In the Chinese-built coal power plant of Norchcholai, there are more questions than answers.

In the Chinese-built coal power plant of Norchcholai, there are more questions than answers.

Waste management causes issues

Hydropower was Sri Lanka’s primary energy source when it gained independence from the British.

The first ever hydropower project, Laxapana, was commissioned in 1950 and is described as an innovative design by Engineer D.J. Wimalasurendra.

Since then, there have been several hydropower projects initiated in Sri Lanka. Under the Mahaweli multipurpose hydro scheme, there are four main hydropower projects. They are Victoria, Kotmale Upper, Kotmale, and Randenigala.Nevertheless, with time and population growth, Sri Lanka could not cope with the available power volume and had to depend on thermal power generated from fossil fuels.

As per CEB’s 2016 generation report released in mid-2017, the country has a total combined installed generation capacity of 4,017 megawatts (MW), of which 2,115 MW (52.6%) was from thermal (900 MW (22.4%) from coal and 1,215 MW (30.2%) from fuel oil), 1,726 MW (42.97%) from hydroelectricity, and the remaining 176 MW (4.38%) from other renewable sources such as wind, biomass, and solar. These generation sources produced a total of 14,149 GWh of electricity during that year, of which 9,508 GWh (67.20%), 4,220 GWh (29.83%), and 421 GWh (2.98%) were from thermal, hydro, and other renewables, respectively.

By the end of 2016, the demand for electricity had increased many times, requiring the government to invest in other energy sources.

Sri Lanka could not opt for more hydro-power projects, mainly due to geographical reasons since most of the waterfalls in the highlands have been exploited for this purpose. As a result, Sri Lanka had to turn to alternative energy sources.

At times, the government was compelled to set up thermal power plants in collaboration with the private sector. In addition, several other thermal power plants have been built solely by private sector firms. In these cases, the government had to enter into power purchase agreements with the private sector in order to provide electricity.

With increasing energy costs, the government looked for cheaper sources of energy and chose coal power.

There are many coal power plants in the world, but most of them are facing closure due to environmental concerns. However, Sri Lanka opted for coal power to provide people with cheap power.

At the time, policymakers ended up choosing coal as a substitute without taking the risks to the environment or society into account. This is because they were only concerned with profit. When they started the project in 2006, it resulted in significant public protests in the Norochcholai area. Due to the area’s cultural and environmental sensitivity, civil society and environmental organizations fiercely opposed the idea of building a coal power plant in Norochcholai.

There was no avail, and the state pushed ahead despite protests by various organizations. These included environmental organizations, the Chilaw Bishop, and the Catholic Church of the Chilaw diocese. The Church pointed out that the damage could be enormous to the environment and could also be harmful to the well-being and health of the people. Despite all that, the government made a decision to move ahead with the project under a Chinese loan facility provided by the Exim Bank. This loan facility was provided to the government of then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The government completed the construction of the power plant in 2011, but experts in the field pointed out that the technology used was fairly outdated and not suitable. The technology used in the power plant was not designed to generate the maximum output of electricity efficiently. Therefore, it was not able to produce the amount of energy that the government expected. Additionally, the technology was becoming obsolete, so it was not cost-effective for the government to maintain the power plant. This is like trying to drive a car that uses outdated gas: it’s not designed to take you very far, and it’s not designed to be very cost-effective. After power generation began, there were so many breakdowns, and the breakdowns sometimes added to the additional power outages.

People in the area were of the opinion that technical errors could of course be repaired, but if power generation affects the health of residents, that is less forgivable.

A few months following the commissioning of the plant, an unidentified skin disease spread among children living near the power plant. In addition, residents have complained about respiratory ailments, kidney disorders, and other health issues occurring near the power plant. In addition, residents have complained about respiratory ailments, kidney disorders, and other health issues. Health issues prevented people from returning to their usual habitats and sometimes affected their occupations.

If a power plant violates standards during construction, it poses a threat to nearby human settlements. All over the world, coal power plants have been identified as sources of environmental and health hazards, no matter where they are located. The Chinese construction of Norochcholai using inferior technology caused irreparable damage to the people in the area and the country as a whole. This prompted the government of President Maithripala Sirisena to give an undertaking that the government would terminate its plans to construct a second coal power plant in Sampur.

Ground Views, a citizens’ journalism website, published an article that listed the environmental and other hazards caused by the Chinese-built coal power plant.

The ground view article is under the caption.

types of pollution as a result of coal power generation, states

Typically, a coal power plant releases tons 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, overexposure could affect nearby residents’ 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, marine life in that area will be threatened. The hotter temperatures affect the environment’s temperature, leading to an increase in algae growth. This can deplete the oxygen in the water and cause fish and other marine life to die. The warmer water can also cause a decrease in the quality of the habitat, making it difficult for marine life to survive. Essentially, heated water affects the heart rate of fish, putting their lives at risk as a result. In February 2017, the National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA) raised serious concerns about whether the Norochcholai power plant was disposing of polluted water into the sea.

Heat waste

A considerable percentage of the heat produced by thermal power plants is wasted. Above all, gas emissions of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide can lead to global warming and acid rain. In Sri Lanka, we have not experienced acid rain yet. But, in the future, we may also have to deal with it.

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

Currently, Norochcholai generates a significant amount of power that is supplied to the national grid. Hence, it would be rather difficult to shut it down abruptly.

However, the lesson from Norochcholai should be that there should be no more commissioning of coal power plants in Sri Lanka in the 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 based on the adverse effects caused by the Norochcholai coal power plant. It was seen that the state took notice of health hazards that could adversely affect the community.

At the latter stage, the state, acting responsibly, gave an undertaking to the Supreme Court that it would not go ahead with any such project.

The Daily Mirror in 2018 quoting Ecologist Dr Ranil Senanayake said:

The toxic acids that evaporated from the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant could pose a threat to Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi. “This is the oldest living tree in the world with a written history,” ecologist Dr. Ranil Senanayake said.

He said there is a possibility of clouds with toxic acid deposits traveling towards Anuradhapura, where the sacred Bo tree (fig tree) is standing, with southwest monsoon conditions developing.

Sulfur (S), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen oxide (NO) are released when coal is burned, as well as heavy metal particles. These elements form acids such as sulfuric acid (H2SO4) and nitric acid (HNO3), which would reach the clouds through condensation.

He said that it can be observed that the leaves of tall trees have turned yellow due to the emissions of these gases.

The Ground View website further said Power and energy are vital for a country to function. Sri Lanka has rich potential in terms of sustainable power. How well have we capitalized on this potential? The Hambantota wind power plant only produces 3 MW of electricity, while the only operational commercial-scale solar-powered facility is the Buruthakanda Solar Park, with 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 power and transition to an era of renewable energy. The government’s decision to establish a wind power plant is an excellent step and should be appreciated. According to an Environmental Effects Report (EER) that was released recently, there are also environmental issues related to this project. Constructive criticism is needed. However, all stakeholders should support projects such as these, which are relatively eco-friendly, instead of playing devil’s advocate.

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