29 September, 2020

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Sri Lanka’s Power Supply, Blackouts, And How To Prevent Them

By Chandre Dharmawardana

Dr. Chandre Dharmawardana

Sri Lanka recently had a nationwide blackout that cost millions, and even compromised its security. A blackout may be compared to  a sudden heart attack, leaving a debilitated individual. This was the fifth “heart attack” suffered by the grid since the end of the Eelam wars, with blackouts in  2009, 2015, twice in 2016, and on 17th August 2020. So we have a chronically sick patient. Given that a big chunk of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange income goes for importing fuel, any government must urgently look at the power sector and make it work efficiently, uninterruptedly, and as inexpensively as possible. 

Letting the Cat out of the Bag

The CEB authorities have conveniently ascribed the problem to “human error”. The patient got the 5th heart attack accidentally, and to say that it was because he yawned too hard – without mention  his chronic condition would be absurd!

Dr. Tilak Siyambalapitiya has written to the Island Newspaper (19-08-20) about the “anatomy of the blackout”. We thank him for letting the cat out of the bag! He suggests that the CEB grid  can be perturbed by  small erratic inputs  from Solar and Wind energies, making the grid unstable! 

The SL-power grid  provides about 2000 MW. However, even if many solar installations, wind farms etc., contributed erratically to the grid, they might hardly add to 10 MW within a  time interval of a few seconds. A few seconds is a “large” time for electrical systems that react in milli-seconds or faster. A ten MW fluctuation in a 2000 MW system is  just a half  percent fluctuation! 

So the “human error” is merely the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The 2000MW system should have  a peak to trough daily fluctuation of, say, plus or minus 500 MW, and these are “scheduled changes” handled by the grid using set procedures  for load adding and load shedding. But the system cannot handle other inputs because there is no monitoring system! 

So the CEB  power system is not a smart grid controlled  by an intelligent set of algorithms that deftly and rapidly manipulate well maintained “on-load tap” changers, shunts, relays and switches. Instead focusing on such realities, we are told that a superintendent accidentally earthed a live  line and the system collapsed, almost like a cheap Wesak Pandol without a fuse built by the village “Baas”. Such system has no protective mechanisms for such events! The “Baas” and the CEB  technicians both seem to work without written-down procedures or risk management protocols. Is the CEB  “just managing”, riding the cusp of the blame for neglecting to modernize it and maintain it. 

There is hardly a scientific paper or engineering report published by CEB scientists  and engineers in peer-reviewed technical journals of, say, the IEEE, that would report the evolution of the  CEB’s control systems, its many blackouts etc. In effect, the officials have worked like “Baas Unnaeheys”, with no Research and Development (R&D) or establishing a learning curve. Although five blackouts have occurred since 2009, does the CEB have “in-house” capacity to simulate such events? Why does it have to call a Canadian or some outside company to simulate such breakdowns? CEB’s only “R&D” seems to be to host an occasional student working with a University Professor to do research that costs a dime.

The CEB boasts of some 22 major hydro-electric stations. But it has not acquired the knowledge to, say, innovate a new pilot plant better fitted to the needs of the country. If such competence had been acquired, it could export its knowledge and win tenders in foreign lands! 

So the CEB and its affilates constitute an UNTHINKING beast that generates, transmits and sells power, and calls for tenders when needed within the standard frame of available “ready-made” power plants. Anything beyond that set path, even a modest roof-top solar panel, gives the creature a heart attack. 

Is there a “Wealthy CEB Mafia”?

The public talks of “a power mafia leading a high life” in the CEB. The blackout has even been linked to conspiracies! A Derana TV discussion labeled the CEB a “fifth power” that can hold the country to ransom! 

However, the CEB can point to successive governments that have scuttled their plans. Though building a power plant may take just a couple of years, the  approval, tenders, acquiring land and licenses may add decades. 

The government can change every five years. Sri Lanka  periodically changes  governments and the new politicians discredit and smash the  plans of their predecessors. Power plants proposed in the 1980s have been canceled, re-approved and new tenders called by politicians since the time of Premada, through Kumaratunga, to Rajapaksa and Sirisena a dozen times!

The CEB engineers can say, if  we only had that “excess capacity” then these blackouts wouldn’t have happened! On the face of it, this might indeed be true. But this is irrelevant given Dr. Siyambalapitiya’s admission that the system cannot even handle a 0.5% power fluctuation from “un-monitored” sources like “solar and wind”. 

We now understand the foot dragging of the CEB in incorporating Wind, Solar and bio-energy. The grid is an ad hoc patchwork of wires connecting a bunch of power stations in the simplest manner possible. It is a STUPID grid when a SMART grid that collects its own data and servo-controls the supply and demand is needed.

The engineers, taken individually, are technically capable well-trained  people whose integrity  must be accepted  until proven otherwise. They are not political appointees like some secretaries to ministers. But clearly, they have failed to maintain a healthy power grid and this is not simply because new power plants have not been built. There seems to be a culture of neglect  and mismanagement. They have taken advantage of the fact that politicians have created chaos to avoid admitting  their own failings. So, what has gone wrong?

How to correct the mess

Given the finances of the CEB, it MUST be guided by its own vibrant research arm with in-house research, pilot projects  and research publications.

The research arm can advise and devise best practices for the CEB ro operate.

If industries like Tea and Rubber can have their research institutes, how can the power sector which dominates Sri Lanka’s foreign expenditure not have one? The CEO’s of the CEB are  unforgivably guilty of not establishing such a research arm. The first task of R&D should be to  to create a smart grid with automatic data collection at a large number of monitoring stations within months.

Unlike in the old days when power engineering was the strength of a power utility, today the Information Technology division plays a key role. The CEB  R&D branch should  work on new technologies like solar power. The public must not grudge high salaries and attractive perks to top engineers and researchers who produce new research, build pilot plants and usher in new technology. Here we are not talking of bureaucrats who spin narratives to justify ongoing failures.

Practical ways to cut costs, and boost hydro and solar to meet targets

A large fraction (usually over 50%) of the cost of a unit of power goes for the generation step, and additional costs arise in transmission and marketing. The generation cost of hydro-electricity in Lanka is about Rs 2 to 4 per unit. Clean coal and dendro energy (biomass energy, see here) may cost Rs 12 per unit, while fossil fuels (LNG or Diesel) need Rs 20-30  per unit. Today, a unit of solar or wind energy may be less than Rs 10 for large scale installations. Of these, hydro, wind, solar, and dendro are the only environmentally acceptable energy sources.

Clearly the best option is hydroelectricity. Although most hydro sources are already tapped, there is at least a 30% increase possible with very little effort.

This is because  hydroelectric installations have been designed  with no though for conservation of water, the most important asset of any hydro-system. Engineers rarely think about losses of water  from evaporation, although this is a very serious problem. 

I have written much about floating solar installations since 2009 and why they are particularly suitable for Sri Lanka. Even in a recent article in the Colombo Telegraph I wrote about  the advantages of floating solar panels which cuts evaporation of water, generate electricity, and provide the land area needed for installation of new solar panels, without the need for complicated land acquisition steps or dealing with  the private properties of hundreds of roof-top owners. In fact India, Europe and China are increasingly using this approach. It opens up mass-scale installation of solar panels and economies of scale, bringing down the cost of production of a unit of electricity (a kWh) to less than Rs 10.

The CEB is “gung ho” for building floating (off-shore) LNG storage units and coupling them with pipelines dangerously passing through busy urban areas to deliver fuel  to a new 300 MW power plant. And yet, it does not seem to be able to put floats and cover hydro-electric reservoirs to prevent the evaporation of the water that occurs day and night! Evaporation will get even worse with global warming. But the CEB has no plans for global warming. 

So, preventing evaporation will rapidly increase the island’s power capacity by, say, 30%. Given some 22 major hydroelectric reservoirs with a surface area of about 1000 ha each, if 50% of the surface be covered using floats, 11,000 ha (110 sq km) are protected. It can be shown that the environmental impact is positive. The annual hydro-power of about 6000 GWh will rise to 8000 GWh when evaporation is cut. This is the cheapest and cleanest electricity!

Typically,  sunlight can annually produce about 100-200 GWh per sq. km (100 ha) under Sri Lanka’s conditions. If solar panels are also placed on the floaters deployed to cut evaporation, then 1000-2000 GWh per annum  of solar energy can be harvested, with no hassle about acquiring land rights. Any excess daytime energy can be saved by retaining the corresponding amount of hydro-head in the reservoirs, without sending the reservoir water down into the turbines. That is, solar electricity has been stored without batteries!

Of course, this kind of fine tuning and optimal control cannot be done using the “stupid” grid that is available to the CEB at the moment!

*The author has published over a hundred research papers on high-energy density matter and topics on laser-assisted fusion energy, often in collaboration with scientists at the French Atomic Energy Commission & Electricité de France, the US Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and the US Los Alamos Laboratory.

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Latest comments

  • 4
    1

    ”This was the fifth “heart attack” suffered by the grid since the end of the Eelam wars“

    What’s the relevance to Eelam wars

  • 5
    2

    If one thinks that the Rajapuka’s are there to serve the 6.9 million sitting on their brains foolish voters who in their downright stupidity voted for them at the 2 elections they have to enter the mad mental hospital at Angoda.
    #
    All these crooked villains are interested in robbing the nation of its now brittle scarce resources and borrow more funds, especially from China at very exorbitant rates of interest.
    #
    Not even 15 days had lapsed by since the 5th August 2020 polls the beleaguered nation had to undergo many a power cut, which I am reliably informed that it’s still going on and on but the Minister in charge has still not resigned as he said he would do so.
    #
    My dear loving mates, the Rajapuka’s who are now the sultans of this beggar colony have made many a brash statement among which they have voluptuously said they will bring down the costs of living and develop the country to be one which will put Singapore to shame.?
    MY FOOT THEY WILL.
    #
    They now boast that they are going to employ 50,000 graduates and 100,000 of the other ranks.?
    I am boldly asking the trillion-dollar question – from where are they hoping to get the funds to meet the salaries of these supporters of theirs.?

    • 6
      1

      A continuation if I have exceeded the 200-word limit.

      #
      They now boast that they are going to employ 50,000 graduates and 100,000 of the other ranks.?
      I am boldly asking the trillion-dollar question – from where are they hoping to get the funds to meet the salaries of these supporters of theirs.?
      #
      There’s no available foreign or local cash to meet the essential needs of the people, the promised increases in salaries cannot be given, no fertilizer is gettable for the farmers to cultivate their arable lands and no drugs to treat the sick.
      #
      In conclusion, institutions like the CEB will be dens of vice where bribery and money-making will be the norms of the day.
      There will be continuous non-stop power cuts due at any moment and the nation will live up to its solid plus reputation as the world’s best-undisputed beggar colony where crime and all varieties of vice rule the day.

  • 6
    0

    Just privatize the power supply, as they have done in HK. Keep the electricity charges in check. Of course there’s a mafia within CEB.

    And MR made US$400 million from the Norochchalai deal.

  • 4
    0

    The writer is correct in saying that CEB needs to invest in an automated transmission system based on artificial intelligence to min

  • 3
    0

    The writer is correct in saying that CEB needs to invest in an algorithm based modern transmission system to minimize power failures, without blaming an electrical supervisor for the island wide power failure. A debt ridden CEB buying emergency power at fancy prices cannot get the funds required for such investments. I hope the power failure reports will convince President G R to approve the necessary investments with the help of concessionary loans.

    The root cause is over reliance on coal and diesel power, when renewable power is cheaper. BOI has already approved an off-shore LNG project in Hambantota. It can provide the LNG to to Kerawalapitiya at international FOB prices. In addition wind mapping has shown that the coast from Kalpitiya to Mannar and the Jaffna Peninsula has good to excellent wind speeds. The southern coast of India is full of wind turbines providing power at the lowest rate/KWh. The Minister of renewable power should visit south India with a team and transfer best practices in tapping wind power, to call tenders for supplying wind power on land leased by the government. Further information is given in this link. https://www.eai.in/ref/ae/win/win.html

  • 7
    0

    Is there a “Wealthy CEB Mafia”?

    A few years ago, I was renovating my house which included demolishing a wall on to which the power connection switchboard was fixed. I was informed that the CEB was unable to tell me when they could disconnect the elect. supply but for a payment of Rs 7000, it could be arranged immediately. Since time was of the essence I agreed & immediately a van load arrived & did the job under 5 minutes. However, having given up the idea of retirement in SL I decided to sell my property last year but since there are high voltage cables going across, any investor would be unable to develop the property to its full potential, therefore, interest in the property was low. Nevertheless, an investor was prepared to buy the property if the high voltage cables were to be re-routed along the boundary wall instead of across the land. Since I don’t live in SL, it would be impossible for me to cut through the red tape & to get the CEB to install another pylon & re-route the cables but the broker who was promoting the sale, undertook to negotiate with the CEB on my behalf. He was told that it could be done for an ‘all inclusive’ Rs 5m, & as I had no other option, I suggested that I will pay the official CEB cost, which happen to be Rs 1.4m, initially & the balance upon completion as I needed to raise a loan to cover the full asking price. I was told balance of Rs 3.6m was required to oil the palms of officials all the way to Ministry level to get the approval. So the answer to the question, I will leave to the reader.

    • 2
      0

      Raj- UK –
      =This is why I correctly and proudly stated the CEB from the top to the lowest is a den of thieves who will even sell their beloved’s for a few cents.
      =
      The sams happen in the rest of the island too.?
      =
      If Mahindapuka can openly steal as Alibaba with his countless gang’s why prevent a lower rung worker from taking a sanrgossam or two.

  • 2
    0

    Raj UK, I appreciate you letting the cat out of the bag ,because one Mr. Know it all who claims to live in his own magical world, outright denies any such corruption with in CEB. Sarath mentioned MR making $400 million on Norochchalai deal. Here is one more locomotive engine operator union has decided to refuse operating trains with “Made In China” compartments because of faulty break system and Chinese embassy says US sanctions a violation of international law. All three (MR ,China and US) seems to have their own interest and the voters have theirs too. Long Live “Vistas of Prosperity and splendor”

    • 2
      0

      Chiv

      I was told the bribe was high because officials at ministry level were included. Obviously high officials are not interested if the fee is under 6 digits but probably trails off down the line. The fee was non negotiable & all contacts were through intermediaries. It was not possible for me to speak with any CEB officials, my dilemma being unable to raise the required sum in full. If the Ministry or CEB is willing to investigate my allegation, I will be happy to cooperate.

      It is against my principals to give bribes, although, I am happy to give a tip for a job well done, but this is SL where everybody has a price, as a former boss, a German national, used to say.

  • 2
    0

    CEB and Astrology: Astrology is an art (or science), in fact it could be anything. That is why our PM, and his followers have been using the services of astrologers in all affairs. It is one thing to use it in their private affairs like auspicious times for weddings etc. But to use in affairs of state shows a primitiveness of shameful proportions.

    But then who knows? We may have managed so far as a nation because of astrology and such stupid practices of our leaders. So I suggest the following in CEB Affairs:

    CEB should create a position at DGM level for an Official Electrical Astrologer (OEA)
    All important actions such as,
    1)Synchronizing a Generator (>10 MW) to the grid
    2) Opening/Closing isolators working at a voltage level of 230 VAC or more
    3) Earthing of items working at a voltage level of 230 VAC or more

    Sorry! More later. The auspicious time for switching solar powered lights in my house is now. Ayubowan! (I really mean that for those who ‘work’ in CEB.

    • 2
      0

      Edwin,
      “It is one thing to use it in their private affairs like auspicious times for weddings etc. But to use in affairs of state shows a primitiveness of shameful proportions.”
      You’re treading on thin ice. There are plenty of scientists of the Jayasumana /Nalin de Silva variety who will prove you wrong.

  • 6
    0

    “The author has published over a hundred research papers on high-energy density matter and topics on laser-assisted fusion energy, often in collaboration with scientists at the French Atomic Energy Commission & Electricité de France, the US Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and the US Los Alamos Laboratory.”
    That is impressive output; but it will help to know of the net outcome.

  • 0
    0

    Raj, I totally agree with you. To be honest if I were you I would have done the same (there is no other options in our virtuous and disciplined country) and not sure about revealing it here. Better not reveal any further before the job gets done. Good Luck.

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