A news telecast in one electronic media on 02.01.2018 described in detail the observations made by the President on a joint cabinet paper submitted by two ministers seeking approval to build two coal power plants, that no such cabinet paper should be submitted to the cabinet without first getting the concurrence of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) which is the legal entity having the mandate to approve such projects. proposal to build two coal power plants.
According to media reports, the cabinet paper in question was submitted by the Minister of Power & Renewable Energy and the Minister of Special Assignments seeking approval to build two coal power plant search with capacity 600 MW, one in Norochchole and the other in Trincomalee. The power plants are said to be environment-friendly, high efficient type utilizing "clean-coal" technology and that these were found necessary to maintain energy security by generating firm energy at least-cost, as recommended by the National Economic Council (NEC) as well as by the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM). Probably, the so-called high efficient clean-coal power plants are those referred to in the industry as super-critical (SPC) steam turbine power plants having an efficiency about 40%, compared to the sub-critical (SBC) steam turbine power plants having an efficiency of about 35%, the type already in operation in the country.
Today, no reputed manufacturer in the West makes SBC power plants, except perhaps in India and China. The SPC power plants are the more common type but there is also the ultra-super-critical (USPC) power plants having an efficiency of about 45%. They achieve high efficiency by operating at higher temperature and higher pressure than in SBC power plants, and as such cost more. But, neither the SPC or USPC power plants cannot be described as clean-coal, because they too generate pollution including emissions of oxides of sulfur, oxides of nitrogen, suspended particulates and collect millions of tonnes of ash, though not to the same extent as in SBC power plants. Hence, the justification given in the cabinet paper that the proposed coal power plants are totally environmentally friendly is misleading.
The NEC may have preferred a coal power plant over a natural gas (NG) power plant going by the representations made by the CEB trade unions as reported in the media that coal power is cheaper than power from gas and that the country stands to lose billions of rupees annually if gas power plants are built instead of coal power plants, which is not quite correct. The coal lobby in the country is so powerful that they were able to get two ministers to submit a paper to the cabinet misrepresenting facts seeking its approval for building coal power plants against the President's policy decision and also against the decision of the PUCSL issued in July 2017 that there shall be no more coal power plants built in the future. The cabinet not only rejected the proposal but also the President directed that no such proposals be submitted to the cabinet in the future without first getting the concurrence of the PUCSL.
This is virtually a slap on the faces of the two ministers for their unscrupulous attempt to reverse the President's policy on power development which he announced while requesting India and Japan to change their offers of coal power plants to gas-fired power plants. It is unfortunate that the two ministers fell prey to those with vested interests and tried to reverse the government policy presenting incorrect information and making false claims. Trust they will learn a lesson from this and try not to become others' cat's paws in the future. President trying to be democratic added that the matter may be reconsidered if necessary by the NEC after referring the matter to the PUCSL.
The electronic media carried telecasts of the press briefing that was held following the cabinet meeting held on the 2nd January and several questions were posed by journalists on this power sector issue. But some of the answers provided by the minister were not only misinformation but also not consistent. (One can understand this as the ministers are not subject specialists). One minister said that the cabinet was complying with the policy of the President in not approving the questioned cabinet paper, but the problem was that the infrastructure for importing gas (in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG)) would take several years to build and very expensive too.
The second spokesman minister mentioned that several attempts made in the past to import LNG were not successful and the government could not take a single step forward. He also made a futile attempt to defend the proposal by saying that there would be a generation shortfall during 2019-20 and hence the proposal to build coal power plants as recommended by a committee. Though one journalist saw the absurdity of this explanation and raised the question that building coal power plants too would take a long time, the ministers opted to skip that question.