By Kumar David –
Other than a terse remark about problems at Kerawalapitiya switching station, the CEB and the Power Ministry have kept the public in the dark about what happened, why it spread to an all-Island blackout and why it took 8 hours to restore supply. There may be valid technical reasons, but the first thing the donkey of a Minister said when he opened his mouth was “sabotage”; an example of why people have lost confidence in the Cabinet. The CEB for its part has done no good by keeping mum and refusing to provide details – not everybody is a power-systems nerd and the public don’t want excessive technical mumbo-jumbo but it does have the right to a broad and general explanation.
I am moved to take this opportunity to return to the theme of the political system taking the public for a ride because of an experience I had in 2016. In late 2015 and during the first few months of 2016 there were a spate of three or four all-Island blackouts – some dragging on for about two days. It quite disrupted the economy and household life. Things were getting ominous so the CEB and Power Ministry (it had a longer more pompous name at the time) appointed an expert committee from outside the CEB to sort things out. A top-class engineer and protection specialist Jayasiri Karunanayake, a young bright Peradeniya University power-systems lecturer Atputharajah better known as At-Put were members and they made this old fool the Chairman. We got cracking pronto and were making good progress. I think we had about six or seven meetings, we visited the key plants in question including Norochcholi and I got the CEB technical departments to churn out reams of power-flow, single-outage, reactive power and stability studies for the committee’s perusal.
Then low and behold without warning, for no reason, and absolutely out of the blue the committee was told to bugger-off, dismissed, dissolved, thrown out. Why? God only knows. CEB Board Minutes and backdoor deals with the Ministry have never been revealed; the files have probably been incinerated. And talk of wasting public money! They paid the three of us good money for the sixty or more hours that each of us had put in and I think they refunded AT-Put for the laptop he purchased for essential stability analysis. Obviously, there were all sorts of backhand deals and gerrymandering going on, nobody wanted his own or somebody else’s incompetence to be exposed, or maybe the acting-Chairman, the Board or the Ministry had things to hide. Honestly, I don’t know any of the backroom stuff but I do want the public to know that expert committees are welcome if they submit politicised junk, if they set about doing a competent job they are dismantled. (Ask Handunneththi why if you are Parliament’s best ever COPE Chairman you don’t get re-elected!)
[For the technically curious: We were zeroing in on four possible reasons for cascading system failure; incorrect protection coordination of some parallel circuits, reactive power surges in the southern part of the network, possible sub-synchronous resonance between Norochcholi alternators, and inadequate auxiliary power availability for restarting Norochcholi. Clearly, all the failures were not traceable to one cause].
Ok, back to the real world. It seems that the CEB has sorted out most of this, at least for the time being, since we have not had an all-Island blackout for four years. I do not know if this optimism needs to be toned down by the recent blackout That’s good and I am glad. I hold CEB technical personnel, generally speaking, in good esteem. But one issue seems to linger. At that time one hard nut to crack was getting auxiliary power into the station to restart the Norochcholi coal-fired plant. Hydro, gas-turbines and diesel don’t have this headache. We were assured at the time that a line was being constructed to bring juice in from elsewhere, that is parts of the system already energised by hydro or GT. The CEB website now has a cryptic remark that restarting Norochcholi is taking time. I don’t know what that implies.
To return to my theme today. There must be more transparency when things go wrong. My idea is not to go all out on a witch hunt after some small bugger; the big culprits always get away. It is to imbue a new culture about how to build a more open society. The CEB has its management, on top of that sits a Board – so far so good – on top of that is a solo-item Ministry of Power with nothing to do but oversee (read irritate) the corporation. That’s where all the money goes and before long, they will be fighting each other like vendors in a fish market.