By Kumar David –
It is a shame that CEB Chairman Vijitha Herath is happy to sell his professionals down river for cheap popularity with his political bosses as in his interview in Ceylon Today (23 August, pA4). The sub-heading is “Corrupt Power Deals by last regime – CEB Chairman” and the opening summary statement by the interviewer reads “The power and energy sector in Sri Lanka, mainly the Ceylon Electricity Board is alleged to be one of the most corrupt and most negligent entities in the country. In the past even the state sector worked with the power sector in the most lackadaisical manner – cancelling competitive tenders and at the same time awarding them to those who curry favour with higher ups or private suppliers based on deals. There are accusations that CEB Engineers run a monopoly”. To my knowledge Mr Herath has issued no repudiation disassociating himself from this implied summary of his views, nor has he rejected the association of his name and office from these grossly untruthful slanders. Is this the man who is going to give leadership to the CEB? Does he not know that corruption in the power sector derives 90% from Presidents, the Cabinet, Power Ministers and Ministry Secretaries from the 1990s up to the present time? Big time corruption in the power sector commenced in Chandrika’s time with the awarding of contracts to build and operate private power plants. Big money went to big players. Do they not teach corporate managers like Mr Herath about reciprocal confidence building? Managers who undermine and untruthfully and publicly ridicule their staff will lose the trust of colleagues and the confidence of the institution.
In the mean time we have had this 8-hour all-Island blackout and an inability to restore full supplies for four or five days. One matter I want to especially complain about is the failure of the CEB or CEB Ministry (erroneously named Power Ministry) to issue a full, frank and transparent public statement. I appreciate a detailed technical analysis will take time and highly placed fools who allege sabotage are doing damage. However, a simple summary would have sufficed to keep speculation at bay. The grape-wine says that a bus-bar was inadvertently energised by maintenance crew before the heavy earthing chain was removed and this led to massive tripping of other circuits and the isolation of Norochcholi. Then it took ages to restart Norochcholi, a known problem which has not been sorted out for 12 years.
Then there was something new that has not been encountered before. When units were brought on line and attempts made, in many different ways, to reenergise Colombo the system repeatedly tripped. Is all this true? Ask the CEB. Three-phase to ground flashovers are uncommon but not unknown and the system should be robust to such events. Why has something not been done for a decade about Norochcholi restarting? Ask Herath. Tripping-on-reenergisation is a new phenomenon that CEB professionals can sort it out given time. However, there has to be stringent outside review of their analyses and proposed solutions. Ministers who smell a saboteur rat under every bed and Chairmen who undercut their own staff will be of no help.
Renewable energy sourced technologies for the generation of electricity is one of the very best things that has happened to humanity. The problem is that the God Indira who commands the sun and wind was not equally generous to all corners of the earth.
A one square kilometre site atop the Atacama Desert in Chile or Hardup in the Namib Dessert will produce about 350 GWh (gigawatt hours) and 230 GWh respectively per year. The output for a one square kilometre site in Puttalam, the NCP, NP or Hambabtota will be about 150 GWh per year. [A GWh is 1000 units or kWh]. A 1000MW coal power station will generate about 6300 GWh per year (Norochcholi is 900MW and extension to 1200 is planned). To match this, we will need 42 square kilometres of land, that is close to 10,000 acres! This is the problem! Only countries with huge dessert landmasses can think really big about solar powered electricity. Uninhabited and uncultivated portions NCP, NWP, NP and Hambantota District are good locations for big solar farms but all together it will not be easy to put together more than about half a Norochcholi. As with big-hydro, with wind and solar too once the best sites are used up its saturation; what after that? With other technologies (thermal, nuclear and future fusion power) new plant can be added without such limits.
An attraction of solar power is that prices are coming down steeply. After you factor in lifetime repayment of capital, the future cost of electricity generated from large solar farms will be about Rs 10 per kWh while coal or LNG cost between Rs 7 and Rs 9 depending on global coal and gas prices. Let us agree, prices are comparable. The CEB buys privately generated (IPP or Independent Power Producer) power, when it faces shortage, at about Rs 25 per kWh, again variable with world oil prices. [I won’t waste your time with fractions and decimals which will be out of date between one month and the next. When someone with a little subject knowledge writes media columns the duty is to convey useful and reliable information, not to impress readers with minutiae].
We are in our present predicament because of the stupidity and inanity, respectively, of President Sirisena and PM Ranil who ignored an Expert Committee Report in 2016 which warned that cancelling Sampur coal-fired power station would be ruinous. They had numerous warnings from other experts and CEB planners as well. As a member of the Committee I estimated, and included in the Report, that this blunder would cost the country Rs 220 billion. That now seems a bit of an underestimate and the crisis has arrived sooner than I forecast. I am not playing the usual “this regime”, “that regime” game that the media, corporate chairmen and politician are slick at. The two former Rajapaksa Administrations and the 2015-2019 government have all been grossly stupid in respect of the long and short-term future of the country’s electricity sector. That’s that and QED!
I will not repeat the same story about wind generated electricity though I have jotted down some back of the envelope calculations for my own use. The scenario is similar to solar: It is, like solar, much less polluting and it is price comparable with coal or LNG and much less pricy (only capital costs, negligible running cost) than oil-fired private power. But availability of good sites is limited as with solar (once the best sites are used up as with major hydro, the story is finished – what to do after that?). A very important point is that renewables are big in the public popularity stakes and this is the great selling point for politicians who don’t know the difference between a kilowatt-hour and an LED lamp.
As per the most up to date information on the CEB website (2017) large-hydro supplied 24.6% of total energy while wind, mini-hydro and solar supplied 8.1% – of which mini-hydro was 5.2% all the others 3.9%. CEB thermal (coal and oil) was 52.2% and IPPs (all oil) 15.2% of energy. (It fluctuates a little annually depending on rainfall and unforeseen events like the August 2020 system outage). However, one needs to be ignorant of the basic laws of physics and not schooled in primary arithmetic to say that renewable source electricity will supply 80% of energy by 2030. If in 10 to 15 years demand doubles and no large-hydro is added (only few medium-size projects are left to do) then its relative share will decline, as per elementary arithmetic, to 12.3%. To increase non large-hydro renewables (only 3.9% now) by a factor of five to 19.5%, energy supply must increase ten-fold within 10 years! Only knaves and politicians make such promises.
Has government (President/PM/Cabinet/Subject Ministry) corruption and incompetence been an obstacle to the faster implementation of renewable energy sourced electricity? When competent, rational and honest decision making about the country’s long-term generation expansion programme is undermined by government (all governments) it throws a spanner in the works. Government after government have been ‘playing pandu’; to-LNG or not-to-LNG; to have another coal fired unit or not; to embrace India or Japan or both. When mega private sector companies screw ministers and when nothing is decided properly, it throws the transmission plans out of kilter and demoralises planners. It stands funding including for renewable sources on its head. Therefore, in addition to the technical limitations that I discussed in the first part of this essay, cock-up and corruption at the highest levels – not in the CEB Mr Herath but in governments – is an impediment to a good programme for increasing renewable source power generation.