Mini Hydro Schemes; threatening Sinharaja

 

In Sri Lanka large hydro power potential has been fully utilised. There is no space to add in more plus the existing schemes are multi purpose, providing necessary irrigation water especially to the semi dry and dry zones. And this places a further limit on the capacity of Sri Lanka to generate additional electricity from major H.E.P. schemes

However, there are opportunities for the development of privately owned small scale or mini hydro schemes which could add power to the national grid in Sri Lanka. The problem is that  these schemes are causing concern amongst environmentalists because they block streams and threaten the environment of fresh water fish and fragile riverine ecosystems.

The Energy situation

The Sri Lankan government has ambitious plans to achieve high rates of economic growth in the coming years. However, Sri Lanka barely generates enough energy to satisfy the demands both domestic and industrial right now. To make matters worse, existing power supply has been plagued by disruptions and power outages in the last few months.

Since coming online the thermal power station at Norochalai on the east coast has had several reported breakdowns including a fire, a leak, a trip and an instance where generation exceeded design levels, causing a shutdown. The most recent shutdown came in March when an explosion in a stepdown transformer caused an island-wide power outage.

It doesn’t help levels of confidence in the electricity generation system to read Sri Lanka’s deputy minister for power and renewable energy, Ajith Perera, saying that the plant had been built with “outdated” technologies and substandard materials.

Add in the continuing debate over whether the next thermal power station at Sampur should be built and it  is understandable that the authorities would consider  additions to the grid from  privately owned hydro electric power generation which is both clean and renewable.

Enter the mini hydroscheme

A mini hydro project works by having water in a river diverted to a powerhouse by means of a dam built across the flow. This water rotates a turbine and flows back downstream. Not all the water can be diverted: a part has to be let flow naturally in the river, according to law.

Mini-hydro-power-gra

reprinted with permission by Malaka Rodrigo

Dam-built-on-Anda-Dola-c-Rainforest-Protectors

reprinted with permission by Malaka Rodrigo

The advantages to the state seem obvious.

  • The south west of the island is an area of high rainfall so projects such as this provide a clean and renewable source of energy
  • the state is not involved in any outlay of funds but can simply opt to buy in power from the private company
  • the scale of the development is small which should minimise environmental impact

However, this form of clean energy comes at a cost;

  • alterations to the river flow have an impact  on the physical hydrology of the river changing the volume and velocity of flow downstream, changing the river load and so impacting river channel processes, often increasing erosion downstream of the dam
  • changes to the river have an ecological impact on both flora and fauna
  • there is often damage to the environment from trucks and during construction destroying pristine environments and habitats

Add to that the question of whether the state should be reliant on private companies for additional power generation when their  main motive in building these schemes is arguably profit above any other consideration, including the environment

Some tea estates up in the hills already operate their own private schemes providing power to the tea factories. Theses schemes are generally not taking place in environmentally sensitive areas and are not the focus of this article. What is of concern is applications to develop mini hydro schemes in environmentally sensitive areas such the Sinharaja rainforest reserve.

Case Study

The proposal to build a  mini hydro plant at a waterfall and beauty spot is posing a real threat to Athwelthota river; home to 39 freshwater species 19 of them endemic to Sri Lanka.

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source Youtube

The Athwelthota is one of many rivers that flows out from the northern flanks of the Sinharaja rain forest reserve in southern Sri Lanka. Sinharaja is a world heritage site, and the country’s last viable area of primary tropical rainforest. More than 60% of the trees are endemic and many of them are considered rare. There is much endemic wildlife, especially birds, but the reserve is also home to over 50% of Sri Lanka’s endemic species of mammals and butterflies, as well as many kinds of insects, reptiles and rare amphibians.

forest reserve.tiff

source Google sites

Athwelthota is a paradise for freshwater fish, with a number of species discovered in this unique habitat. The CEJ and the Wildlife Conservation Society of Galle (WCSG) have published a poster showing the indigenous fish that could be endangered by the proposed mini-hydro project in Pilithudu ella, Morapitiya-Athwelthota.

If a mini hydro plant is built, some believe that  the change in flow will be a death sentence for many species living in this micro-habitat,

  • Different fish need different micro-habitats, . For example, the gal padiya or sucker fish lives deep in fast-flowing water; some fish species live in relatively calm water while others prefer fast-flowing water.
  • But if part of a stream is diverted the habitat downstream changes and fish will be affected even though a percentage of water might be allowed to flow freely.
  • With flow changes the PH value of water too could change and very sensitive species could become affected.
  • Some fish migrate upstream to breed and when the stream is blocked this movement is disrupted,

In Athwelthota, 39 freshwater species have been recorded, 20 of them endemic to Sri Lanka.

Most of the mini-hydro projects are being constructed in the biodiversity rich wet zone, so the damage they cause is actually worse than with the large dams,  Not only the fish but other animals such as amphibians and freshwater crabs too are affected.

Athwelthota is also home to Sri Lanka’s only aquatic orchid. Near a waterfall lies a special “spray zone” full of water vapour and this special habitat could be totally lost,

Overall 37 projects are under consideration/construction; many in or on the boundaries of the Sinharaja Rain Forest Reserve.

Construction is being carried out in the Northern Sinharaja Rainforest buffer zone at Kosgulana, approximately 4km east from the Kudawa main entrance. A dam is being built blocking the Kosgulana river in Sinharaja buffer zone and several acres of rainforest have been cleared and concrete laid along the once pristine and protected riverbank. Large trucks and machinery used for construction have driven a wide track through what was once a small footpath in the Sinharaja buffer zone, between Kudawa and Kosgulana,

Another project in the rain forest where 2.5km of concrete penstock has been constructed in the Dellawa district is also said to be “causing massive environmental destruction to the stream, the wildlife and the forest The mini-hydro project will destroy a total 6.5 km stretch of the Anda Dola as water is being diverted from the weir to the powerhouse, several kilometres away. This will result in the local extinction of many endemic and endangered fish species recorded in the Anda Dola.

and what impact might this have on tourism going forward.. not everyone wants to dump themselves on a beach for two weeks…

Final thought

Sri Lanka as a country is changing. With the new government there is a greater concern for the environment and a growing resistance on the part of environmentalists to the power of local politicians and businessmen who have been allowed to ignore the environmental laws of the country. It will be interesting to see how successful they are going forward.

In any case micro hydro schemes are not the answer to Sari Lanka’s growing energy problem. Put together they will not generate the additional power needed. Neither can the island continue to afford to import large amounts of oil to generate power.

Maybe that does mean going ahead with the Sampur coal fired power station in spite of all the objections. Or maybe the government and its foreign funding partners should be looking much more seriously at wind power and solar power as alternatives rather than dumping outmoded and dirty technology on an unsuspecting population.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful, as ever, to Malaka Rodrigo for allowing me to take much of the above from his excellent article: Mini hydros; clean energy comes at a high cost to nature featured in his blog: Window to Nature

You should also read his latest blog which is a follow u on the first one at

http://www.sundaytimes.lk/160828/news/flawed-approvals-of-mini-hydro-projects-spell-river-land-destruction-206573.html

 

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Sampoor Power Station; dead in the water? environmental impact case study

The Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy has decided not to go ahead with the construction of the Sampur Coal Power plant, see Daily Mirror report 14/09 in what many will see as a victory for environmentalists. 

In November 2015 The Sunday Times also reported that the new power plant earmarked for Sampur near Trincomalee was a non starter. The main reasons given were that:

  • the plant has failed to meet the Environmental Impact Assessment criteria laid down
  • Sampur has been earmarked for 800 returning IDP Tamil families (internally displaced persons) who do not wish to see a large power station built on land so close to them.

On the face of it you can see why.

The Sampur plant

The proposal is to build a 500 megawatt coal fired power station on the east coast at Sampur across the bay from Trincomalee.

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Trincomalee: Location

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source: Ministry of Power

The power station is proposed to be built on 500 acres of land currently sectioned off as a high security zone by the Sri Lankan Navy but was formerly land belonging to the local Tamil population driven from their lands during the final months of the war which ended in 2009.

It will be a joint venture with the National Thermal Power Company of India using low grade coal imported from India.

The Case against 
  1. Damage to the marine environment of Shell Bay: Shell Bay is home to 56 hard coral species, 160 of coral associated fish species and many other invertebrates including the rare giant clam. The Mahaweli Ganga ( river) also exits to the sea nearby bringing a high nutrient concentration and all these factors contribute to make Trincomalee Bay a unique ecosystem with high biodiversity ranging from tiny organisms to large whales.

1357318175_0!!-!!Hikkaduwa coral reef

Negative impacts will likely include the following:

  • when operational the discharge of cooling water from the power station will raise the water temperature of Shell Bay by 4 degrees celsius; sufficient to result in bleaching of the coral which will then die
  • contamination of the water from sulphur. and mercury as a result of the burning of coal
  • chlorine  will be used to clean the water and if discharged without treating, it can first impact on tiny organisms like planktons and can have a major impact on the food chain

2. Air Pollution

If the plant uses imported Indian coal (coal with a high ash content) then engineers suggest that significant amounts of air pollution will occur locally resulting in:

  • acid rain (from nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide  carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere)
  • significant amounts of ash/dust particles and unburnt hydro carbons which can cause lung damage
  • ash and sludge which will have to be buried in large landfill sites

3.  Social Issues

The new government have already begun the proceed of resettling tamil families back into the Sampur area and, as the Sunday Times recently pointed out:

“the unfavourable impact of a coal power plant has been a major worry for the people who are waiting to come back to their land in Sampur. They fear their precious agricultural lands are contaminated and the air they breathe would be polluted.” ...

… not without reason you might think.

It is also suggested in some areas that the land set aside for the plant in fact belongs to displaced families and so should not be used for industrial development.

4.  Political Issues

  • The Tamil National Alliance are firmly against the project and see this ( the high security zone) as an a attempt to keep out the Tamil population. They allege:

” a hidden agenda to the project to permanently evict Tamils from the Muttur east region.”

  • The restoration of lands taken from the Tamils features high on the agenda of many external governments,
  • At the same time  Sri Lanka is under pressure from foreign governments to show it is making progress in this aspect of post war reconciliation and in the field of human rights

So for these reasons it was politically expedient to reconsider siting the plant at Sampur.

5.  Power exports

Some of the power would have been sent via a new grid to Southern India; Sri Lanka would not get the full benefit of the new generating capacity although it would suffer all of the disadvantages outlined above.

So you might think the case against is overwhelming. But it is not that simple

The Case For
  1.  Sri Lanka needs power

The Sri Lankan economy is growing at around 7% annually; fairly impressive when compared to the  low growth economies of the developed world. However, continued growth in the manufacturing and business sector is going to drive up energy demand, particularly electricity demand. Some are even predicting that Sri Lanka will be in energy deficit by 2017.

current projections (see page 282) suggest that electricity demand is likely to increase by around 5% per annum but meeting this target may prove difficult and expensive given that the Island is not self sufficient in terms of energy production.

The country has no domestic production of coal, crude oil, or natural gas, and as a result all the fossil fuel demand is met through imports.

At the moment that means oil which now accounts for just over 50% of power generation.

BUT relying on oil-fired power comes at a heavy price pushing up the cost of electricity to the consumer.

(How lucky then that the recent fall in oil prices allowed the government to reduce electricity prices and the cost of petrol.. trouble is it won’t last. Prices will go up again!)

Sri Lanka needs to move from a dependence on imported oil is an urgent issue for Sri Lanka’s power sector to address, but options are limited:

  • hydro electric power is already at close to full capacity
  • nuclear power as an option is not under serious consideration yet and in any case would be way too expensive and take too long to get up and running
  • solar/wind/geothermal/wave power; are all in their infancy

Which means the only viable option for developing large “base line” energy supplies in the short term, is to build new coal fired power stations.

So far one major plant has been built on the west coast at Norochchalai which will generate around 17% of Sri Lanka’s energy.

 

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The Norochchalai  Power Plant

However it won’t be enough; That is why the Government entered into an agreement with  to build a large 500 mega watt power plant at Sampur near Trincomalee.

2. Cost:

It is argued that the current site incurs the lowest development cost; environmental protection and pollution mitigation measures plus consideration of alternative site would add to the cost already standing at $512 million

3.  Politics

The the Sri Lankan government agreed to partner an Indian company in the development of this power project. It has already “disappointed” the Indian authorities by not co-building the Norochchalai complex with them but going with the Chinese design and build. Reneging on this agreement could further damage relations between the two countries

Something has to happen

The question is: what happens now? Sri Lanka cannot build sustainable economic growth on the back of rising oil imports, nor can it squeeze more energy from existing renewables like HEP.

Nuclear power is not an option either.

That leaves wind and solar as alternatives, unless of course the government simply decide to build a coal fired plant somewhere else (maybe less environmentally sensitive?)

The energy clock is ticking and if the plant is not going to be built in Sampur, energy will have to come from another source; and with major growth projects such as the Megapolis plan for Western Province already under way the decision on how to generate more energy needs to come soon.