It's an idea Older than solar power itself - converting the potential power of water into electricity. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, looking for green energy has become a quest - one that is not too difficult for a country like ours where hydro energy is in abundant supply.
Just for the present, let's forget the large dams that were built in the 70s and 80s — although the Mahaveli Ganga hydropower project proved to be somewhat of a winner. In fact, while it was being developed, some local politicians were saying that it had the potential to supply power even to the Indian subcontinent. Needless to say that it's potential was vastly overestimated, probably for the political hype needed at that time; especially given the fact that in the 80s, vast portions of Sri Lanka were yet to be electrified.
It may well have been bad planning that led to the island wide blackouts in the late 90s; to the extent where we had to bring in- private power producers to give us thermal power. Solar energy is another environmentally friendly power source that has always been thought of as a solution for countries as sunny as Sri Lanka. However, it is still a fairly expensive solution even for neighboring India. The May 10th 2011 Economic Times of India says 'the only barrier to harnessing solar energy on a large scale has been the high costs involved'. Solar power costs INR 14-16 a unit, against INR 4-6 for conventional generation'. There has been lots of promise that this figure could come down further in India if all the material used to produce solar panels was manufactured within the country.
However, here in Sri Lanka, we already have a readily available source for energy. The abundance of water has a great deal of potential for us to develop hydro energy.
It is necessary for green power projects to grow at a rate much faster than it is now. So far, mini hydropower projects have had great success in Sri Lanka, especially with the private sector as a driving force behind it. The Ministry of Power and Energy's 2011 report says, 'Hydro is by far the most developed renewable energy resource in Sri Lanka. At present, its contribution to the power generation sector alone stands at 175 MW.'
Developing clean power
It was therefore informative to have a chat with Dinesh Ambani, the Chairman of Eco Power, and a company that has developed over 8 mini hydropower projects in Sri Lanka and is now actively involved in the African continent taking local knowledge across the seas to develop clean power there. It has been a long journey for this company. It started about 14 years ago and has grown to be a sector leader in the mini hydro area. Not surprising, considering that Sri Lanka is a country with a long history of hydrology, which was considered a sustainable economic plan even during the times of our ancient Kings.
Developing mini hydro projects has its special flavor of expertise and not something really new to Sri Lanka as it was first conceptualized by British planters who used water power to operate their tea factories.
However, as much as Sri Lanka has a rich history of making good use of its water, be it for irrigation or power generation, there has been something lacking in the way we have factored it in as a resource. Sri Lanka has not looked at its water resource in the same way the Middle East has looked at its oil. There is a dire need to look at hydro power as a strong base for our energy security. And the need for expansion in this area might be sooner than we think.
Even as the development of our industries accelerate, so is a need for low-cost energy; and with world market prices on oil soaring, we in Sri Lanka need to look seriously into hydro before we get into wind or solar, simply because we are already well placed with our resources and know-how to make a success of it.
We need companies that are focused purely on green power, and that has been the vision of Dinesh Ambani. Traditionally known to come from a trading background he draws his connections to the Metropolitan Group, which deals with office equipment. But 14 years ago he made a decision to diversify, and that was the genesis of Metrocorp, (formerly known as Metropolitan investment holdings) under which Boganthalawa Plantation, Eco Power and Megatech were set up in the late nineties.
"Megatech" was really the first company that was involved in the water sector and is today poised to complement the hydro power arm of the group. Megatech started to move up the value chain and is today capable of undertaking the supply, installation and commissioning of electro mechanical equipment in the water sector. It happens to compliment Eco Power whose particular specialty is developing run-off-the-river projects" says Ambani.
"Metrocorp" the holding company of the Eco Power Group is engaging in ventures that are entirely green. Our strategies involve engaging in sustainable agriculture, agro forestry which includes Tea/Rubber. We also have the infrastructure necessary to support them. We are trying to move away from liquid fuel to solid fuel. Our target is to plant a million trees, mainly eucalyptus for which we already have the land. Bogawantalawa is the first plantation company to be SA8000 certified."
With Dinesh Ambani at the helm this company had the will and the way to build an entity that has a minimal impact on the environment; a formula worth following in Sri Lanka's quest to develop a sustainable blueprint for our business environment.
In developing policy for our water resources, Hydro Energy is a sector that needs to be given special consideration. We have to place it in a different paradigm and due consideration should be given towards incentives that would encourage investments in green companies which will help to reduce our carbon footprint and will at the same time be economically sustainable.