Featured image courtesy Ceylon News

It has been five months since the Sampur Coal power project has been terminated. Those who protested against the project celebrated their victory. Now the matter has been forgotten, and there is little to no analysis on whether or not the true objectives behind the decision to terminate the project have materialised. Nor have there been subsequent attempts to provide a glimpse into the economic and environmental impact of this decision.

Why was the Sampur project terminated?

The Sampur project officially came to an end on Sept 13th 2016, when the Attorney General’s Department informed the Supreme Court that the power plant would not be constructed. The decision was based on environmental grounds, even though the Sampur Project had received environmental clearance from the Central Environmental Authority on February 2nd, 2016.

It is unclear on what basis the project was terminated, given that the project had received the necessary environmental impact clearances, following assessments.

A case was filed at the Supreme Court by EFL, objecting to the use of coal as an energy source as a whole, on the basis that there were cleaner, renewable alternatives which could have been used for the project instead. EFL challenged the environmental clearances Sampur had received, and specifically requested for the termination of the Sampur project. 

The main stated objective of EFL and other protesting environmentalists was to promote renewable energy  a in place of coal in Sri Lanka. Let us dig deeper and see whether this objective has been met.

The reality 

The government did not pursue renewable energy sources as the next immediate option, despite the expectations of the public and environmentalists. Instead, on September 14, 2016 (the day after the Sampur coal project had been cancelled) the government called for tenders for a 300MW diesel power plant, calling it a liquid natural gas (LNG) plant in name alone so that the project could proceed without any protests by environmentalists.

 This project is not the first of its kind in Sri Lanka – the Yugadhanavi Power plant (known as Kerawalapitiya) is also a LNG power plant, which has been operating with diesel for the last nine years.

In the absence of the planned 500MW coal power plant, the Public Utilities Commission directed CEB to fill the gap with diesel thermal power plants, while stating specific plant capacities and making recommendations to encourage roof top solar generation (Soorya Bala Sangramaya) and to promote self generation. The Commission also recommended utilising other existing diesel power plants, operating at maximum capacity.

In the absence of an updated national energy policy (with the old policy being gazetted as long as 7 years ago), the political leadership of the country is making policy decisions on isolated power projects such as floating solar plants. Decisions about energy policy and by extension the environment of a country have to be taken with a long term view – considering a time period of a few decades. Instead, the opposite is occurring. 

The cost to the economy

Replacing coal power with diesel places a huge burden on the Sri Lankan economy, which is already suffering a huge trade deficit at an average of 15%.

Cost per unit of electricity
Kerawalapitiya (Natuaral gas power plant running with Diesel/Heavy Furnace Oil) Rs. 45.75
Norochcholai (Coal power plant) Rs. 7.63

Cost comparison of diesel & coal (Source – 2015 PUCSL Generation Report)

When the 500MW of generation capacity expected from Sampur has to be met with a diesel power plant similar to Kerawalapitiya, there is an additional cost of Rs. 133 billion a year (based on the above rates at 80% plant factor, the author taking responsibility for the calculation). This is equal to the cost of four Mattala airports a year.

The economic fallout has already begun, with  the  Minister of Power and Renewable Energy Ranjith Siyambalapitiya requesting an additional Rs. 50 billion for the next six months. This is not the total cost that will be expended, but is merely additional funding required to cater for the dry season when hydro generation is at a minimum.

Environmental Benefits

Apart from imposing more than six times the cost to the national economy with diesel/furnace oil electricity generation, are we as a country minimising our environmental impact? 

The following table summarises the common emission parameters of diesel & coal. For comparative purposes, natural gas has also also been included, as it is the most debated alternative fuel to coal.

LBS per Billion BTUs generated
Coal Oil Natural Gas
Carbon Dioxide 208,000 164,000 117,000
Carbon Monoxide 208 33 40
Nitrogen Oxides 457 448 92
Sulphur Dioxides 2591 1122 0.6
Particules 2744 84 7

Comparison of emissions (Source – EIA)

There are proven technologies that can minimise emissions by up to 95%including other polluting particles like mercury, which is the major pollutant considered in terms of coal power generation. In 1990 a study conducted in the USA found that municipal waste combustors and medical waste incinerators were emitting twice as much mercury as power plants.

The problem is that no local environmentalists or environmental organisations have conducted a field case study to assess the actual level of pollution even with respect to the existing coal power plant operation – Norochcholai. The published reports regarding the project, list the generalised effects of coal power generation, which are based on research conducted in other countries, rather than a quantitative analysis of Norochcholai itself. If carefully studied, the allegations leveled by environmentalists note the general impact of coal power generation and give qualitative observations rather than any specific quantitative figures. No one has even carried out a simple ambient air quality test to measure the change of air quality parameters in the area surrounding the coal power plant. To date, there is no public record as to whether any sea water or ground water sample parameter test has been conducted by the environmentalists opposing the project. A test which will cost less than LKR 75,000, including the heavy metal parameter test.

Therefore Sri Lanka is still in the dark in terms of actual pollution using coal as an energy source. Yet both the media and environmentalists continue to preach about the negative impact coal has on the environment. 

Clearly, the main objective behind cancelling the coal power plant (that is, promoting renewable energy sources) has not been achieved. The government is considering diesel generation on emergency grounds in order to avoid power cuts, creating a loss of over Rs. 100 billion a year. In the end this has not helped the country but rather a few Independent Power Producing companies (IPPs) which are eagerly waiting to put up their diesel power plants to the tune of massive financial returns. As was the case historically, environmentalists do not protest against the creation of these diesel power plants which run while bleeding out the national economy. This is not a new situation. The last time Sri Lanka procrastinated on this decision the national economy bore the brunt to the tune of Rs. 600 billion from 2004-2014. This large sum does not include funds used for building additional power plants but is rather additional cost of generating electricity using diesel for a few private companies. This mistake is going to be repeated with additional financial cost as the demand for electricity is increasing. The biggest tragedy is that though there is wide consensus that coal is a pollutant, we  still do not know the actual environmental impact caused by coal in Sri Lanka.  It is notable that one year ago Germany put up a coal power plant, which is three times bigger than Sampur, just next to Hamburg, the city known as the “European Green Capital”,  which is operating successfully. This from a country often taken as an examplar for renewable energy and sustainability.


Readers who enjoyed this article might find “Is the air pollution analysis for the Sampur coal plant credible?” and “Paris agreement on climate change, and the need for domestic actions,” enlightening.