The energy situation in Sri Lanka

Dec 2 (IL) An experienced energy consultant has said in public what most industrialists feared in private: A reduction in electricity charges cannot be expected soon as Sri Lanka faces a permanent crisis in relation to power generation and petroleum resources.

Dr. Tilak Siyambalapitiya, delivering a lecture in Colombo last week, said that the average cost of electricity to industry stood at Rs. 8 per kwh now as a result of delays in implementing important proposals such as forming a regulatory commission and launching new power generating projects. Industrialists have complained that local electricity charges were among the highest in the region. High electricity charges stifle the growth of industry and discourage investments which depend on round-the-clock availability of electricity at affordable rates.

Whenever the country faces a prolonged drought, authorities unveil elaborate plans to build more power plants that would address tomorrow's electricity needs. These plans are usually forgotten once the rains start. Then we fall back on the hydropower plants as if nothing had happened. This, we fear, is not the best approach to fill the gaping holes in the power generation network.

Urgent decisions have to be made at the highest level to begin building large-scale power generation plants without delay, if we are to keep pace with the exponential demand for electricity.

For example, the proposed coal power plant, which has been shifted from one location to another on the drawing board, will generate at least 300 MW. Coal is relatively less expensive and global supplies are projected to last for more than 300 years. The Upper Kotmale project, which too has been bogged down in a political-environmental controversy, is also designed to strengthen the national grid substantially. The longer we vacillate on these projects, the dimmer the prospects for a brighter future will be.

Moreover, additional power projects will deliver what industrialists and domestic users yearn for - cheap electricity. In the meantime, the government must continue to grant concessions and incentives to industrialists who install thermal generators, solar panels and mini hydropower plants on their premises. Some of these supply excess electricity to the national grid. Furthermore, the local private sector and foreign investors must be encouraged to be an active partner in building big power projects.

All these measures have one aim - to add more megawatts to the national grid. But little thought is given to how domestic and industrial users could increase energy efficiency and thereby cut costs.

Buildings and factories could be designed in a manner that lets in the maximum amount of natural light. Ornamental lights could be switched off along with fans and airconditioners in unused rooms.

Work shifts should also be arranged to make minimum use of artificial lights. Local bodies too could be more 'power-conscious' i.e, by turning off street lights at dawn without fail. Street lamps that burn all day are one luxury that a developing country can do without.

Large-scale industries, small and medium industries and corporate entities should also explore alternative methods of electricity generation such as solar and wind power. These are renewable, non-polluting sources of energy which are freely available in plenty. The initial costs for the photovoltaic cells may be high, but very little maintenance is required thereafter. A number of buildings already have full 'solar roofs', a trend that may attract more corporates to look to the sun for their energy needs.

If a multi-pronged approach to solving the electricity crisis is not implemented without delay, our industries will be in for even higher charges in the future. Now is the time to act