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Tension in the air with proposed wind plant

The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) top management fears that not only will they have to give up planned coal-fired power plants in the country but proposed wind power plants as well with leading environmentalists opposing the upcoming 100MW of the planned 375MW wind power plant complex in Mannar Island.

When contacted, CEB Chairman Anura Wijayapala told The Sunday Leader that when something is to be done there is opposition from various quarters and that these people should switch off their electrical appliances and avoid using electricity in their homes.

Wijayapala said that engineers too would love to go for clean energy and that it is less problematic for them. However, he adds that there is something called cost factor.

The Board would abide by the government and politicians and it is up to them, Wijayapala says, to deal with the public, in other words, the people who elected them to power.However, he said that they had not received any orders to date from the top to put an end to this project.

The Sunday Leader reliably learns that the matter of putting an end to the proposed Mannar Wind Power Plant complex was taken up with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe who is in favour of renewable energy.

Renowned biodiversity expert Dr. Rohan Pethiyagoda has questioned a poorly researched Initial Environment Examination Report (IEER) saying it poses a threat to the Vankalai Sanctuary near Mannar.

“I maintain that the proposed trace of the transmission line through or near Vankalai Sanctuary should not be allowed,” Dr. Pethiyagoda told The Sunday Leader.

He says it is illegal under the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) and there is no provision for the Wildlife Conservation Department to sanction it.

Furthermore, it negatively impacts the tourism (especially nature-tourism) potential of this region, which is urgently in need of economic development and the full utilisation of all its natural resources for the benefit of the local people, he noted.

He also says that the IEER provides almost no evidence that the unique natural heritage offered by the Vankalai Sanctuary will be preserved as a result of the project, especially with regard to bird life with the proposed transmission line.

“This is a matter of urgent national importance and there needs to be a public debate on this plan. I hereby volunteer to defend the proposal that there should be no overhead transmission line through Vankalai Sanctuary. Now there’s a challenge. I hope the project proponent and the authors of the IEER will take it up,” he stressed.

Every year millions of birds fly down the Indian peninsula and then funnel through the four km wide Talaimannar panhandle to reach food-rich wetlands such as Vidattaltivu and Vankalai on Sri Lanka’s north-west coast. Dr. Pethiyagoda who is also an Electrical Engineer says that it is across this four km wide corridor that the CEB now proposes to erect a wind farm. As great as renewable energy is, setting this wind farm in the middle of the island’s busiest bird-migration route is an idea that is at best, moot, he says. “Wind farms kill birds. But no doubt an environmental impact assessment will be published in due course and then we can judge the exact merits of the proposal and the measures proposed to mitigate adverse impacts.For now, however, what we do have is an IEER in respect of the 220 kv transmission lines that will ferry the electricity generated by the wind farm to the national grid,” he added.

According to him, the IEER implies that the proposed transmission line is justified on the trace of a former (now non-existent) 33kv line. However, pylons for a 220kv line are much taller than those for a 33kv line, and the tower footings too, are very much larger. Indeed the IEER concedes that “The project activities during the construction phase will involve clearing of trees along the route alignment wherever required, excavation for installation of towers, erection of towers, civil works related to transmission line and line stringing.”

He says the Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (FFPO) is very clear on what is and what is not permitted on a sanctuary declared on state land. Section 7(1)(c) states: “No person shall, except in accordance with regulations, in any State land within any Sanctuary— (i) fell, girdle, lop, tap, burn or in any way damage or destroy any plant, or take, collect, or remove any plant there from; or (ii) clear or break up any land for cultivation, mining or for any other purpose”. The IEER states (p. 8) that “In order to reduce the loss of palmyra trees along the exit corridor, line route has been carefully aligned after identifying sparsely vegetated areas, with the aid of satellite images.” These satellite images have, however, not been reproduced in the IEER. Neither is there a detailed map of the line route.

Furthermore, he says the IEER repeatedly concedes that trees will be felled along the trace, which directly contravenes the above sections of the FFPO. No regulations exist with regard to the felling of trees on state land within any sanctuary.

In the absence of such regulations, he says there is no provision for the Department of Wildlife Conservation to permit this project to proceed within the sanctuary. Also, given that the exact transmission line route has not been illustrated through a map or GPS coordinates, it leaves the project proponent free to select a line route of his choice after environmental clearance. This negates the purpose of the IEE.

Last month, under the instructions of the Power and Renewable Energy Ministry, CEB was looking for funds for the tune of Rs. 24 billion to build a 100MW wind power plant in the Mannar Islands.

Accordingly, firstly CEB would go with the 100MW of the potential 375MW in Mannar Islands which is said to be one of the top-most locations for wind potential in the island nation.

The CEB Chairman said that though negotiations are on with the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and other local banks, they are yet to reach a consensus in this regard.

It is reliably understood that CEB wants the entire 375MW under their control though there are parties with vested interests who want to promote private parties.

However, many engineers strongly believe that there should have not been a long delay to kick- start this project, stressing it would benefit the country immensely especially in the long-run.

“This would do a lot to the energy mix in the country,” engineers said.

When the United National Party-led government came to power last year, it gave the greenlight to go ahead with a proposal made by former Power and Energy Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka to tap wind power in Mannar Island.

Prior to the parliamentary elections, Ranawaka instructed the Sustainable Energy Authority of Sri Lanka (SEASL) to permit Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) to develop 100MW wind power in Mannar.

Engineers said that SEASL having some officials who dance to the tune of some international agencies backed by a section of the private sector had been delaying the recommended wind plant for more than a year.

Senior CEB engineers while thanking the former minister for taking the right decision, expressed concern about the SEA for once again coming out with excuses such as it had to be endorsed by the Attorney General’s Department etc.

However, engineers had drawn attention to the clause that specifies CEB’s role as a government institution as against the role of the private sector. Recently when Power and Energy Secretary, Dr B.M.S. Batagoda stated that the private sector should also be given 100MW in Mannar, CEB engineers had opposed it.

CEB General Manager M.C. Wickremasekara told the Ministry Secretary first to witness how they handled the 100MW; if they failed then the 100MW could be handed over to the private sector.

Engineers stressed that the private sector didn’t want to see the CEB coming into the deal due to the high tariffs paid to wind energy and the killing they could make.

Dr.Batagoda said that they had given permission to tap Mannar’s wind potential of 375MW in one go, while making sure the CEB got 100 MW out of it. However, CEB management decided that the 375MW should be under the CEB.

It is reliably understood that there is also a battle among privately owned companies to get the lion’s share of the deal of more than USD 750 million worth of wind power potential in Mannar.

A senior engineer stressed that it should be like the Mahaweli and Laxapana projects.

“Laxapana costs 25 cents a unit, while MahaweliRs. 2.50 per unit. But when it comes to wind, it would cost between Rs. 21.00 and Rs. 22.00 per unit for the first seven years and there would be a slight decrease in expenditure till the 20th year,” he said.

CEB Engineers Union’s President AthulaWanniarachchi said that CEB was not yet committed with funds when it comes to wind plants. He stressed that if the CEB is not going to handle it, nobody else would do it.

The CEB Chief said that they would be in a position to provide electricity at a cheap price once the wind power project is implemented.He said the CEB would also allow private parties to proceed with small (10MW) wind power projects in other parts of the country particularly in the Northern Province.

A senior CEB engineer stressed that CEB would be in a position to provide electricity at Rs, 12.00Kwh as against the unit price of more than Rs. 20.00 of a privately owned company.

He said that he was not in favour of the pricing structure of the energy regulator, the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL). However, he added that wind price had come down marginally in the recent past.

He said there is always an advantage when they target a project of this magnitude, adding that Mannar is far better than Kalpitiya when it comes to wind pattern. He also said the cost could vary between USD 150 and USD 200 million.

Meanwhile, Gamesha Lanka, office of the global leader in wind turbine technology and the only wind turbine solutions provider in Sri Lanka welcomed the CEB’s move to fatten the wind energy intake to the national grid.

According to Gamesha Lanka, Operations Head, Sampath Kariyawasam, if they get the tender, they would complete the project within one year of signing the agreement.

Gamesha had installed 1,700MW in India and services close to 1,400 MW under operations and maintenance agreements. Additionally in its capacity as wind developer, it has developed over 1,000MW.

Last year, a proposal to distribute lucrative wind power contracts to local investors without calling for open tenders ran into a storm with energy experts strongly criticising the move.