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Harnessing indigenous renewable energy resources

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Chartered Architect, Senior Lecturer, Deputy Head of School, Part II, City School of Architecture, Archt. Surangi Gunawardena points out that Sri Lanka is blessed with several forms of renewable energy resources, warranted by geo-climatic conditions. It is an island in the equatorial belt, and it receives a year-round supply of sunlight and rainfall from the Southwest and Northeast monsoons. Further, the central highland, lowland mountain ranges, flat terrains, and plateaus, allow a perennial river system.

Archworld speaks to Gunawardena who says that it is imperative that we harness the available indigenous renewable resources such as solar, wind, hydro and biomass for energy generation, thus moving towards energy independence and sustainability.

Sri Lanka has been moving towards sustainable energy generation for the past few decades, however, it may be stated that the speed of growth is not sufficient. Apart from sun, wind and waves, we must not forget hydropower, which has been an energy source for a long time.

“Approximately 35 percent of energy is generated by renewable resources, mainly hydropower. The Government had a vision to move towards 70 percent energy generation through renewable sources by 2030, and aims to have a carbon neutral electricity generation system by 2050, as per the document submitted to UN Climate Change in 2021 according to Sri Lanka’s vision for a low carbon future. Therefore, the policies are in place. What is required is implementation and widespread awareness for all stakeholders. The new renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar are now being extensively used. With regards to solar power generation, the initial cost of equipment was expensive and was a major setback for individual customers to invest in. However, now the cost has reduced significantly, and the return on investment is very much favourable,” said Gunawardena.

These days the heat is scorching. The only shade we get is underneath the sky scrapers. However, this should not be the case. We need shade from trees. If you look around Colombo there is greenery but not enough.

“Planting and shading are very much a need for urban areas to maintain a desirable climate for people to move in, to increase walkability and reduce the greenhouse gasses. Therefore, urban greening not only creates a pleasant and comfortable atmosphere for the people, but is also one of the mitigation options for Climate Change. Creating walkways, by using concrete paving is costly, but planting trees is an essential, non-expensive method that needs to be incorporated into any urban development proposal. More cost-effective design for urban greening should be sought.”

We know that the reason for traffic congestion is too many vehicles. For this we need an efficient and comfortable public transportation system.

Gunawardena added that comfortable public transportation systems can be thought of at different levels. The existing transport systems – bus and rail have not seen much development over many decades. Much emphasis has been given to developing roads and highways, with some improvement to public transport. The multi modal transport hubs are a good system, where we hope that more and more people will use public transport.

However, Gunawardena argues that it is not only the availability that matters. The improvement of socio-cultural aspects of the service needs a lot of thought and improvement for people to feel comfortable to use public transport.

“We still see the lack of road discipline, no respect for road safety and rude crude behaviour by people operating this service. Women find it extremely difficult due to social issues. Until all those aspects are looked at and developed, the people will be wary to use public transport unless they have no other choice. All people who can somehow manage to lease a vehicle or at least a bike, will use private vehicles mostly due to these issues. A widespread national plan looking into all aspects is a requirement. The abundantly available three-wheel taxis and other taxi services gained much popularity owing to the issues highlighted above, thus adding thousands of vehicles onto the streets. This too will now be a problem due to lack of fuel and price hikes,” explained Gunawardena.

At a different level, the development of a Light Rail System in Colombo saw an abrupt end owing to various economic and political reasons. It is hoped that the resurrection of this project will alleviate the problems of public transport.

Another problem she identified is the very little development in the railway sector that was already in place during Independence. Improvement in this sector could have been very much advantageous in reducing road traffic and resulting pollution. In addition to the above, the enhancement and redevelopment of the canal networks in and around Colombo was expected to improve water transportation. However, we see very little done in this regard. It is questionable why redevelopment of infrastructure projects gets keen attention, while implementation of the expected systems is ignored or given very little attention.

“Walking tracks and public park development for the health benefits of people are good. However, urban greening needs more attention. We must keep in mind that as we have a hot humid climate, it is very uncomfortable to walk or cycle in such conditions, especially if one is using these modes to go to work. Hence, it is not only about developing walking tracks, concrete pavements, car parks and benches in isolated pockets, but about enhancing and developing the connections where people move from one place to another. We see some improvement in certain areas of Colombo in this regard, where people could walk from place to place without too much discomfort due to shaded streets and pavements. Further, even though bicycle lanes are present in many areas, due to lack of road discipline, it is dangerous for people to cycle for fear of being knocked down. Until the law enforcement agencies do what is required to uphold the law of this country, it is useless developing roads and bicycle lanes. As such, a more feasible alternative would be to improve public transport,” she explained.

According to Gunawardena, several initiatives have been implemented to harness solar power. The ‘Soorya Balasangramaya’ (Battle for Solar Energy), a community-based power generation by the Ministry of Power in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority (SLSEA), Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and Lanka Electricity Company (Private) Limited (LECO) was initiated to promote the setting up of small solar power plants on the rooftops of households, religious places, hotels, commercial establishments and industries.

“In this system the consumers have the option of generating electricity and using it within their premises. There are also low interest loan schemes encouraging customers to install rooftop solar power systems. The electricity generated in excess can be sold to the national grid or banked for later use where customers can select a preferred option from three available schemes: Net Metering, Net Accounting or Micro Solar Power Producer. These schemes are at a micro level. Due to the high demands of energy in the country, macro scale projects such as solar farms, extensive use of photovoltaics in large building complexes including high-rise buildings, industrial buildings and large public buildings may be an answer, but will not be possible in the immediate future due to the current economic crisis.”

The Mannar Island Wind Farm and Hambantota wind farms are few projects that are engaged in utilizing wind for energy generation. However, small scale wind generation is not feasible due to changing microclimatic conditions, especially in urban areas. With regards to Wave Power it is reported that the south-west to south-east coast of Sri Lanka is suitable for wave energy harvesting. However, technical challenges and environmental implications will have to be addressed carefully.

Almost seven years ago Gunawardena invested in an Electric Vehicle and a rooftop solar system. To date, she uses the EV. No petrol queues, no electricity bills, minimal vehicle service bills, less need for domestic gas. The government should seriously consider more tax rebates and support the people to use EVs and invest in rooftop solar systems which will reduce the daytime demand for other sources of power. The greater good of transitioning to EVs means NO tailpipe emissions. Hence no environmental pollution which makes way for a better environment and healthier people.

“Architects could consider these needs during design to allow for large expanses of roofs for solar systems, especially in commercial, public and industrial buildings. In addition, architects should consider inclusion of EV charging ports in public places such as supermarkets, restaurants and hotels. In addition to tax incentives, priority lanes, priority parking could be provided to encourage the use of electric vehicles. It is definitely worth looking into the feasibility of solar power for public transport,” said Gunawardena.

She concluded by saying that while talking about using renewable energy for energy demand, we must not forget to discuss reduction of energy use.

“Architects particularly must be conscious of environmental conscious design. With the current crisis, we must look at more sustainable ways of construction using indigenous materials and vernacular techniques that could be developed and utilized with current available technologies. There is a big role that the Architect community can play to relieve the user and revive the construction industry by designing for this inevitability. Due to the increased demand in ‘modern’ global trends in architectural design, we seem to have gone farther and farther away from environmental sustainability,” added Gunawardena.

Some of the issues she highlights are shocking! We seal houses and buildings and block all ventilation to keep away dust and insects and thereafter air condition them to create a comfortable atmosphere. We design using the ‘international style’, often requested by clients, with more glass, flat roofs, less eaves and thus creating a huge energy demand to make these hot boxes comfortable to live in or use. Large glazed windows contribute to heat and glare. They are often covered with tats and curtains, thereby creating a need for artificial lighting. These issues could be understood if you were to analyze the electricity bills of many buildings.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022 – 01:00

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