I was invited to write an English review of the Sinhala edition of Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka’s new book බලය හා බලය (‘Balaya Saha Balaya’). The review, which I reproduce here, originally appeared in the Daily Mirror of Monday 4th August 2014. In it, I argue that Minister Ranawaka’s book is a formidable look at the nexus between energy, economics and politics and makes a useful knowledge contribution.
Amidst the aggressive and polarizing late-night political shows on television, the mediocre debates in poorly attended parliamentary sittings, and lofty pronouncements in public rallies, Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka’s new book ‘Power and Power’ (‘Balaya saha Balaya’) comes as a refreshing change. In the current context, it is rather unusual to see well-researched publications coming from politicians. The entire book appears to be characteristic of him – an engineering graduate who became an expert in the energy sector, an independent thinker willing to critique the policy status-quo, and an experienced policymaker with a track record of ideas and action.
A Snapshot of the Book
As he mentions in the foreword, the idea for the book came to him when he was writing a book on energy for school children back in March 2011. He wanted to write a book on energy issues that was deep in its content but simple in its explanation. Nearly three and half years later, he can surely be satisfied with the outcome. Because what ‘Power and Power’ is, is a tour de force of the energy sector in Sri Lanka and beyond, and its intriguing interactions with politics and the state writ large. The energy sector in Sri Lanka is pretty complicated, and often controversial. During his time directly involved in the sector, he gained a lot of understanding and insight into the power and politics at play, the undercurrents that shaped decisions, the institutions that operate in the energy arena, the special interests, lobbies, trade unions, etc. Those first hand experiences have enriched every chapter, and taken the book beyond explanation, to insight.
‘Power and Power’ tackles the nexus between the power that comes from energy and the power that comes from economics and politics – what the linkages between those are and how they are panning out globally as well as here in Sri Lanka. The book is in two parts. The first part tackles the trends and developments in the global power and energy sector and the second part is the politics of power and energy both in Sri Lanka as well as the rest of the world.
First Chapters: Science, Engineering and Systems
The first couple of chapters offer a useful refresher on the science and physics aspects of energy and power generation, the trends of industrialization in the world and how power and energy links in to that story. The author takes a historical look at power and energy generation and the mechanics of devices that are at the heart of power generation – turbines, dynamos, engines, etc., hydropower plants, coal power plants, thermal power plants, energy grids and so on. I will not attempt to review these sections, as they are best left for engineers and others who are more familiar with the subject matter. Yet, a particular favourite of mine is the section where he explores the process of transmission of energy from generation to end-user and provides an understanding of the losses at each point in the chain of supply.
The section on fossil fuels is quite possibly the most comprehensive discussion in the Sinhala language on this subject – the science, geology, economics, and recent developments like shale (in the US). This is particularly useful in mainstreaming the debates around the linkages between energy and environmental issues.
Sustainable Energy Focus
The focus on sustainable energy is an underlying theme of the whole book, and it must also be influenced by his tenure as Minster for Environment. In his chapter on renewable energy there is a useful exploration of the various forms that exist and the technology and resources behind them. There is a detailed section on wind capacity in Sri Lanka, providing an interesting map on the wind yields across the country. But it would have been useful to also incorporate a discussion of the recent investments in wind power in regions like Kalpitiya – the policies that shaped private sector interest, what worked what did not, whether these investments are yielding the right results, whether the projects were structured well, potential for replication in other areas like Mannar, what lessons were learnt, and, overall, whether the sector can live up to the hype. In the sections on solar energy and biogas, there is a very good discussion of the concepts and technologies behind it, but could have benefitted from more discussion of their potential and problems specifically in Sri Lanka.
He argues that as the maximum electricity requirement of the country rises sharply from 2000MW in 2010 to 7000MW in 2030, the additional demand should be met through renewable energy sources. He breaks this down further. In wind power, he asserts that the potential in the country is as much as 25,000MW and at least 4000MW of this can, and must, be extracted. To do this, he calls for the setting up of 4,000 wind power plants of 1MW each. In solar power, he calls for introducing 1KW solar panels on the roofs of 1 million homes and other buildings, which could generate 1000MW of power. Additionally, he states that with an investment of US$ 10 billion, solar farms can be set up with a potential to generate a further 1000MW. Amidst these efforts, the author emphasizes that there is a need to invest in efficient transmission systems and smart power grids.
Nuclear: A Key First Look
Nuclear energy is a fairly under-discussed topic in Sri Lanka, and so the section on nuclear technology as it relates to energy is an important value addition in this book. It contains a good exposition of the concept and physics behind nuclear energy, how nuclear energy is produced and transmitted, risks in storage and waste management, as well as the associated economic and political issues that nuclear energy throws up. The author has included a revealing map of the nuclear plants located across India and discusses the implications of this for Sri Lanka.
He points to a few key elements that need addressing in Sri Lanka in the nuclear power agenda. 1) As the Northern and North Western parts of the country are very close to two key Indian nuclear power plants, he urges the country to put in place early warning and disaster management systems to tackle nuclear leaks and other hazards; 2) Developing regulatory and institutional structures relating to nuclear technologies; 3) Signing up to relevant international covenants and conventions on nuclear safety; 4) Advancement of expertise among young scientists and engineers on tackling this new technology; and 5) Bringing international expertise to conduct geological surveys on the uranium and thorium deposits in the country. He also reminds us that as the general public does not fully understand nuclear energy, there ought to be a wider public awareness campaign about it.
In the second part of the book, Ranawaka looks at the politics and power at play in the energy sector. He takes a comprehensive look at the historical evolution of oil-related geo-politics in last 100 years or so, and across different parts of the world – Latin America, Saudi Arabia, US, Caspian Sea, Norway and North Sea offshore oil, Russia, and East Asian countries like Indonesia. He also explores examples of when leaders were brought down because of energy sector issues – Californian Governor Grey Daves (electricity ‘mafia’), Japanese Prime Ministers (first the LNG lobby and then Fukushima nuclear disaster) and Australia’s Kevin Rudd (carbon taxes and coal lobby). This section attempts to also tackle the shifting global economic dynamics and the rise of China, etc. While these are no doubt important and contemporary issues, they seem insufficiently interwoven into the energy discussion. For instance, the link could have been made between the recent developments in the Chinese economy – China’s evolving growth model – and what it means for global energy demand and energy-linked commodity demand (like coal).
Sri Lankan Energy Imperatives
The author’s chapter on the energy usage patterns in Sri Lanka is thought-provoking. For instance, he shows that in 1976 the use of biomass was 73% of total energy production while petroleum was just 21%, major hydro was 6%, and coal was 0%. But by 2011, biomass had reduced to 43%, petroleum to 43.4%, major hydro to 8.5% and coal to 2.9%. What is especially interesting is the trends in biomass – a somewhat hidden story. Between 1976 and 2010 biomass energy supply rose by 1,734 103toe compared to hydropower energy rising by just 931 103toe (even with the Mahaweli project). The author also highlights that petroleum-based energy generation increased by 479% between 1976 and 2010 – an increase from 21% of total production to 41%. He warns that this is a “dangerous trend, both because of environmental impacts but also economic burden in terms of foreign exchange import bills”.
To tackle this, he calls for a rebalancing of the energy sector, setting a target ratio between renewable to non-renewable energy of 60-40. For that, he says, ‘non-conventional renewable energies’ (so-called green energies) like wind, biogas, and solar should rise from the current 7% to 20% by 2020 and that the efficiency of electricity usage should increase by 20%. He calls for a re-think of how electricity is generated, how transport is organized, and how buildings, townships and cities are designed.
Meanwhile, for anyone who has previously followed only newspaper articles (and accusations trade between politicians) on the issues surrounding the Norochcholai power plant, a section in the book comprehensively deals with several controversial aspects that many readers would be curious about – for instance, questions around the quality and technology standards of this Chinese-built power plant.
Industrial Energy – An Interesting Case
As someone who works extensively on industry issues, I found the section on industrial and commercial use of electricity particularly useful. In it, Ranawaka shows that the majority – 80% – of electricity use in industry is by the ‘large industry’ segment of just 1,525 companies while medium industries (5175) use about 14% and small industries (40,000) about 6%. He reports that this 3,740GWh used by 1,525 enterprises is 37% of the country’s total energy production.
An interesting policy experiment followed this discovery, according to Ranawaka, and provides an interesting example of how evidence and data was used in designing policy initiatives. A programme was launched in 2012 specifically targeting this industry segment, with 140 firms being pushed to go for energy saving – including electricity usage audits, solutions to conserve energy, options for modernization, etc. In the first year of the programme itself, 96GWh were saved and demonstrated that with a 10% of additional investment 20% savings in electricity could be achieved. This case is put forward to stress the point that in meeting the rising demand for energy, it is not just about building new power plants but also about measures to conserve electricity.
Oil Exploration – Revealing Information
The section on oil exploration in Sri Lanka is actually quite revealing. While it doesn’t shed light on the latest aspects of the oil exploration efforts with Cairn India, it does however offer a interesting insights into the evolution of oil exploration efforts in Sri Lanka dating back to the 1970s and the various factors and compulsions that shaped the oil and gas exploration agenda over the past 40 years. In this section, Ranawaka calls for more Sri Lanka-led 3D seismic surveys and data collection. In extracting and refining oil and gas he puts forward three different ‘modes’ – all of which are widely accepted. Of these, he argues that the best for Sri Lanka is a hybrid system of royalty fees, production sharing, and profit sharing. He does not go in to detail on the relative merits and demerits of each of the options, how they will work in Sri Lanka, and which modes he recommends for the ongoing efforts with Cairn India. But he notes that without substantial evidence it is hard to come up with a conclusive strategy. This section was lacking a little more in-depth analysis on the potential and current status on oil exploration blocks off Mannar and where it is likely to go in the future.
Overall, while there is an extensive discussion of the nexus between geopolitics and energy in many other countries and regions, a reader could get the feeling that it is not so extensively discussed for the Sri Lankan context. On the energy-politics nexus, some questions that could have been tackled are: What are the implications of the Western sanctions on Iran for Iranian oil-importing countries like Sri Lanka? What are the implications of Sri Lanka’s oscillating relationship with India on oil and gas exploration efforts in the Mannar and Cauvery basins? How will our geopolitical relationships be shaped by the fact that the configurations of the new coal power plants in Sri Lanka necessarily mean a dependence on certain types of coal coming from certain countries? What are the political implications of Chinese and Indian financing and/or building of new coal power plants, and how will it change if the two-sides agree to convert the debt to equity? Will oil-importing countries like Sri Lanka feel any effect of the emergence of shale/tight oil and gas in the US and its influence on global oil prices?
One probably should not attempt to slot ‘Power and Power’ into any one category. In parts it’s an interesting science and technology textbook, in parts it’s a manual for policymakers, in parts it’s a call to rethinking the socio-economic system, and in parts it’s a revealing historical analysis. Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka is no newcomer to the power and energy field, having held many high-level positions in this sector in the past – most notably the Minister for Power and Energy. He has clearly brought all that experience to bear in writing this book. It’s peppered with interesting insights that only a policymaker or politician would be privy to, and this book gives us unique access to these. However, the gamut of issues it attempts to tackle (science, politics, economics, history) might also be precisely what makes it difficult for some readers to wrap around. So, I would strongly urge the author to extract parts of the book for dissemination among different audiences (students, politicians, etc). Regardless of this, the volume as a whole is a veritable treasure trove of information and a must read for anyone interested in the national and global context in the energy sector; for any student of energy politics; for those working on energy economics and policies; and for anyone really interested in Sri Lanka’s energy future and the global and local compulsions driving that.