Like many other facts in life and politics, the electricity industry too has turned a full circle. After 20 years of indecision, two major power plants were completed: Norochcholai coal-fired power plant was completed in 2014 and the Upper Kotmale power plant in 2013.
The much awaited Sampur power plant, originally scheduled to produce electricity from 2016, subsequently re-scheduled for 2018, has not even commenced construction. A large power plant requires five years to build, once the contractor is mobilised, on site. Where is the contractor? Nowhere near. Where is the money? Nowhere near, but for sure, with every day passing, the dreaded power cuts are getting nearer day by day.
More respectfully called load shedding, power cuts to the common man, were last seen in May 2002. A short-term problem in August 2010 was hushed-up as unknown power cuts of which the power utility was not aware of. So for the past 13 years, we boasted to be the only country in South Asia, save for the Maldives, that provides electricity round the clock. Sri Lanka also earned the distinction of being the country with the highest price of electricity (though unreasonably branded so at times), but we had power all the time.
Any visiting Indian friend would casually ask at what time the power cut would be, and Sri Lankans were getting used to asking “what do you mean by power cuts?” That’s because the nation got wiser, and the situation improved to a level that the younger generation do not know what power cuts mean. The coal-fired power plant unwanted by Bishops, environmentalists, the Prime Minister and a President is working fine. There was bad news for a while, but not anymore. Engineers got their act together, and the Norochcholai power plant is silently doing its job. No threats of blackouts, no threats of price increases, noises of CEB deep in the red, are unheard of. Why? Not because we built oil power plants, but because we built coal and hydropower plants.
Both Norochcholai and Upper Kotmale, unwanted by the Government in 2001-2004, were both built, and doing fine. The diesel power plants the Government wanted too did their job, but ruined the economy and CEB. Since October 2009, there has been no major national emergency blackout.
Although the 2009 blackout was not attributed to any type of power plant, the fact remains that the large Norochcholai coal-fired power plant has made the power system stronger. It does not trip-out with the slightest disturbance; it is resilient, strong and healthy. The secret is in what engineers call “inertia”, the strength given only by large, higher speed power plants. The smaller reciprocating engines ordered by the Governments over 1996-2004 have no strength, cost more, and the amount of money paid by electricity users to buy oil was enormous.
This joy would certainly be short-lived. Having built a redundant port in the south, the previous Government did not want to build a coal-fired power plant in the south. If built in Hambantota, there would be a 50,000 ton coal-carrying ship calling once every eight days, and bring the port to life. But they said, oh no, not in my constituency of Hambantota. Port: yes, power plant to use the port: no. What logic is that? Meanwhile, engineers try hard to keep the lights burning in the deep south, with no sources of generation to support the southern grid. Dreams of what can be done in Hambantota keep floating around, while the key ingredient required for the country, the production of electricity, has been barred from Hambantota for the past several years.
Back to Sampur. The project needs to be rescued, and vigorously followed up to completion. True are the facts, highlighted by previous Ministers and unions, but what was done to correct the wrongs in the agreement on Sampur?
Nothing. The shortcomings in the agreement themselves show the way to rescue the agreement, and thereby the project.
When you travel passing Kelanitissa power plant or when you see the Kerawalapitiya power plant in the distance from the airport expressway, think of this: each additional unit of electricity required by the country is produced by those two power plants, at three times the cost of Norochcholai. There is not a single significant power plant now being built, to meet the growing demand for electricity. So the end result is obvious:there will be the day those oil power plants too will reach their capacity limits. What happens on that day?
Power Cuts! Oh no, first order more oil power plants, as the Prime Minister did in 2003. Noises of such moves are already on the air. Heard of a refinery project and a power plant in Trincomalee? That is it. And when the refinery project developers run away, as they have done many times over, buy more oil power plants, and when the money runs out, then blame CEB, and give blackouts.
By Dr. Tilak Siyambalapitiya
The Sunday Times | Sunday, September 13, 2015