Sri Lanka was boasting that the last power cuts had ended ten years back on May 15th, 2002 and that we were the only country in South Asia to provide a 24-hour power supply to customers. Energy Ministry hierarchy even credited the excessive rain over 2010-2011 to the CEB’s account and claimed that after reporting losses for ten years at a stretch, the CEB had been turned-around in 2010 owing to the efficiency of the new management! Alas, the euphoria was short-lived! Since the NE monsoons lashed the country in 2010 continuing in two strong spells until February 2011, the weather gods have been unkind to us.
What is wrong?
So, with all the power plant projects in full swing, what really went wrong, is a question in everybody’s mind. The country’s demand for electricity is about 2,000 megawatt (MW). When the rainfall is poor, another 100 MW has to be added, because mini-hydros that serve the local demand in central regions fall dead. If the weather is hot, up to a further 200 MW is added owing to heavier use of air conditioning and fans. So in the worst case scenario, the demand will be about 2,300 MW. So, to meet it, the country has about 3,000 MW of generating capacity––700 MW more than what we need. This excludes the 250 MW of small hydros and wind power plants that cannot help us in a crisis..
According to available information, we have lost about 400 MW due to two thermal power plants being out of order including the 300 MW Norochcholai (Puttalam) coal-fired power plant. After some initial problems, the power plant is reported to have been in continuous operation since February this year. It is quite clear that the power plant is not performing as it is expected to be; its reliability is in question. The Norochcholai power plant, which now passing the one year mark, should have given its rated output and offered high reliability, once the teething problems are over in the first year.
The reserve is now down from 700 MW less 400 MW to 300 MW! The long dry weather in reservoir areas and the absolutely poor reservoir levels cause the balance 300 MW or more to be unavailable. The first to drop dead would be the Kukule and Upper Kotmale power plants, because they have only small storage.
Let us remember the people and politicians who agitated against both Kukule and Upper Kotmale power plants, and caused the cancellation of reservoirs planned at both locations. Kukule power plant was to have a reservoir and rated at 140 MW. Owing to agitations by people and politicians, it was scaled down to 70 MW and built without a reservoir. Upper Kotmale was similarly 250 MW, scaled down to 150 MW and built without a reservoir, and again scaled down because a Minister wanted additional inflows to the power plant not to be built, just to make his point.
So we are reaping what was sown!
Ministers, Prime Ministers and Presidents have come and gone and the customers have had to bear the costs and inconvenience.
Crisis predicted in 2005
If we examine CEB’s long-term plan published in 2005, it says that all three generators at Puttalam should be operational by 2012, to ensure reliability of supply. So, simply put, what we have today is an entirely predictable sequence of events and the predictions were published seven years ago. The power system, with its unique feature of large hydro capacity that varies widely, is running with a shortage of 600 MW of capacity still being built at Puttalam. CEB’s dispatch engineers, who closely watch the reservoir movements, surely would have warned for months, about the imminent crisis.
Sadly, the long-term plans are ignored and not seen or implemented with a sense of urgency and dedication. On long term planning, the debate is always on (i) why renewables are not included in larger quantities, (ii) why a large solar power plant is not included, (iii) we can have gas-fired power plants, etc.
The real effort should be to constantly watch the plan unveiled 7-8 years ago and to examine whether we are keeping to the schedule, building the correct power plant according to the correct schedule. A decision delayed today for whatever reason may cause a blackout 7-8 years from now.
Now we need to look into the future. We should at least be happy that the delayed 600 MW of capacity in Puttalam is being built, and would be ready in less than one year from now. As it is coal-fired generation, it will replace many oil-fired power plants, both CEB and private, and push them to meet only the dry season back-up or retire. The immediate focus should be to learn from the mistakes as regards the Puttalam power plant No. 1, and rectify them during the construction of generators 2 and 3.
What should cause more concern to us is the situation expected in 2016 and beyond. The Trincomalee power plant is nowhere in sight. While much has been done, some crucial decisions have not been made. Despite many news reports, no work has started on site.
Even a more serious situation is that the planning process and the plans are being undermined. The long-term plans, published every year––now required to be published at least once in two years––are delayed, obviously owing to excessive debate and individuals bringing pressure to bear on planners for plans to be changed. Thus, in the past, we at least had the plans professionally done and documented and published on time. With the mess that is setting in, we may not even have plans published at the stipulated intervals to assess what is in store for us.
Next Blackout: 2016
Trincomalee power plant (500 MW) should be ready by late 2016. But, it will not have been completed by that time because to meet that target contractors should move into the site later this year. For that to happen, the power purchase agreement and financing should be in place. The contracts should be in place.
Instead of pushing hard to get the Trincomalee project off the ground, what is seen is debate and more debate, and precious time of decision-makers spent on renewables and the possible use of gas. Renewables do have their role, and Sri Lanka is in the forefront of encouraging power generation from renewables. But, we should not lose sight of vital power plants urgently required to meet the customer demand.
Trincomalee is a joint venture between NTPC of India and CEB. Almost every major coal-fired power project in India using imported coal is delayed, cancelled or being re-negotiated, while India is undergoing severe load shedding this summer. Such uncertainties should not be allowed to spill over into this project in Sri Lanka. For India and rest of the subcontinent, daily blackouts are the norm, and their societies have come to accept it. For Sri Lanka, having continuous power is the norm. Blackouts are a serious matter, and the society will remember those who manipulate and delay power projects, at election times.
With the Trincomalee plant nowhere in sight, in all probability, elections in 2016 will be held in darkness or to prevent blackouts, emergency power supply contracts will be given, which may also assist in elections in more than one way. So, we end by repeating that the game is the same, the players have changed. The result cannot be different.