Lights out: Power crisis showcases long term planning failures | Sunday Observer

Lights out: Power crisis showcases long term planning failures

 Power,  Energy and Business Development Minister Ravi Karunanayake
Power, Energy and Business Development Minister Ravi Karunanayake

Since the completion of the 900WM Lakvijaya (Norochcholai) Power Plant in 2014, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has failed to commission fresh major power generating plants despite the country staring right down the barrel of a looming power crisis, as annual power demand continues to grow by 150-200MW per annum.

The state body’s drawback has hit Small and Medium Industries (SMIs) and Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) as they struggle to meet production demands amidst a daytime three-hour power cut imposed by the government to alleviate the crisis. Economists warn the continuation of the current situation, aggravated by the drought that has left water levels of major reservoirs receding to 32.8 per cent of capacity, will cause a serious dent in the country’s economy.

The government initiated an artificial rains project in Maussakele last Friday March 22, where a chemicals were sprayed in a bid to induce a downpour. The project failed. In hopes that a divine power would intervene to bring the rains, the CEB then offered water to the Sri Maha Bodhi on Thursday March 28, but rains failed to materialize. “Cloud Seeding” was tried as far back as during J R Jayawardene’s presidency, at his behest, and it failed even then.

Against this backdrop as the uneasy marriage between the CEB and the regulator of the power sector- (The Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) - is hindering implementation of power projects, industry experts now propose urgent “marriage counseling” in the form of a mediator between these two parties. Either way the “the children”- in this case the general public- are caught in the middle of the tussle.

“The main issue here is it takes a long time for the Least Cost Long Term Generation Expansion Plan (LCLTGEP) to be implemented,” says CEO of Janathakshan Gte. Limited, Ranga Pallawala.

The CEB issues a 20-year power plan every two years with proposals to commission new power generating plants to meet the country’s demand (maximum 2,600 MW after sunset, and 2,300 MW during the day). The PUCSL studies these proposals before giving them the green light.

While the CEB prefers implementation of coal plants, the PUCSL backs renewable energy instead. Though both alternatives have their pros and cons, Pallawala adds, they have to meet in the middle and compromise for the sake of the country’s welfare. This is because the general public’s right for uninterrupted power, is at stake.

In an article on the Ministry of Power, Energy and Business Development’s website, it boasts that “Sri Lanka is the only country in the South Asian region to offer an uninterrupted power supply from the national grid while all other countries in the region impose power cuts for a major part of every day”.

The current power crisis contradicts this. This week, a photograph of a couple taking refuge in their air conditioned car to keep their newborn comfortable during the power failure, went viral on Social Media platforms, and another Social Media user shared the story of a man who runs a tailoring shop near Thalawathugoda and has to go to work three hours early to compensate for the income he is losing during the power cut.

Reflecting on the PUCSL issue, CEB Engineers’ Association Chairman Saumya Kumara claims the commission is ‘sabotaging’ their ‘well analyzed’ LCLTGEP’s. He said the commission scraps effective power generating projects and proposes instead, short term power generation plans.

He said coal is an apt solution. The plant in Norochcholai feeds 42-43 per cent of the daily power demand of the country. A similar project was Sampur coal power plant, which died prematurely when President Maitripala Sirisena opposed its implementation as soon as he came into power following protests by environmentalists and conservationists.

“If the Sampur plant was built it would have generated 500 MW by now. It was discontinued to continue the purchase of electricity from private generators. There is a big diesel power mafia that is plaguing the sector,” Kumara accused.

He said there was similar resistance against the Norochcholai plant, but the very same people who opposed it, have benefitted by its implementation.

Without hydro power the state manages to generate 1900-1950MW through thermal power generation. To meet the demand, it has to purchase units from the private sector. While the cost of a unit of hydro power is Rs. 3, purchase of a diesel power unit varies between Rs. 25-30!.

PUCSL understands the economic indications. Communications Director of the PUCSL Jayanath Herath says it has approved multiple projects proposed by the CEB but most of them were not implemented. Accordingly, planned power plants, that could have generated over 1,000MWs were cancelled within recent years.

CEB’s tentativeness has cost the country Rs. 37,415 million during the 2016-2017 period- in the form of purchase of power from private plants during emergency periods.

The Sunday Observer learns that the PUCSL predicted the ongoing power crisis way in advance. In a letter to Secretary to the Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy Dr. B. M. S. Batagoda in 2016, the commission’s Director General Damitha Kumarasinghe said - “the Commission wishes to emphasize the need for rigorous implementation of the following activities in order to evade a possible shortage in years 2018/2019”.

He recommends: A national demand side management program, Development of planned conventional power plants on time, and expediting the grid integration of planned renewable plants.

In the letter Kumarasinghe notes that the CEB has forecasted that the electricity demand would grow by 5.5 per cent per annum during 2015 - 2022, while peak demand is expected to grow at 4.4 per cent per annum.

After corresponding letters, in mid-2017 Secretary Dr. Batagoda writes to CEB Chairman urging ‘urgent implementation of power plants scheduled in the LCLTGEP 2015-2034’.

In his letter Dr. Batagoda further states LCLTGEP scheduled plants that could possibly be completed before 2020 must be implemented, so as to curtail the looming power shortage that could cause a “serious power crisis in the future”.

These plants approved by the PUCSL are a Solar power plant in Valachchenai with a capacity of 10MW, Solar power plant in Welikanda, Polonnaruwa, with 10MW, a 100MW solar plant in Siyambalanduwa, another 100MW solar plant in Poonerin, a 5MW solar plant with storage capacity, a 100MW, wind power plant in Mannar, a 100MW wind power plant in Poonerin, a 50MW wind plant in Poonerin, another two 10MW wind power plants in Poonerin, 300MW LNG plant in Kerawalapitiya, 100MW barge in Galle, and 100MW barge in Trincomalee.

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) and climate specialist and former Chief Technical Advisor of the Ministry of Environment Dr. Janaka Ratnasiri speaking to the Sunday Observer said Sri Lanka is currently facing a severe power crisis ‘due to the lethargy and inefficiency of the CEB and power ministry. He accused the President of dancing to the tune of trade unionists and failing to take strategic decisions’.

He said LNG is the best option for Sri Lanka to avoid another power crisis as production of an LNG unit is half of a diesel-powered unit, and the plant takes only two years to be set up but a thermal plant would take more than double that time.

“Action was not taken in due time and as a result we are in this situation,” he said.

According to the PUCSL Sri Lanka loses Rs. 120 for every electricity unit that is not delivered to the consumers.

Senior Economist Prof. W. A. Wijewardena paints a grim picture of the situation. He said the SMEs and SMIs are badly affected by the current power crisis because they failed to meet production goals. He says there will be serious economic repercussions if the power crisis is not solved , as urgently as within the next one to two weeks.

“Big industries are not affected by the power cuts because they depend on generators. It is the small or medium scale businesses that are affected,” he explains.

The government took the decision not to cause power interruptions in Colombo City limits, and Prof. Wijewardena said that this decision is not very effective as most industries are situated in the suburbs.

Since 2013, the CEB has only commissioned 7 power plants, which altogether produce 1,948 Mega Watts of power.

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Power Minister promises solutions

Power, Energy and Business Development Minister Ravi Karunanayake assured the public that there will be no power cuts during the upcoming Sinhala and Tamil New Year, and vowed to resolve the ongoing power crisis before Vesak.

Addressing the cabinet of Friday (29) the minister also said the electricity generation in the country has reduced from 4,200MW to 1,950MW, and the country is struggling to supply the daily demand of 2,300MW.

He said power generation to meet the peak time demand (6.30 a.m. to 8.30 a.m. and 6.30 p.m. to 9 p.m) has stopped, resulting in the present situation.

The minister said today’s issue is that the country does not generate power to meet the demand, and the government’s plan is to convert this to a ‘demand driven power supply’.

“Some people blame us for delayed private sector power purchases,” he said. “Our generation plan is to reach 12,007 MW by 2030 and we have plans to establish LNG plants, coal power plants, barge-mounted plants and renewable energy.”

Thus the plan includes producing 600 MW from a LNG plant in Kerawalapitiya, 300MW from a LNG plant supported by Japan, another 300MW from a plant in Kerawalapitiya also by Japan, 400MW from a plant in Hambanthota- from China, a 302MW coal plant in Norochcholai, two coal vault generators in Trincomalee, and also bringing down four 25MW gas turbines within three months.

They are facing an Rs 89 bn loss, as the CEB bills a unit of electrify at Rs. 16 when the cost of production is Rs. 45. The minister requested a sum of Rs 40 bn from the government as an immediate measure.

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Collective Govt. responsibility -Sajith

The responsibility for the recent power cuts due to adverse weather which resulted in low power generation should be borne not only by the current Minister of Power and Energy but the whole government says Minister of Housing and Cultural Affairs Sajith Premadasa.

The Minister also assured the public that the government would strive to provide uninterrupted electricity to the public in the coming days. He was speaking at the foundation laying ceremony of three Uda Gammana projects in Hambantota. “Though our opponents say they implemented power generation plans, all they gifted the people is a power plant that is constantly breaking down,” he said. According to him, the power plant was not new but a sub-par power plant consisting of previously used machinery. “Norochcholai was built with massive commissions in mind,” he said, adding that the country’s people are continuing to pay debts incurred from the failed project, “while those who gained from commissions are living comfortable lives”. 

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