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Norochcholai Coal Power Plant: Maintenance and repairs only by Chinese

30 Jan 2022

By Asiri Fernando The maintenance and repair work of the Norochcholai Power Plant are vested with the Chinese, with the Cabinet of Ministers recently approving a payment running into millions of US Dollars for maintenance services by Chinese experts for the troubled coal power plant, The Sunday Morning reliably learns. A senior Government minister speaking on terms of anonymity told The Sunday Morning that the Cabinet recently discussed and approved the payment. Several service agreements with the Chinese manufacturers of the plant have expired in the recent past with the Government now trying to negotiate a new service agreement to keep Norochcholai running until its planned phasing out in 2030.  Sources at the Power Ministry told The Sunday Morning that the lack of payments for services rendered and failure to renew the service agreement caused delays in seeking components and parts of a repair at the Norochcholai plant last year. This, amidst a section of the Norochcholai plant remaining dysfunctional for more than a month. The failure of one of the three generation units at Norochcholai triggered the State-owned utility provider, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), to use up much of the hydropower that was planned to be accessed later this year to plug the gap in supply. The unavailability of the 300 Megawatts (MW) of generation capacity also pushed the CEB to use up furnace oil and diesel reserves to fire thermal power plants to compensate for the shortfall in supply, further complicating the national energy crisis while Sri Lanka desperately seeks US Dollars to make payments for essential supplies, including fuel and services.   Over the years the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant has shown a poor track record with a number of unplanned outages reported. Several such incidents have been investigated in the past. The most recent breakdown at the plant is still under investigation, with a report expected next month. Norochcholai is Sri Lanka’s only coal-fired power plant with 900 MW capacity, built with a $ 1.4 billion loan from China in two phases. Last year, Power Minister Gamini Lokuge confirmed that assistance from Chinese experts was sought for the repairs of one power generation unit which had malfunctioned, later confirming their presence at the plant. Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Minister Lokuge expressed concern about the CEB’s dependency on the Chinese Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) to keep the troubled plant running. This is not the first time Chinese engineers from the OEM have been called in to help fix issues with the Norochcholai plant.  Sources at the CEB told The Sunday Morning that there had been delays in the arrival of technical experts to assist local engineers to repair the plant. Responding to a query about the maintenance payments, Ministry of Power Secretary Wasantha Perera acknowledged that the payments had been approved and had been done so in accordance with a sanctioned rate of payment. However, Perera did not comment on the amount and specifics of the approved payment. “There have been some issues with the maintenance agreements. Some payments needed to be made. The approval has been given to make the payments based on an approved rate, in accordance with legalities. Based on the approved rate, the calculated figure was approved for payment,” Perera told The Sunday Morning.   Responding to a query about the need for foreign specialists to repair power plants like the unit at Norochcholai, CEB Engineers Union President Saumya Kumarawadu stated that seeking specialised technical support and spare parts for complex machinery like thermal power generators was a standard practice. “It is normal to seek specialised maintenance for power plants from the OEM. Such support for power plant maintenance is normal. Foreign specialists are called in to support some repairs from time to time on a case-by-case basis,” Kumarawadu explained. He stressed that local engineers were capable of carrying out repairs and maintenance of all power plants, but some specialised areas required OEM trained personnel and custom-built spare parts, most of which needed to be imported from the manufacturer. “In the global energy industry, most OEMs provide maintenance services and there are technical aspects over which they maintain tight control. We don’t call in foreign experts for every repair but sometimes when there is a major incident and specialised technical expertise is needed, they are called in. This is normal for the industry; maintenance services is also part of the power industry business,” Kumarawadu opined. He added that specialised spare parts needed for repairs also needed to be sourced from the OEM. A senior CEB official told The Sunday Morning that another reason for the dependency on Chinese engineers for the Norochcholai plant was due to poor skill retention at the CEB. “This plant became operational in 2014. The CEB engineers have taken over running it completely, but we have a Chinese umbilical cord. There are pluses and minus to that. Sometime back, we had 175 Chinese staff at the plant, now we have reduced it to about 20 experts on site. We are keeping the liaison with China for two reasons. Firstly, our [CEB] skill retention is weak. When some of our people get specialised, they make all sorts of demands, with it comes strikes and work to rule. Also, once specialised, few remain at the post for long; many retire and some seek transfers. Another factor is that the Government pay scales don’t reflect their specialisation. We can’t pay them enough to retain them; they leave for greener pastures in the local private sector or move overseas. “In the case of some of the key components, the manufacturer does not provide details about them as they have their technology or design secrets. Also there are ‘black box’ parts which are not indicated in the technical drawing; no details are given, they only come with instructions to be replaced if they malfunction. We find such design secrets in European, Japanese, and Chinese designs too. Therefore, if we sever ties with the Chinese OEM, there is no way to source these specialised parts. A power plant is an intricate set of machines, so we need to keep a close link to source parts,” the CEB official explained. The Sunday Morning also learned that negotiations were ongoing to secure a new service agreement for maintenance of the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant, with Cabinet approval pending. Last year, the Government cancelled plans to build a fourth coal power generation unit at the Norochcholai facility, which was estimated to introduce another 300 MW of generation capacity to the national grid upon completion. The project was to be funded through a Chinese loan and built by a Chinese manufacturer. The addition to the Lakvijaya plant at Norochcholai was scrapped in line with the Government’s policy of reaching 70% of power needs through renewable sources.  

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