entirely new: Sri Lanka has taken an interest in solar photovoltaic (PV) technology for over 40 years. The earliest PVs – which can turn sunlight into electricity — were installed in the village of Pattiyapola, in the Southern Province, where the United Nations set up a rural energy demonstration centre in 1975.

Those early prototypes had many problems which were fixed within a few years. By the mid-1980s, small, stand-alone solar PV units came on the market. This time, it was private companies that promoted these while the government’s power utility (CEB) was mildly interested.

In the late 1980s, three entrepreneurs – Lalith Gunaratne, Viren Perera and Pradip Jayewardene – pioneered local assembling and marketing of solar PVs. Their company, initially called Power & Sun (Pvt) Ltd, offered simple, easy-to-use solar units for rural homes that were not yet connected to the grid.

Branded as SUNTEC, their basic solar unit could power five light bulbs plus a radio and a (black and white) TV set. The introductory price in 1988 was LKR 7,000 (bulbs and battery cost extra). At the time, two thirds of all households did not have electricity so this generated much interest.

Grassroots Revolution

 Power & Sun not only sold domestic solar units, but also ran rural workshops that trained youth on the basics of solar energy and equipment maintenance. By reaching out to the grassroots through innovative marketing schemes and tech support, the SUNTEC team ushered in a quiet revolution.

They not only provided clean, safe and cheap energy to rural homes but in that process, also raised people’s aspirations. They were no longer beholden to politicians with promises of ‘gamata light’ (electricity for the village), a common but often unfulfilled promise. (Read full Suntec story at: http://tiny.cc/SunTec)

During the 1990s, other companies — and non-profits such as Sarvodaya and SoLanka — entered the domestic solar market. The World Bank came up with a credit mechanism for solar units through SEEDS, the economic arm of Sarvodaya. Thanks to these efforts, over 100,000 homes adopted solar PV within a dozen years.

“The establishment of community-based solar photovoltaic programmes by non-governmental organizations…has developed a novel approach to bridge the gap between this state-of-the-art technology and the remotely located end-users,” wrote Lalith Gunaratne, a pioneer in off-grid domestic solar power, in 1994.

But the early appeal of solar PV diminished as rural electrification intensified. In some areas, families who had taken loans for their solar PVs defaulted repayment after the grid reached them. Sarvodaya, for example, was left with lots of half-paid loans and second hand solar units.

See also:

Solar photovoltaics in Sri Lanka: A short history by Lalith Gunaratne

Sri Lanka solar power history in brief, by SELF

Nonetheless, that first phase of solar energy promotion holds valuable lessons still relevant today. For example, it’s not simply a matter of promoting PV technology but providing a package of training, maintenance support and on-going engagement with solar consumers.

Illustration by Echelon magazine

Illustration by Echelon magazine

Scaling up

While off-grid solar PV can still offer energy solutions to specific, isolated locations, a second solar revolution is urgently needed in cities and towns. It is the higher consuming homes, offices and other buildings that most drive the electricity demand which keeps rising by about 9% each year.

Bulk of the country’s electricity is generated using large scale hydro or thermal power plants (burning either oil or coal). The ratios vary from year to year according to data tracked by the regulator, the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL). In a year of good rainfall, such as 2013, 50% of all electricity was generated using hydro, and another 9.85% through non-conventional renewables (NCR) like mini-hydro, wind, biomass and solar. Less than half came from thermal plants.

But in 2014, the last year for which PUCSL data has been released, hydro’s share dropped to 29.4% and NCR share remained about the same. The balance (over 60%) was generated by CEB’s oil or coal plants, complemented by private power producers burning oil.

The fuel bill weighs heavily on the country’s already overburdened budget. Low petroleum prices since 2014 have helped, but that is not a bankable option in the long term.

“Sri Lanka annually imports 2 MMT of crude oil, 4 MMT of refined petroleum products and 2.25 MMT of coal. This costs approximately 5 billion USD and covers 44% of the energy requirements. It also accounts to 25% of the import expenditure and almost 50% of the total export income,” wrote Chatura Rodrigo, research economist with the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) in August 2015. (Petroleum also supports the transport sector that relies almost totally on this fuel source.)

Burning petroleum and coal also contributes to global warming and causes local air pollution – more reasons for phasing them down.

For all these reasons, scaling up NCR’s share of electricity generation mix is thus receiving more attention. This can happen at both power plant level (e.g. with wind power plants that could tap an estimated 400MW potential in Mannar), and also at household levels.

Decentralised solar power

Encouraging consumers to self-generate part of their electricity from renewables received a boost in 2009 with the introduction in net metering. This allows private individuals or companies to supply their surplus power – usually generated by solar panels — to the national grid, for which they receive ‘credits’ or rebates from the monthly bill. A two-way electricity meter enables this process.

During the past few years, hundreds of households and businesses have vastly reduced their electricity bills through this method. However, this made economic sense only to high end electricity users as the initial investment remained high.

"Soorya Bala Sangramaya" (Battle for Solar Energy) in Sri Lanka - image courtesy Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy

“Soorya Bala Sangramaya” (Battle for Solar Energy) in Sri Lanka – image courtesy Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy

The new solar energy drive, announced in August 2016, intends to change this. Known as “Soorya Bala Sangramaya” (Battle for Solar Energy), it is expected to make at least 20% of electricity consumers to also generate electricity using solar panels – they will be able to sell their excess to the national grid under a guaranteed tariff.

The new scheme will introduce two new concepts, viz:

  • Net Accounting, where a consumer will get paid in money if her solar-generated power is greater than what is consumed from the grid. Tariff is set at LKR 22 per unit (1 kilo Watt hour) for the first 7 years, and at LKR 15.50 thereafter.
  • Net Plus, where there is no link between how much electricity the consumer users from the grid (for which billing will happen), and how much of solar-generated electricity is supplied to the grid (which will be paid in full at the above rates).

The government’s plan is to add 220 MW of clean power from NCR to the country’s energy grid by 2020, which is about 10% of the country’s current daily electricity demand. Another 1,000 MW is to be added by 2025.

The solar PV technology market will be left to multiple private sector suppliers. In a recent TV talk show, deputy minister of power Ajith C Perera said national standards would soon be set for solar panels and associated technology.

Balancing acts

Currently, installing 1 kWh of solar generation capacity costs around LKR 200,000. Investing this much upfront will only make sense for those consuming 200 kWh or more. Under the current, multi-tier tariff system, those consuming up to 30 units of electricity a month pay LKR 7.85 per unit while those above 180 units have to pay LKR 45 per unit.

How much and how fast Soorya Bala Sangramaya can energise the solar PV market remains to be seen. The Ministry of Power is talking to banks to encourage easy credit. PUCSL will need to monitor these trends to ensure consumers’ interests are safeguarded.

Promising as they are, renewables are not a panacea for all energy our needs. Some limitations apply, such as cloudy days that reduce sunshine and dips in wind blowing. Their contribution to the grid needs to be balanced by power from more conventional sources. At least until storage systems get better.

“Renewables have an important role in any developing country energy mix as a part of the national energy supply security strategies,” says Lalith Gunaratne. “Yet, thermal energy technologies like oil, coal and gas will not go away in a hurry. Most of them, unless we have large hydro, will provide base load power from large centralised stations for two or three more decades.”

The energy sector can become a sink for large volumes of public and private funds — unless there is an effective regulatory process.

Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene is active on Twitter as @NalakaG and blogs at http://nalakagunawardene.com.


There’s No Tomorrow: Making fun of today’s oil and energy crisis…

Animation films are hard to make all around. Even with digital technologies, the art and science of making entertaining and informative animations remains a challenge — and that’s why there are few good ones around.

I was thus happy to discover There’s No Tomorrow, a half-hour animated documentary about resource depletion, energy and the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet.

Inspired by the pro-capitalist cartoons of the 1940s, the film is an introduction to the energy dilemmas facing the world today. It is made by Incubate Pictures.

Their intro text says:

“The average American today has available the energy equivalent of 150 slaves, working 24 hours a day. Materials that store this energy for work are called fuels. Some fuels contain more energy than others. This is called energy density.”

“Economic expansion has resulted in increases in atmospheric nitrous oxide and methane, ozone depletion, increases in great floods, damage to ocean ecosystems, including nitrogen runoff, loss of rainforest and woodland, increases in domesticated land, and species extinctions.”

“The global food supply relies heavily on fossil fuels. Before WW1, all agriculture was Organic. Following the invention of fossil fuel derived fertilisers and pesticides there were massive improvements in food production, allowing for increases in human population.The use of artificial fertilisers has fed far more people than would have been possible with organic agriculture alone.”

Wiz Quiz 4: Of Oil Prices and Food Crises…

Oil prices going up, up and up...

The international selling price of unrefined petroleum (commonly referred to as the oil price) has once again gone up to US Dollars 100 per barrel, causing concerns worldwide.

The ‘oil barrel’ is an old measure that has survived from the early days of the petroleum industry that originated in the Pennsylvania oil fields.

In the early 1860s, when oil production began, there was no standard container for oil, so whiskey barrels were used. Although actual barrels are no longer used to transport crude oil — and most petroleum is now moved around in pipelines or oil tankers — the measure is still in use. Since it was standardized in 1872, how many US gallons are in one barrel of oil?

This is one of 15 questions I asked in this week’s Wiz Quiz column in the Daily News, titled Of Oil Prices and Food Crises…

Once again, my co-compiler Vindana Ariyawansa and I offer a ‘mixed bag’ of questions, covering subjects ranging from culture and sports to science and business. These take off from some recent news stories and current concerns. For example, we hear about world oil prices rising (again!), and extreme weather causing food shortage in some parts of the world. When news reports mention oil barrels and talk about Malthusian scenarios, do we know what they really mean?

Read this week’s Wiz Quiz to test your current affairs knowledge!

Mixing oil and water: Media’s challenges in covering human security

Talking to the last drop: All streams flow to Istanbul?

Talking to the last drop: All streams flow to Istanbul?

The 5th World Water Forum opens in Istanbul, Turkey, today. It will be held in the historic city – a bridge between the east and west – from 16 to 22 March 2009.

Held every three years, the World Water Forum is the main water-related event in the world. It seeks to put water firmly on the international agenda with a view to fostering collaboration – not confrontation – in sharing and caring for the world’s finite supplies of the life-giving liquid. The forums bring together officials, researchers, activists and media to a few days in which they can drown in their own cacophony…well, almost.

I haven’t been to one of these mega-events – I almost did in 2003, when it was hosted by Kyoto, Japan. That forum was almost entirely eclipsed – as far as the media coverage was concerned – by the United States deciding to invade Iraq during the same week. This inspired me to write an op ed essay on oil, water and media which was syndicated by Panos Features and widely reproduced at the time in newspapers, magazines and even in a few activist and development publications. But six years later, it’s hard to locate it online, so I’m publishing it here, unedited, exactly as I wrote in that eventful week in mid March 2003:

Oil on water: will the media get this Big Story?

By Nalaka Gunawardene: 20 March 2003

“If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.” Ismail Serageldin, an eminent Egyptian architect and planner, made this remark in 1995 when he was vice president for sustainable development at the World Bank.

Well, we are in that new century now, but old habits die hard. The war in Iraq has been fuelled by oil interests, and – starting at the time it did, on March 20 –effectively sidelined global talks to secure freshwater for all.

Clean water, anyone?

Clean water, anyone?

Even as the United States launched its attack on the country that sits on the world’s second largest oil reserve, the Third World Water Forum was in progress at the Japanese cities of Kyoto, Shiga and Osaka. The event, running from March 16 to 23, is this year’s biggest international conference on a sustainable development issue and involved hundreds of government and civil society representatives trying to resolve one of the major survival issues of our time: equitably sharing the world’s finite freshwater resources for our homes, farms and factories.

The two processes cannot be more different. One aims to use force while the other seeks to foster co-operation among nations to cope with water scarcity. The increasingly isolated United States has abandoned the United Nations process in its single-minded determination to disarm Iraq, a nation it considers a major threat to peace and security. Meanwhile in Kyoto, the nations of the world – including, but not led by, the United States – were discussing an issue that is far more central to humanity’s security. It has the full blessings of the UN, which has designated 2003 the International Year of Freshwater.

Yet the water forum seems hardly newsworthy to the major news organisations that are preoccupied with war. For months, the global television networks were gearing up for Iraq war coverage. The first Gulf War helped globalise CNN, and this time around, there are other international and regional channels competing for the eye balls. Locked in a battle for dominant market share, CNN International and BBC World are trying to outdo each other in covering the conflict exhaustively — and to the exclusion of everything else. In the do-or-die media marketplace, ‘soft issues’ such as water are easily edged over by conflict. As cynical news editors will confirm, if it bleeds, it leads.

The notions of national and global ‘security’ – on which the Iraq war is being waged – are relics of the Cold War that are completely out of sync with today’s global realities. Who says we have entered the 21st century?

In the closing decade of the last century, as the world grappled with one crisis after another – ranging from famine and drought to global warming and HIV/AIDS – the notion of ‘security’ was radically redefined to include ecological and social dimensions. What is now termed ‘human security’ is concerned not so much with weapons as with basic human dignity and survival. As first articulated in the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Report in 1994, human security includes safety from chronic threats such as hunger, disease and repression, as well as protection from sudden and harmful disruptions in the patterns of daily life.

Mahbub ul Haq

Mahbub ul Haq

The rationale for this was brilliantly summed up by the late Mahbub ul Haq, former Finance Minister of Pakistan and architect of the Human Development Index: “If people are sleeping on pavements, ministers have no business shopping for modern jets and howitzers. While children suffocate in windowless classrooms, generals go about in their air-conditioned jeeps. Nations might accumulate all the weaponry they want, but they have no strength when their people starve…”

A world in which four out of every ten people live in areas of water scarcity is not secure. And if urgent action is not taken, this will increase to two thirds of humanity by 2005. Ensuring water quality is as important as basic access: preventable diarrhoeal diseases – including cholera and dysentery — kill more than seven million children every year. That is 6,000 deaths every day.

James P Grant

James P Grant

James Grant, former executive director of UNICEF, once used a powerful metaphor to describe this scandalous situation: it was as if several jumbo jets full of children were crashing everyday – and nobody took any notice.

If the media are obsessed with death and destruction, why aren’t these numbers registering on their radars? Why is it that silent emergencies forever remain ignored or are only superficially covered? Even statistics don’t set the media agenda: for example, according to the UN, twice as many people are still dying from diarrhoeal diseases as from HIV/AIDS in China, India and Indonesia. But the international donors and media assign far more importance to HIV than to clean water.

No other factor can distort reality as oil. Oil comes on top of water both in the physical world, and in the murky world of global politics. Our collective dependence on petroleum immediately ensures the Iraq war a disproportionately high rank in public and media concerns.

It’s not just the United States that is addicted to oil – we all are. Addicts tend to lose sight of the cost of their dependence, as we have. On 24 March 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on in Prince William Sound in Alaska and a fifth of its 1.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the sea, causing massive damage to over 3,800 km of shoreline. Investigations implicated its captain for grossly neglecting duty. Shortly afterwards, Greenpeace ran a major advertising campaign with the headline: “It wasn’t his driving that caused the Alaskan oil spill. It was yours.”

Exxon Valdez: Drunken driving!

Exxon Valdez: Drunken driving!

Greenpeace continued: “It would be easy to blame the Valdez oil spill on one man. Or one company. Or even one industry. Too easy. Because the truth is, the spill was caused by a nation drunk on oil. And a government asleep at the wheel.”

A nation drunk on oil is waging a war that has more to do with oil than anything else. Our news media are behaving just like cheer-leaders.

War is undoubtedly a big story. But so should be water. One in six humans does not have safe drinking water, and one third of humankind lacks adequate sanitation. We may be living on the Blue Planet, but the waters are muddy and life-threatening to billions.

For sure, a bunch of people huddling together in three Japanese cities won’t solve this crisis overnight. But unless knowledge and skills are shared, and a political commitment is secured, safe water for all will forever remain a pipe dream.

Will it take a full-scale war over water in one of the flashpoints around the world for the military-industrial-media complex take sufficient interest in this survival issue? (That might happen sooner than we suspect.)

It’s ironic that the World Water Forum was undermined by the Iraq war breaking out in the very same week. Washington has now poured oil over everybody’s water.

[Nalaka Gunawardene is an award-winning Sri Lankan science writer, journalist and columnist. He heads TVE Asia Pacific, a regional media organisation working on sustainable development issues, and is on the board of Panos South Asia. The views expressed here are his own.]