Crisis behind the power crisis

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa

An internal rift in the power sector is threatening to drag the electricity crisis further, with all sides now blaming each other over the failure to prevent the issue from reaching a critical level.

Despite Minister of Power and Energy Ravi Karunanayake’s assurances, a breakdown in a machine at the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant triggered power outages countrywide two weeks ago. While the machine was restored, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) announced that the power cuts were over. However, it continued around the country without prior notice, forcing the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) to warn the CEB that it would have to face legal obstacles unless they issued a power cut schedule.

Accordingly, the CEB implemented official power cuts since last Monday for three hours per day, including one hour at night.

As per the schedule released by the CEB, daytime power cuts were to take place any time from 8.30 a.m. to 11.30 a.m., 11.30 a.m. to 2.30 p.m., and 2.30 p.m. to 5.30 p.m., while night-time power cuts were to take place any time from 6.30 p.m. to 7.30 p.m., 7.30 p.m. to 8.30 p.m., and 8.30 p.m. to 9.30 p.m.

The reason for the current power cut was said to be the reduction in hydropower generation and the Government’s inability to build a proper power plant to meet the ever-growing demand.

Questions were raised by the public that if a short supply of hydropower generation added three hours’ load-shedding a day, what could be the result in the case of a breakdown in the Norochcholai Power Plant? Simply put, as reiterated by a CEB engineer, the whole country would plunge into darkness.

As explained by the engineer, with the acceleration of economic growth in Sri Lanka, it requires more electricity for internal consumption, and at present, Sri Lanka is in urgent need of approximately 300 MW of electricity to meet the current consumer demand.

The blame game

Putting the blame on PUCSL and CEB engineers, President Maithripala Sirisena claimed that some officials of the PUCSL and several engineers of the CEB had links to the private power plant owners and that they obstructed the implementation of the Long-Term Power Generation Plan during the last Cabinet meeting.

It is reported that the President said that he, in fact, had received information about the PUCSL members and some engineers going on foreign tours with the owners of the private power plants.

Soon after the CEB announced the official power cuts, a three-member committee comprising Ministers Kabir Hashim, Ravi Karunanayake, and Dr. Harsha de Silva was appointed by the President to look into the current power cut situation and find immediate solutions to end the power crisis.

Countering the claim of the President, CEB Engineers’ Union (CEBEU) President Saumya Kumarawadu told The Sunday Morning that the main reason for the present power crisis was the halt of the Sampur Power Station and that it was the President who decided to halt the project several years ago.

“As the experts of the field, we knew from the beginning that the country would have to experience power cuts unless the Government green-lighted appropriate power projects for the country,” he explained.

Since the Norochcholai Power Plant was built in 2014, no low-cost thermal power plants had been added to the system, although each year the demand went up by 200 MW and the responsibility for the delay in building new power plants should be taken by the PUCSL, as they have opposed the plans prepared by the experts in the field, he added.

Highlighting the need of low-cost power plants, Kumarawadu stressed that the situation now could be different if the CEB was able to build the proposed Sampur Power Station. Only the experts know what’s best for the country’s electricity network and not the politicians or other government officials.

“We need a mix in Sri Lanka with least-cost power plants. We need power plants that could be built within a short period of time. It will take at least five years to build a plant and until then, we should have short-term plans,” he added.

“Hydropower generation is low as there was no water in the hydropower reservoirs due to the dry weather situation. A few months ago, hydropower generation was about 50%, which was why the country didn’t experience any power cuts,” he stressed.

Kumarawadu said the loss of the CEB, which was estimated around Rs. 50 billion in 2017, was reduced to Rs. 20 billion last year, but this year it would rise to around Rs. 80 billion.

Asked whether there was any plan to stop power cuts by 10 April, Kumarawadu said: “The majority of workplaces would be closed down by 10 April and during the Avurudu season there won’t be power cuts, but again from 20 April, the CEB will have to implement the power cut schedule if there is no water in reservoirs.”

The Ministry is looking at the possibility of purchasing electricity from private electricity suppliers and also, there are plans to bring down a barge to connect it into the grid, he added.

Minister’s solution

Meanwhile, Minister of Power and Energy Ravi Karunanayake reiterated that a permanent solution would be given for the scheduled daily power cuts by 10 April.

“We are experiencing the repercussions of not taking preliminary actions to address the power demand issue. We need to find a viable solution so that this kind of crisis would not emerge in the future,” Karunanayake said.

Legal action against CEB

PUCSL Spokesman Jayanat Herath told The Sunday Morning that the PUCSL had never delayed any power plant construction, but instead pushed the CEB and the Ministry to build one immediately to avert any possible crisis in the future.

According to the Commission, it was the CEB that should take responsibility for the looming power crisis, but not the PUCSL or other entity. Herath noted that the PUCSL had from time to time informed the negative impact on the national economy as a result of delaying the construction of power plants.

“We approved the CEB’s Power Generation Plan 2013, but none of the proposals have been implemented so far,” he said.
According to the PUCSL, the CEB has not been permitted to implement a scheduled power cut yet. The Commission says that permission must be obtained if the CEB is to implement any scheduled power cuts.

“The board has not sought permission from the PUCSL to implement power cuts and we requested the consumers to inform the Commission on power cuts they experienced until 18 March 2019. The Commission hopes to file legal action against this move,” he added.

Meanwhile, CEB Employees’ Union (CEBEU) General Secretary Ranjan Jayalal said: “The only action the CEB took was to purchase power at exorbitant rates from private power generators and line their pockets in the process.

“Our question is ‘do we need a CEB just to cut off power’? One generator that was bought when they saw this imminent power crisis has been fixed on the ground. We ask them if they have a plan at least for the coming year. No, they do not.”