The country's most vital yet highly controversial Norochcholai coal power plant continues to hang in the balance, despite a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Sri Lankan and the Chinese Government and the insistence made by the Government to the effect that construction of the plant will begin soon. But the renewed opposition made by the Chilaw Bishop Rev. Frank Marcus Fernando in mid October, which comes just a few weeks before the Presidential polls, and a statement by the United National Party that if its candidate is elected as the country's new President, the coal power plant will be relocated from Norochcholai to elsewhere, has led to this uncertain scenario.
However, assurances, and oppositions apart, the failure by consecutive Governments to implement this coal power plant has so far cost the country a whopping Rs. 206 billion to date and this number is increasing by the day at approximately RS. 56 million a day, due to generating electricity from diesel as against coal, this was disclosed by Dr. Tilak Siyambalapitiya, a top expert on the Sri Lankan energy sector to the Weekend Standard.
The Ceylon Electricity Board Engineers’ Union (CEBEU) has also recently in two separate letters to the main two Presidential Candidates Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe have urged the future President to go ahead with the project, and not stall it in the event either of them get elected to the country's foremost top post.
Emphasizing why Norochcholai was a viable plant compared to the other sites, located in parts including South and East of Sri Lanka, the union pointed out that Norochcholai plant site, was 258 acres in extent inclusive of all the buffer zones, and is a thinly populated area with only 73 families to be relocated, and the area has much lower fertility compared with the rest of the country.
"The alternative worth of this extent of land is minuscule compared to the colossal sum the lack of it has robbed our nation," the Engineers pointed out.
The Chilaw Bishop who has in his latest letter, claimed (according to his personal conviction) the coal power plant will never see the light of day, "Firstly, it is the wrong place. Secondly, it deeply hurts the poor and the marginalized. Thirdly, it lacks the favour of the people and blessing from above," the Bishop claims, but sources from the Puttalam area itself disclose that most of these families out of the 73 to be relocated have already met Power and Energy Minister Susil Premajayantha and given their blessings for the plant, and have also given an undertaking that they are not opposed to this project.
The families to be relocated and are to get a large plot of land, a house, and other benefits, including compensation in the event the project affects their livelihood. The majority of them live in cadjan huts like homes, while over the last couple of years, a few very small houses build by brick and cement has come up.
Further, energy analysts also points out that Sri Lanka is not the first country in the entire universe which is going to operate a coal fired power plant. Coal is the most widely used fuel for electricity generation worldwide amounting to approximately 60 %. Even in the most technologically advanced country in the world, the United States of America, 51% of electricity is generated out of Coal.
Research also points out that World Petroleum reserves are only going to last for 40-50 years from now. But, there are known Coal reserves that can last for over 200 years. All future petroleum reserves are from sites that are very expensive to explore and oil prices are likely to go up further as reserves diminish.
The fact that CEB is planning to adopt the latest technology available for the construction of Norochcholai Coal Power Plant and the use of low sulphur coal will definitely cut down pollution levels to the acceptable limits. "We also would like to draw your attention to the fact that our neighbour India has 60,000 MW of coal power plants and USA has about 300,000 MW of coal power plants in operation. In Sri Lanka we are planning to put up only 900 MW of coal power plant in Norochcholai," the engineers stressed.
Meanwhile, Dr. Siyambalapitiya also points out that if the past Governments took a firm decision and began constructing the project six years back, today the electricity consumer will be paying only Rs. 3.81 per unit of electricity instead of the between Rs. 8.50 to Rs. 11 per unit. It costs the CEB today approximately Rs. 15 to generate a single unit of electricity, due to the high cost of oil.
"Any politician or Bishop attempting to further delay the project are merely paving the way for more diesel power plants. Even at today's oil prices, your electricity bills will reach about double the present bills, and remain there for ever," he warns.
He also adds, how can a person who is 11 kilometres away from the site, say the plant affects them. This is just like the Bishop of Colombo protesting about a Power Plant in Avissawella, complaining that it will affect a Church in Pelmadulla. Or the Bishop of Galle protesting about a power plant in Aluthgama. This country is fortunate that we have only one such Bishop, and the country is unfortunate that the Bishop systematically opposes all infrastructure development projects unsuccessfully with private sector projects, very successfully with government projects.
However, despite the coal power plant not being implemented, owing to so called 'environment impacts', eleven diesel plants have come up on a short and long term basis all over Sri Lanka. Eight of these plants are privately owned and the balance by CEB. However, surprisingly one of these diesel burning power plants is in operation in Chilaw diocese administered by the Bishop of Chilaw himself.
Over ten years from 1994, while the country was suffering from acute power shortages and high electricity prices, the Bishop of Chilaw, EFL, politicians and other interested parties have paved the way to establish eleven diesel or diesel-burning power plants on a long-term basis, but have been protesting against coal power, which would bear less repercussions to the environment when compared to these diesel generating plants.