While demand for power grows, policy makers are caught napping | Sunday Observer

While demand for power grows, policy makers are caught napping

Sri Lankans have been put through weeks of power cut in the sweltering heat- and everyone is asking why?

This is not the first time the country has endured power cuts. There were times, decades ago, when power cuts were imposed for months on end and the time table for power cuts published in newspapers and broadcast on television and radio, on a daily basis. At that time, Sri Lankans accepted the power cuts as a way of life, almost without question.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya would also recall the time when he was Minister of Power and Energy in the short-lived United National Front Government between 2001 and 2004. Power cuts were enforced then, earning for Jayasuriya the unfortunate sobriquet ‘Karuvala’ Jayasuriya although the issue was largely one which he had inherited from his predecessors.

In the present instance, Minister Ravi Karunanayake who was entrusted with the Power and Energy portfolio only a few months ago after resigning from the Cabinet following the Central Bank bond scandal, has had to take a lot of flak. That is probably because of the reputation he has earned for himself following the bond scandal, rather than being due to his mismanagement of the current crisis which has been many months in the making.

Whenever these energy crises have been solved in the past, there is a lot of fanfare, and the Governments of the day have declared that ‘power cuts’ are history and would never ever occur again. Yet, years later they return to plague the nation causing severe inconveniences to millions of people and costing the economy billions of rupees. That is why the question is being asked, why do we have to go through this again?

The issue is longstanding and the solutions, complex. However, the simple answer to the question is that Sri Lanka is a country still dependent for a significant part of its power on hydroelectricity which provides about a third of its electricity needs.

There have been attempts, such as, the construction and commissioning of the Lakvijaya power station in Norochcholai eight years ago to add coal powered electricity to the national grid. A similar coal fired power plant was planned in Sampur in the Trincomalee district but was later abandoned because of environmental concerns. Therefore, the dependence on hydroelectricity remains and whenever there is a drought, power disruption is a possibility.

The question must then be asked, why isn’t the country making contingency plans? In this day and age, when technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, there must surely be ways to produce sufficient energy to ensure that there is an adequate supply of power to the nation, regardless of what the weather gods have in store?

Other countries facing similar circumstances have resorted to different sources of energy such as, solar power and wind power. However, these industries are only in its infancy in Sri Lanka. Solar power was introduced just a few years ago and makes only a negligible contribution to the national grid. Sri Lanka is blessed with tropical weather and plenty of sunshine and solar power would be a ready answer to its electricity needs- but the infrastructure to generate this is not in place yet.

Wind power is being generated on a small scale by commercial operators, with hardly a contribution to the nation’s power needs. It is another sector which has immense potential but has, for some reason, not been developed.

As a country reeling from the effects of power outage every few years, it must be queried why these alternative sources of energy- which are also environmentally friendly- have not been given due consideration. Professionals in the energy sector as well their political masters must be held responsible for this lapse.

It will be recalled that the master plan of the Mahaweli development program added seven hydro power stations to the national grid in just eight years between 1978 and 1985, enhancing Sri Lanka’s electricity generating capacity exponentially. Since then, while the demand for power generation appears to have grown steadily, policy makers have been caught napping, failing to predict that increase accurately and not making appropriate plans.

Fingers may be pointed at politicians, though it is also a fact that power cuts are a boon to opposition politicians. As Karu Jayasuriya and Ravi Karunanayake will no doubt tell you, it is not fun being a Minister in charge of the Power and Energy portfolio when the country is in the throes of a power crisis.

The entire nation blames and derides the Minister for his inefficiency and is baying for his blood. So, it is in the interests of all Ministers in charge of the subject to address the issue. No Minister would wish power cuts upon themselves, if only because of the disastrous political consequences that follow.

Besides, Ministers come and go. In these days of Cabinet reshuffles and constitutional crises, portfolios change hands with increasing frequency. Therefore, the creation and operation of a long-term energy plan that addresses the electricity needs of the nation for decades to come cannot be the sole responsibility of a politician, although, if he is efficient, he can make a huge difference like Gamini Dissanayake did in the late seventies and early eighties.

The present Government and its officials in the energy sector must take some responsibility too. The Norochcholai power plant was built and commissioned during the tenure of the previous Government. The construction of the Sampur power plant was halted following a court order three years ago. If it was thought that the Sampur plant was necessary, was anything done to generate the electricity that it would have generated had it been built?

The recent power cuts and Sri Lanka’s energy crisis did not happen overnight. It has been decades in the making. There is still no solution in sight. It is high time its energy sector professionals and its politicians worked together to ensure there are no more interruptions to our power supply- even if that takes a few more years.

If we had to rely on the weather gods and bodhi poojas to generate electricity for us, we wouldn’t need Ministers and officials, would we?