Solar PV to the rescue

While the sun blazes down with all its fury on Sri Lanka, we, the unfortunates in this country are always pining for what we don’t have, but ignore the bounty that mother nature has given us. We even chose to do our best to throttle even the smallest efforts of the progressive few, to harness such bounty. It is unfortunate that such barriers are being erected by eminent people who should be able to see the bigger picture, if they ever pause, to reflect.

A recent newspaper report quoted Dr Thilak Siyambalapitiya (Dr. TS) the most widely quoted energy expert in the country, at the Sri Lanka Economic Association, recommending a capacity charge on rooftop Solar PV installations. His claim is that Solar PV installations are causing a great loss to the CEB and therefore a capacity charge of Rs 3,500 per kW per month should be imposed.

Coming from the prime mover in introducing the net metering scheme, this is most unfortunate , as the situation has not changed by the very progressive schemes of Net Metering, Net Accounting and Net Plus implemented under the Surya Bala Sangraamaya. Dr.TS would recall that even under the original net metering scheme, even though there were no cash transactions, there were protests that the scheme would result in losses to the CEB.

However, Dr Siyambalapitiya must be thanked for his initiative, which brought Rooftop Solar PV to the forefront, when projects for solar parks were languishing under a plethora of bureaucratic and unfounded technical objections, and for paving the way for consumers themselves to make a contribution to the national energy production, from an indigenous and environment friendly resource. The early adopters of the net metering scheme were those who did not look at the net financial gains, when they committed the capital for rooftop solar systems, even in the early years, when the deposit interest rates were relatively lower. There were many who argued, it would be more lucrative to invest the money in a fixed deposit and use the interest to pay the electricity bill.

Sri Lanka must be grateful to such early adopters who kept the solar dream alive, which paved the way for the current enthusiasm and considerable growth in the sector. Under the present environment when even knowledgeable experts exhibit the proverbial ‘Handi Mitay Nuwana’ the initiative taken by the Minster of Power and Renewable Energy with the Surya Bala Sangraamaya is most laudable.

It is hoped, Sri Lanka would wake up to the reality, sooner than later, that rooftop solar energy constitutes the short term solution to overcome the current energy shortage rather than resorting to the dependence on economically and environmentally disastrous oil based power generation that is raising its head once more, under the guise of ensuring uninterrupted power supply.

Positive impacts

In this context it is the rooftop solar PV in all its manifestations that hold the key with the very short term positive impacts and no burden on the national exchequer or the CEB as claimed. The CEB having incurred a loss of Rs 13.2 b during the year 2016, and the likelihood of a larger loss already in 2017, is in no position to invest on any power plants and should be thankful for the assistance provided by individual consumers.

A look at the current cost of electricity generation from different sources and the price paid for Rooftop Solar PV will illustrate this. The data from the PUCSL web site gives the following data

These power plants are also paid a monthly fixed charge as well as startup and shut down charges for dispatch. The Energy Balance for the year 2015 published by the Sustainable Energy Authority states, the average cost of generation from oil based power plants was Rs 29.82 per kWh, which we may accept as the official figure.

Therefore, the claim that payment of Rs 22.00 per kWh for rooftop solar PV should not be a burden on the CEB, but a definite saving with potential for enhanced benefits after the first 8 years when the tariff paid drops to Rs 15.50 per kWh. The CEB in desperation is now calling for consumers to conserve electricity and for the use of diesel generators, offering to pay Rs.36.per kWh. The effect of rooftop solar would be the same at a much lower cost to the CEB.

The argument regarding the availability of Solar Energy only during daytime does not hold water since their inputs could clearly replace the use of oil based generation during daytime and conserve what little water remaining in the reservoirs for use during peak hours. This is illustrated in the daily generation charts below, for 6 April 2017 when all three coal power plants were in operation and on 16 April 2017 when only one coal power plant was working. On both days substantial amounts of oil IPPs were in use throughout daylight hours, and the exports from Rooftop Solar PV would have replaced an equivalent amount of energy purchases from these IPPs.

There is ample room to increase contribution by rooftop solar to reduce and hopefully eliminate the need for any oil based power generation, both, by the IPPs and the CEB, during daytime. The possible change that can be made is shown below.

There would always be the argument that Solar Energy is non firm and therefore not predictable and dispatchable, and would lead to instabilities in the grid. This argument is no longer true as there have been many technologies developed and practised to predict solar availability. The CSIRO, the Australian government’s chief scientific body, says, there is no apparent technical impediment to reaching 100 per cent renewables for the national electricity grid, and levels of up to 30 per cent renewable energy should be considered as just ‘trivial’ in current energy systems. (reneweconomy.com.au), It appears, our experts are totally unaware of these developments.

In any case the amount of solar rooftop PV that can be absorbed even under the present grid status in Sri Lanka was reported to be much higher by experts who contributed to the study conducted in 2014 by Resource Management Agency for the CEB funded by the ADB, headed by Dr Siyambalapitiya himself. Thus, we would expect him to be working towards expanding the Solar PV contribution. He is best placed to convince the engineers of the CEB of the way forward and help them source and implement the many techniques being developed internationally.

One million rooftops

While the early adopters were high end consumers, the picture has changed now. The Surya Bala Sangraamaya has announced a target of one million rooftop systems with 200 MW by 2020 and 1,000 Mw by 2025. This even includes low end consumers who are encouraged to rent out their roof space under the village solar scheme. These targets can easily be reached if the CEB, being the state owned monopoly is willing to foster rather than hinder this revolution.

The very positive attitude taken by the Lanka Electricity Company (LECO) must be applauded by all, who has even arranged for a low interest loan scheme with the National Savings Bank. Unfortunately, the 50% rebate on loan interest by all banks announced by the Govt is still to be implemented.

As Dr. TS himself has suggested, even limited use of battery storage could hasten the optimal contribution by Solar PV which as shown above is to the advantage of the CEB and the nation. The Government too can help this transition by allowing duty free import of the deep cycle batteries, instead of levying high import duties in the mistaken notion of protecting the local lead battery industry, which do not produce the quality of batteries required for the power sector.

Role of the Solar PV Parks

After much struggle there are 3 solar parks of 10 MW each which have been commissioned. While the other countries instituted many incentive schemes to promote this sector in the past decades, when Solar PV was definitely more costly than the conventional fossil fuel sources, Sri Lanka continued to impose barriers for this development, citing various unfounded technical difficulties without taking action to find solutions. The other countries, particularly, Australia, India and China are reaping the benefits of such foresightedness taking advantage of the sharp drop in the cost of utility scale solar PV. All previous incentives and subsidies have been removed and attractive prices offered by developers, according to www.think progress,org.

At least now Sri Lanka must utilize the literally infinite energy resource that nature has bestowed on us without continuing to look for monsters under the bed. An adhoc limit of 60 MW has been imposed on the level of Solar PV under the tender, yet to be awarded. It is unclear what the CEB’s attitude would be towards the various projects approved by Cabinet, such as, the proposal to instal 100 MW of floating solar PV on the Maduruoya reservoir, opening a vista of immense possibilities. Will they continue to say that the grid can absorb only limited amounts of solar and wind? All previous predictions of instability of the grid have been proven wrong and a totally imagined problem, after 125 MW of wind and some 80 MW of solar have been integrated to the grid.

The greatest advantage is that these projects can be implemented in a short period of 12-18 months if the bureaucratic procedures can be shortened, recognizing the importance of their potential, instead of resorting to diesel generators. The rooftop solar on the other hand can come online in months. Therefore, what is required is to arrive at a well considered mix, where the rooftop solar provides the urgent short term energy inputs and the solar parks will give the bulk energy at much lower costs. The role of wind power which has already made its mark should not be ignored in such consideration. One hopes the CEB will move fast to implement the 100 MW wind project in Mannar Island and open the door for the rest of the potential too to be tapped.

Our appeal to Dr TS who has the ear and confidence of the CEB engineers, is to champion this change using his knowledge and expertise in the electricity sector. 

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