Featured image courtesy Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy

The term “sustainable development” has been increasingly used among the global community since the 1992 Rio Summit. To achieve this, environmental conservation, supported at a policy level, is crucial. Yet energy production is increasing to keep up with continued industrialisation, globally. Traditionally, these energy needs were fulfilled by burning hydrocarbon as fuel. Over time, this led to environmental problems such as global warming and acid rain. Researchers found that the main reason for these eco-hazards was the burning of hydrocarbons, including coal and liquid fuel. In response, there has been a global shift towards sustainable energy sources, notably solar energy, wind and hydro power. Coal power plants are gradually growing less popular worldwide, due to their disastrous impact on the environment.

The Sri Lankan Context

In Sri Lanka, the first and foremost source of energy is hydropower. The brainchild of D.J .Wimalasurendra, the Laxapana plant was  Sri Lanka’s first hydropower plant, commissioned in 1950. Since that time hydro-power plants have been developed through the ages – through historic projects such as the complex in Mahaweli. Over decades, hydro-power supplied between 80-90% of the country’s power supply. However with time, this has changed. According to current statistics,

“In the previous year, the total power generation capacity of the country was 4,018 MW, consisting of 1,384 MW of coal power, 1,215 MW of oil burning thermal power, 1,384 MW of hydro power and 519 MW of non-conventional renewable power sources including hydropower ,wind power etc.”

It’s worth examining how such a shift occurred. Over time, the demand for power increased. It became untenable to build more hydro-power plants due to geographical reasons. The Government had to establish thermal power plants with the help of the private sector. Some of these thermal power plants were purely owned by the private sector, who in turn sold energy to the government for higher prices. To combat this “Power Mafia” the previous government had to search for alternatives. Unfortunately, that alternative was a a harmful one. Policy-makers at the time, focusing only on profit, chose coal as an alternative without considering the environmental or cultural hazards. That led to massive public protests in the Norochcholai area when they initiated the project in 2006. Civil society and environmental organisations strongly criticised the decision to establish a coal power plant in Norochcholai- as it was an environmentally and culturally sensitive area. Yet the State ignored these valid protests and completed construction of the plant in 2011. There remain many allegations around corruption and financial crimes around this project. Many experts in the field said the technology used was not suitable. After power generations began in 2011, there have been numerous breakdowns at the power plant. Technical errors can be repaired, but if power generation affects the health of residents, that is less forgivable. Since the beginning of this month, an unidentified skin disease has been spreading among children living near the power plant. In addition, there have been many complaints over respiratory problems, kidney disorders and other health issues by the residents. This can be considered a red light on Norochcholai, a power plant that violated standards in its very construction. Coal power plants have been found a source of environmental and health hazards, no matter where they are located.

Types of Pollution As A Result of Coal Power Generation

Solid Waste

Typically a coal power plant releases tonnes of ash every day as sludge. There were serious allegations that there were no mechanisms allowing for safe storage and disposal in Norochcholai in particular. If wind-borne, the particles from this sludge can lead to respiratory diseases among nearby residents. It appears that this phenomenon is emerging in Norochcholai. Harmful chemicals such as Arsenic, Chromium, Mercury and Cadmium may be present in the sludge, leading to the spread of diseases. At worst, over-exposure could affect nearby resident’s nervous systems, paving the way for memory-related neurological disorders.

Cooling Water Discharge

Billions of gallons of water are used in the cooling systems of power plants. This water is generally four to five degrees Celsius hotter than normal. Whenever this water is released into any water source, the marine life in that area will be threatened. Technically, the heated water affects the heart-rates of fish, putting their lives at risk. In February 2017, the National Aquatic Resources, Research and Development Agency (NARA) raised serious concerns on whether the Norochcholai power plant was disposing polluted water into the sea.

Heat Waste

A considerable percentage of heat produced by thermal power plants is wasted. Above all, gas emissions of Sulphur Dioxide and Carbon Dioxide can lead to global warming and acid rain. In Sri Lanka we have not experienced acid rain yet. But, in future, we may experience it too.

Meanwhile, the North Western Provincial Environmental Authority has raised that the Norochcholai power plant has not applied for an environmental license for the year 2017, necessary to continue their operations.

Currently, Norochcholai generates around 1000 MW of the country’s power supply. It cannot be abruptly shut down, as it would adversely impact the national power supply.

However, the lesson from Norochcholai should be that there be no more commissioning of coal power plants in Sri Lanka in future. The Environmental Foundation Limited (EFL), along with other environmental experts, filed a Fundamental Rights (FR) Application against proposed coal power plants in Sampur and Trincomalee. The State promised in Supreme Court that these would not be constructed in the country.

Power and energy are vital for a country to function. Sri Lanka has rich potential in terms of renewable power.How well have we capitalised on this potential? The Hambantota wind power plant only produces 3 MW electricity, while the only operational commercial-scale solar-powered facility is the Buruthakanda Solar Park of 1.2 MW, operated by the Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority (SLSEA).There have been many projects to promote the utilization of renewable energy in this country, but many of them have not been implemented yet. The time has come to end the era of thermal and coal and progress to an era of renewable energy. The Government’s decision to establish a wind power plant is a good step and should be appreciated. There are environmental issues related with this project too according to an Environmental Effects Report (EER) which was released recently. Constructive criticism is needed. However all stakeholders should support projects such as these, which are relatively eco-friendly, instead of playing devil’s advocate.

Editor’s Note: Also read “Deduru Oya and Good Governance at Risk” and “Is the Air Pollution Analysis from the Sampur Coal Plant Credible?”