By Kumar David –
Unless you are of a very optimistic bent, you would have reached the conclusion that the Norochcholi coal-fired power plant is a ‘lemon’. At first I was optimistic when a few glitches showed up and thought it commissioning stage hiccups that would soon be rectified. But the plant has failed some five times; it has been taken out of operation for short and or for extended periods; this is worse than normal. I now admit my initial optimism was excessive and concede that the plant is very likely a lemon. ‘Lemon’ is an Americanism for a car which comes out of the factory a dud; efforts to fix it fail and after many visits to the dealer the owner has to reconcile himself to the reality that his new car has birth defects; bad luck, no exchange and no refund.
If the 300 MW Norochcholi Stage-1 is a dud, a lemon, the consequences for Lanka’s economy and for the CEB are grave. Work has commenced to expand Norochcholi by a further 600 MW to a 900 MW power station, and if the reliability of the first stage gives notice of the fate of subsequent stages, Lanka and the CEB face unmitigated disaster. The entire 900 MW power station may turn out to be a lemon; this is not a worst case scenario, it is a real possibility. I do not know if the plant supplier has been changed, nor has there been a public inquiry to reassure the public of what has been done to avoid a rerun of the debacle.
Granted there is still hope the next 600 MW may not be defective, but the purpose of this article is to explain in layman’s terms the consequences of a large congenitally defective plant. People readily appreciate the economic impact and exasperation of power interruptions; they understands that no electricity means less production and this cannot be made good by hooking up private generators because this is duplication of capital outlay, and diesel fired standby electricity costs a lot more to generate than king-coal. These points are appreciated, but what is not so well known outside technical circles is that the generation expansion programme of a country will be thrown into jeopardy and there will be a cock-up in orderly growth of the system. Remember the era of barges and the mad rush to private oil-fired plant when Lanka faced desperate shortages in the 1990s? The roots of the CEB’s absurd reliance on oil to this day lie in the madness of those days, which may be repeated five years down the line from today.
Shortages and reserves
To explain simply the consequences of this (not necessarily worst case) scenario let us assume for arguments sake that Norochcholi 900 MW turns out to be a lemon. Immediately the normal operation of the system is screwed up. If the likelihood of some operating units failing is high, then other units have to be kept in readiness to be brought in quickly to take up the shortfall every time the lemons conk. (This is known as increasing the amount of spinning, emergency and short-time reserves kept in readiness). This costs money in two ways; keeping additional plant at the ready (hot, if thermal) costs operational money, secondly the extra plant must be there in the first place. In an already capacity constrained system such as ours, purchasing additional fast reserve plant (say gas turbines), may become unavoidable.
Consider next the impact of reduced availability of 900 MW of plant on the long term plan to provide electricity to the country. A 900 MW plant could be expected to provide nearly 6 TWh (tera-watt-hours) of energy if the plant operates fully loaded 80% of the time (load factor) which is quite normal for a base-load unit after allowing for maintenance. Next suppose availability is only 60% because of poor plant performance, then we can expect 4.50 GWh of energy only. Let me give you an idea of what this 1.50 TWh shortfall means; this amount is only a little less than half of the all electricity produced by all the hydroelectric power stations in Sri Lanka in an average year – which is about 3.7 TWh. So to repeat, if the availability of Norochcholi, at its final stage, has to be written down from 80% annual load factor to 60%, it is equivalent to losing about half of all the hydroelectricity that we generate in an average year.
The alarming impact of this is that the system will need a lot more new plant installed, and installed earlier than previously intended, to make up for the energy shortfall due the large reduction in availability of this critical base-load power station. In CEB language, the jargon is: “The long-term generation expansion programme has to be revised to introduce additional plant into the system at an earlier stage than previously envisaged”. This is a massively capital intensive undertaking, not to mention that we will have to go begging for project loans and grants earlier than planned.
Ashes and diamonds
The section heading is with apologies to Andrzej Wajda, but coal and diamonds are made of the same stuff, so I think I am on safe ground. And we have another thing in common; both Wajda and I are dealing with the same theme, crumbling expectations. Electricity generated by coal-fired plant is significantly cheaper than oil-fired output, and expectations of cheaper power have been widely touted. I am one who canvassed for a certain amount of coal power (Norochcholi and Sampur) to be included in Lanka’s generation mix until the economics of gas unloading facilities and small-nuclear became clearer. I still say that this is correct; but obviously not, if you install a lemon and call it a power station.
Hopes of cheap coal-fired electricity could turn to ashes. Given the dismal experience with plant availability I am now apprehensive of operational efficiency as well; this could be the knock-out blow. It is not possible to say anything definite about Norochcholi’s fuel efficiency till sustained uninterrupted operation permits reliable data collection. But with the plant breaking down like this it is moot when we will have reliable data. Lanka needs to wait with bated breath to see how much lower its electricity bills are going to be. True, even in the worst case, Norochcholi fuel costs will be less than oil-fired power, but the concern is that the savings may fall short of expectations touted by the Power Ministry and the CEB. If the numbers are disappointing, then given the habitual conspiracy and secrecy these institutions are renowned for, it may be a long time before we learn the truth.
*The author was an electrical power systems academic for forty years and a Fellow of the IEEE and the IEE. He was also a member of the CEB Board in days of yore