Is expensive electricity good? Impoverished Sri Lankans don’t think so

Electricity is an essential component of modern life. Without it we would be quite literally back in medieval times. The island nation of Sri Lanka is striving mightily to emerge from both the literal and figurative medieval times. Its population is around 21.6 million, and its electricity generation in 2011 is estimated at 11.5 billion kilowatt-hours. For comparison, Ontario, my home jurisdiction, has a population of 13 million and generates roughly 150 billion kWh per year. You read that right. Ontario, with not even two-thirds Sir Lanka’s population, generated thirteen times Sri Lanka’s power. On a per-capita basis, the average Sri Lankan uses just over 532 kWh of electricity per year. That is not even five percent of what the average Ontarian uses.

Homi Bhabha, the father of India’s nuclear power program, who once said “no energy is more expensive than no energy.” Sri Lankans who today are protesting against electricity price hikes, and whose annual per capita electricity consumption is less than five percent the average Ontarian’s, know only too well what he meant.

Try cutting your electricity consumption to five percent of normal. If you succeed, congratulations: you now know how much electricity you can afford living on $6,100 a year, which was Sri Lanka’s estimated per-capita GDP in 2012.

As Sri Lanka struggles to rebuild what little was left over from the vicious civil war that lasted more than a quarter century and ended in 2009, it faces a new challenge: high oil prices. The country makes more than half of its electricity by burning oil. The government recently tried to pass costs onto citizens, who in late April began demonstrating against the price hikes.

Sri Lanka is of course an island nation in the Indian Ocean, just south of the sub continent on which sits the world’s most populous democracy, India. A famous and prescient Indian, Homi Bhabha, the father of India’s nuclear energy program, once said no energy is more expensive than no energy. You can see the price Sri Lankans are paying today for that no energy: it has put them into the poorhouse. If things don’t change, they will stay there.

The BBC report notes that some alternatives to oil have recently been added to Sri Lanka’s grid; these consist of some wind turbines next to a petroleum refinery (a typical PR move by oil companies), and solar street lights. Nobody, least of all Sri Lankans living on the edge of economic oblivion, should pin any hope on these alternatives providing much electricity, let alone cheap electricity. Wind is inherently inefficient and cannot solve any supply problems. Its inherent inefficiency is what makes it so expensive in western countries like Canada, where in Ontario it costs at least 11 cents per kWh. Ratepayers, regardless of economic circumstances, are forced to pay this high rate, even though other, much more efficient and just as clean, sources exist and have been already paid for. Can Sri Lanka afford this kind of transfer from the poor to the rich? Clearly not. Sri Lanka should steer clear of “green” energy. It is as expensive as no energy.

Rather than fueling its economy with petroleum-generated electricity and dealing with the understandable popular revolts against price hikes, Sri Lanka might want to look at a very interesting new scheme advanced by Rosatom, Russia’s state-owned nuclear company. Rosatom says it will offer to build, own, and operate nuclear plants in developing countries.

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