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A power crisis in the making? 

a year ago

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By Vinu Opanayake Can we even identify ourselves as Sri Lankans if we have not had a power cut on a Sunday we were hoping to watch Netflix and chill, throw a small party, or – let’s be honest – just to take a really long nap? Power outages are a regular occurrence around Sri Lanka, and it is happening way too often these days. This week, The Sunday Morning decided to look at the reasons behind these recent outages while also looking at expert opinions on whether Sri Lanka is heading into a power crisis in the midst of a foreign currency shortage, and the solutions the country may have to implement. Sri Lanka’s power generation Sri Lanka was producing 100% of its electricity demand from hydropower until mid-1995, but the sudden spike in demand for electricity in the following years ensured the country’s shift towards fossil fuels for a major portion of its national electricity requirement. According to World Bank data, Sri Lanka’s per capita energy consumption in kilowatt per hour (kWh) is 636.3, one of the highest in the South Asian region. India’s per capita energy consumption is a little more than that of Sri Lanka, at 644 kWh. Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh are behind Sri Lanka with significant differences in per capita energy consumption. The country’s energy demand is being catered mostly by fossil fuels, both imported and indigenous non-fossil fuels. In terms of indigenous non-fossil fuel energy sources, biomass power accounted for about 39% of the total energy production in 2015, while large hydropower accounted for 9%, and new Renewable Energy (RE i.e. solar, small hydropower, and wind) accounted for 3% of the total energy production. About 50% of Sri Lanka’s energy was generated through fossil fuel, coal, and petroleum, with about 10% and 39% contribution, respectively, to the total energy production that year. It should be noted that coal and petroleum are imported fossil fuel resources, and that these imports weigh on the country’s import expenditure. Issues over the years According to the International Trade Administration website of the US, regardless of many long-term plans, Sri Lanka experienced numerous power outages in 2018, 2019, and 2020 as hydropower reached capacity and began to decline due to less predictable weather patterns. Now, we are experiencing similar power outages in 2021 as well. Speaking to us, Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) Engineers’ Union President Saumya Kumarawadu stated that this is mainly due to Sri Lanka not having sufficient power plants and not making considerable progress in the renewable energy sector apart from increasing solar energy since 2014. “In the past six to seven years, only the solar power panels and windmills have been added to the national grid. There is about 400-500 megawatts (MW) of solar power being added now. But, these ones will operate only when there is sun and wind, unlike the Norochcholai Power Plant, which will operate 24/7 regardless of whether it is sunny or windy,” he stated. Speaking further, Kumarawadu admitted that there is a shortage of power and that it took them a couple of years to realise that there is a shortage. Adding to what was said, he noted that with the Easter Sunday attacks in April 2019, the power consumption was at a temporary slump, which was followed by another massive slump after the local spread of the Covid-19 virus where the overall national demand for power witnessed a reduction. As a result, the past two years were manageable with the current power plan. However, now that economic activities are returning to normalcy and almost all sectors are operating at their pre-pandemic levels, the country’s power sector has begun to feel the increasing demand. “This year is one of those years with a good level of rainfall. In fact, this year saw the best rainfall in the last 10 years. As a result, we produced 50% of power through the hydro methods as our reservoirs are filled to 80-90% capacity. After the lifting of the lockdown, the demand for power is gradually going up. Unfortunately, we cannot expect the same rainfall next year as well. We cannot depend on the rainfall. It will decrease by the end of February,” he warned.   Kumarawadu projected that the hydro contribution to the total power supply would dip to 5% by February next year, from its current contribution of 50%.   Speaking on the possibilities of going for emergency power purchase by early next year when the rainfall comes to an end, he disclosed that they are not in favour of seeking costly yet short-term solutions for this power issue.   “The Government does not construct power plants. They delay such projects, change policies related to power projects, and jeopardise our power plant plans. We are trying to supply power 100% from renewable energy by 2050. The Government has a plan to supply 70% renewable energy by 2030 and it is, without a question, a big challenge. We are ready to do this, but the Government has to play a proactive role to achieve this,” he expressed. When asked about long-term measures for the issues in the national power sector, he stated that it is imperative to establish power plants that generate power in spite of sunny, rainy, or windy climates.   “Now if I want 200 MW from Victoria Power Plant, it can generate that amount and give it to me. If I want 500 MW from Norochcholai Power Plant, it should be able to generate that amount anytime. We need plants like that,” Kumarawadu added. According to him, the reason Sri Lanka has still failed to establish similar plants is because of the volatility of the Sri Lankan Government’s power-related policies that keep changing with each new government. The previous Government had stopped a power plant that was supposed to be set up in Sampur, he stated, adding that investors have now moved that project to Bangladesh and have established a power plant there. He stated that if the consecutive governments went ahead with the power plants without cancelling, delaying, or postponing them, at least a further 600 MW would have been added to our national grid as of now, which would have secured the power supply even when the hydro power’s contribution goes down during the drought season. PUCSL, CEB in denial Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) Chairman Janaka Ratnayake, speaking to The Sunday Morning, stated that there is absolutely no need for Sri Lanka to go for emergency power purchases. “We have realised that there is a little scarcity of power generation, but nobody has spoken about purchasing emergency power yet. It is the PUCSL which is going to approve even if there is a need to get emergency power purchase,” Ratnayake noted. When questioned what PUCSL has planned if the prevailing rainfall comes to an end and hydropower's contribution to the total power supply drops, he stated that Sri Lanka witnesses many rainfalls throughout the year and added that “luckily” Sri Lanka has an ample level of water in the reservoirs. When asked how much more MW have to be added to the national power grid to ensure uninterrupted power supply in the country, Ratnayake stated: “We have enough power already. We supply 2,500 MW daily. We have nothing to worry about now. (We) have to wait and see how things will progress.” Commenting on PUCSL’s long-term plans for the country’s power sector, he mentioned that the PUCSL is waiting for the 20-year power generational plan, which is set to be given to the PUCSL within the next four or five months. When asked whether Sri Lanka has a credible power sector strategy to attract investors, Ratnayake said that their last solar power energy tender received an “overwhelming” response, and that is a 25,000 MW project which is five times more than what the country needs. “We do not have a problem in attracting any investors. The only problem is the forex crisis that is keeping away investors,” he added. Meanwhile, Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) Chairman M.M.C. Ferdinando stated that there will be an increase in demand, and that they will manage it with their existing capacities. “If there is no rain, we have to provide additional power supply to meet the demand, and we can do that. At the moment, we have 900 MW of coal power, 300 MW from the Kerawalapitiya Power Plant, and another 350 MW combined power from the Kelanitissa Power Plant. These are in addition to thermal power plants and gas turbines. If the rainfall stops we have to utilise the existing power plants that are already connected to the system. We have to use more fuel, which is an area of concern. In March 2022, we will have another 300 MW added to the system and there is another tender that is being opened and finalised. We will have that power plant by 2025; that is another 150 MW from there. We are adding more and more renewable energy, and there will be no power shortage unless there is a drought that continues for two, three years,” Ferdinando elaborated. ‘Focus on the long term’ In order to obtain an expert’s opinion, we spoke to Dr. Vidhura Ralapanawe, a power and energy specialist. Dr. Ralapanawe stated that in the short-term, as a solution to the power outages, he does not see anything but emergency power purchases as a solution. However, he added that the most convenient thing to do would be adding generational capacity, but that there is another option.  “Another option you can think about is, depending on a proper analysis, there is energy generation capacity that is in the private sector and the state sector that are available to be leveraged or to be connected to the grid. If your requirement is say 300 MW, we can pay private companies for that and tell them to run on the generator. This has been previously done before, multiple times in Sri Lanka. This is so that we do not pay massive power costs to private energy companies,” Dr. Ralapanawe explained.   Delving deeper into the power outage issues, he stated that in 2019, Sri Lanka started having power outage issues, and since then up to now there has been nothing done to prevent such outages. He stated that a government needs a large amount of time to build conventional power plants.   “In 2019 itself we should have gone for large-scale renewable energy, but we did not because our people started singing for coal, oil, and gas, knowing very well that they cannot be procured on time. But every year, when there is a power outage, we suddenly talk about this issue and go for emergency power and I do not know whether it is intentional or not,” Dr. Ralapanawe mused.   Speaking further, he held CEB unions and certain key people within the CEB responsible for this fault and added that even now, the most successful renewable energy programme in the country is the non-conventional renewable energy tariff programme, which, even up to date, has been blocked by the CEB. “This has been blocked from 2016 onwards. Right now, this scheme provides 10% of total energy production in the country, for a year. Something that could provide 10% of the national energy demand is continuously blocked by the CEB and unions but none of these guys have any opposition towards buying oil or emergency power,” he stated.   When asked whether there is an impending power crisis, he said, this year, Sri Lanka could not purchase coal given the current foreign exchange situation and added that from now to mid-April next year, Sri Lanka has to buy 1.5 million tonnes of coal, that too at a record high price which Sri Lanka may not afford to pay and that itself could be a power crisis. “At the moment, Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) is not providing fuel to CEB, saying that they owe CPC money, huge amounts of money. Now the CPC has told CEB if you want to buy, pay the money. I do not know whether CEB has enough foreign exchange reserves to pay for coal and also buy oil from somewhere else because CPC will not supply,” Dr. Ralapanawe questioned. Providing solutions for the looming power crisis, he stated that medium to long-term solutions are all to do with renewable energy and that has to be done in two ways. Accordingly, one of them is to revise the non-conventional energy tariff rates. The next one is encouraging large-scale renewable energy projects to come in, as those can be constructed within two years. He also gave another solution which is fast-tracking solar power implementation by removing all the blocks and hindrances. “In the short-term what you need to do is to really use the existing infrastructures. The government offices have a lot of generators, for example, the Hambantota Convention Centre and Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium. Those can be converted and plugged back into the grid. If we can do this, we can avoid paying a massive amount of money in dollar terms because a lot of the emergency power contracts are on dollar terms,” he stated. Concluding his remarks, Dr. Ralapanawe emphasised that instead of seeking temporary solutions at the last minute, authorities should eye long-term viable solutions to address the problems in the power sector.

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