COLOMBO: Indian and Sri Lankan officials are yet to discuss the conversion of the proposed 500 MW power plant at Sampoor in Eastern Sri Lanka from a coal-based one to one based on Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), despite Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assurance to Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena in mid-May, that he will ask his officials to talk to their Lankan counterparts about it.
Informed sources told Express on Tuesday, that while work on the coal-based plant has ground to halt, there have been no moves from either the Indian or the Lankan side to begin discussions on conversion to LNG.
While the final decision will be taken at the highest political level in Delhi and Colombo, Indian officials are skeptical about the soundness of the Lankan proposal. LNG will be much costlier, they point out. At the moment, the world oil price is at the rock bottom, but it could skyrocket anytime making an LNG-based plant economically unviable. Besides, the consumer has to be heavily subsidized.
The Lankan market is too small to locate a large LNG terminal, though it is possible to have smaller terminals. Then again, to be economical, the terminal cannot be at Sampoor on the East Lankan coast, but on the Western coast closer to the West Asian oil fields. The power plant itself has to be relocated on the Western coast.
Every study that was done for the coal-based plant will have to be done afresh for the LNG plant, and all agreements on the Sampoor plant, so painfully negotiated over many years, will have to be re-negotiated from scratch. All that will take many years to complete.
However, if a political decision is taken to switch to LNG, India’s National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), which is executing the coal-fired Sampoor plant, will do as told, being a state enterprise. The NTPC has built LNG-based power plants in India.
The Lankan government is neither in a frightful hurry to build a power plant nor is it hungry for power. The current capacity enables it to ensure 100 percent supply round the clock to every nook and corner of the country.
But Indians point out that if government’s ambitious plans to attract foreign investment fructify, and if grandiose projects like the Colombo Port City and the Western Province “Megapolis” are to be implemented, there will be a great surge in the demand for power.
Lanka will have to prepare for this and think of a mix of fuels which has to include coal substantially, because it is the cheapest and the most consistently available unlike sunlight and wind. Coal’s importance goes up in Lanka also because of the total rejection of nuclear power.
But successive Lankan governments, barring the Rajapaksa regime, have been very environment conscious. Lanka’s first and only coal fired plant at Norochcholai had to wait until Rajapaksa came to power. He had also initiated the Indo-Lankan joint venture plant and a Japanese funded coal-fired plant at Sampoor.
But neither plant will come up now because Lankans consider their environment a precious endowment and therefore inviolable. To underline this, there has been a consistent peoples’ agitation in Sampoor against the coal-fired plant led by Thirunavukkarasu Gopahan of Green Trincomalee Movement. Even a documentary has been produced on the issue.