3 March, 2024


The Problems Are Not Merely Technical – Probing The Roots Of The Power Cuts

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

One hundred percent reliability in electricity supply is a theoretical impossibility; even in a place like Hong Kong which prides itself on reliability of supply, China Light & Power and Hongkong Electric, the territories two suppliers, achieve only 99.99% reliability, and less than 20 minutes loss of supply per annum on average. In most advanced economies reliability is a little lower, but better than 99%. Providing reliability at these levels is quite expensive, requiring good planning and maintenance, a reasonable amount of standby and emergency plant, and an excellent transmission and distribution network.

The power supply scenario in Sri Lanka, however, has become disgraceful; during year-2012 domestic consumers may, on average, lose supply for over 200 hours during this annus horribilis if the authorities are believed, longer if you trust your gut rather than government. The real problem is not that we are a poorer country that cannot maintain the same levels of reserve capacity and transmission-distribution facilities as rich countries, nor is it that a substantial part of our energy supply is from hydro sources, and our four great religions notwithstanding, no amount supplication of the gods can guarantee rain. These are contributory factors, but do not alone explain the cock-up. Something is rotten in our setup.


“Who finds the heifer dead and bleeding fresh
And sees fast by a butcher with an axe,
But will suspect ’twas he that made the slaughter?
Who finds the partridge in the puttock’s nest,
But may imagine how the bird was dead,
Although the kite soar with unbloodied beak?”

(Puttock is another word for kite or hawk)

I do not have hard evidence that people in high places took kick-backs from Norochcholi project financing or that that’s the reason we are stuck with a ‘lemon’ – a lemon is an Americanism for a car that comes out a dud from the factory. But in the context of rampant corruption and the breakdown of public confidence in the probity of political leaders, the kick-backs distrust is to be expected. The likes of you and I cannot possibly gain access to inside information if there has been wrongdoing, therefore there are grounds to justify a public inquiry.

Demand a public inquiry

I do not say a ‘lemon’ was knowingly foisted on us by the Chinese, I do not say it was not. I do not say those in high places lined their pockets, I do not say they did not. And I do not know, whether since the project is partly a gift fromChina, Lanka’s option to choose suppliers was constrained. What I do say is that the public does not know the answer to these questions but has a right to know. I do say that when the heifer lies dead near the butchery and the partridge is ripped in the raptor’s nest, it’s time for a public inquiry.

Norochcholi financing arrangements are not transparent nor in full public view. It is part gift fromChinaand part loan to be repaid. The gift-to-loan proportions and the interest rates and repayment schedules, to the best of my knowledge, have not been made public. Why the secrecy? A 300MW coal fired plant will by rule thumb pricing, cost about $300 million that is Rs 40 billion in today’s money; add transmission infrastructure and coal unloading facility costs, and my guess is that the capital expenditure incurred on plant and associated infrastructure facilities maybe be pushing on Rs45 billion; this is big money for small Lanka. But why do we need to guess, why is everything not transparent and public?

If we are told secrecy is necessary because the project is part gift, that reasoning is absurd. This is a public venture and no concealment of any aspect is acceptable; secrecy breeds graft, and breeds suspicion of graft. Furthermore, power cuts lead to huge economic losses and public angst. The knock-on effect of sustained power cuts on economic output could be severe. The repeated and chronic failure of Norochcholi has repercussions well beyond what meets the eye; Lanka’s long-term generation expansion programme has suffered a severe planning and operational shock for reasons that are not obvious to laymen. I ask readers to join me in demanding a public inquiry. This must not be a presidential commission since these are discredited and because the president and one of his siblings were involved in negotiating the financing package and in matters pertaining to the contract. The only way to deal with a cock-up on this scale is a parliamentary inquiry which must include a robust component from the opposition. Parliamentarians are not technical experts but this can be rectified by using expert consultants to assist the commission.

It never rains but pours

At the risk of appearing facetious let me relate a tale from the time when I was the first black teacher in the prestigious engineering school at the University of Rhodesia, laterZimbabwe. There was a great drought, the story goes, crops failed, cattle perished and people starved. So the tribes sent a delegation of wise men to the Great White Land to see how the English made rain. On their return they called a grand council and explained how the White Man made rain. “Thousands gather around a green field; they plant three sticks in the middle of the field and three more 22 yards away; two wise men in white coats stroll out, then eleven men romp in with a ball; finally two men with sticks under their arms walk out. And low and behold the heavens open and it rains for the rest of the day. Hallelujah! It never fails”. What, you don’t find it funny? Go away!

The official (Power Ministry, CEB) version is the coincidence of three events, viz breakdown at the Norochcholi coal fired power plant, hence the loss of 300MW of capacity, failure of combined-cycle plant at Kerawalpitiya taking out another 100MW, and a most unexpected drought causing a severe shortfall of hydro-electric energy. One news site said: “The failure of two monsoon seasons has caused hydro-electricity generation in Sri Lankato drop by 75 per cent in the past year and shortages have been compounded by a new Chinese-built coal power generator’s repeated breakdowns. In total Sri Lankais grappling with a shortfall of 22 per cent of peak power capacity”.

These barebones no doubt are factually truthful but like a witch’s petticoat conceal an assemblage of sins, the most serious, Norochcholi. I think this is the fifth time this plant has been shut down or been de-rated for an extended period. It is brand new, so it is time to face reality; it is a white elephant. It may have to be de-rated in perpetuity, or its reliability index written down substantially, or be decommissioned before its planned obsolescence, or all three. If Norochcholi is de-rated, other units have to be brought forward to take up the shortfall and the much vaunted expectation of cheap coal power evaporates. If the events of the last several months are a guide, the quantum of reserve and emergency power to be held in readiness to compensate for its low operational reliability, will have to be increased. The other major concern is that the long-term fuel efficiency of Norochcholi is a big and frightening unknown. All this costs money and Lanka’s first encounter with coal is going to be more expensive not cheaper electricity; a counter-intuitive experience.

The intention is to expand the Norochcholi from 300MW to 900MW. Does the government intend to go ahead despite bitter experience with this supplier? If so, heaven help the CEB! If not, the process of calling tenders, bidding, evaluation and awarding, will have to be gone through, adding a year or more to subsequent project stages. Will the Chinese grants and loans still be good if the client blacklists the current plant supplier? Will the government countenance delays which will push stage 2 completion beyond its own probable term of office as this will reduce its ability to collect kick-backs?

I am sad about all this because I have long advocated including coal fired power in the CEB system mix. Poor reliability is neither endemic, nor common, with coal; thousands of coal fired plants run with excellent reliability all over the world includingChina. In factChinaadds a large coal plant to its burgeoning system every fortnight and there is no particular reliability issue. It seems that something has gone wrong seriously only with the plant that has been foisted on Lanka.

Unceasing drought

Rainfall has been so low that hydro-generation has dropped by 75% according to the report I quoted. There is some cleaver dissembling here that needs to be deconstructed. The CEB is not saying that rainfall in the last twelve months was 75% less than its long-term average during the same period in previous years. We are only being told that hydro-generation (not previous rainfall) is going to be reduced by 75%; well hydro generation shortfall may only partly be due to poor hydrology; one needs to inquire into the resource management practices used by the CEB, or ordained by the Power Ministry, to regulate reservoir draw-down during the last 12 to 24 months. I am not insinuating that there was incompetence, but if there is to be a public inquiry, then hydrology and reservoir management should be thrown into the terms of reference.

Lightning does not strike three times in the same place. The failure at Kerawalpitiya at this very moment should motivate an extension of the inquiry to include reliability, maintenance and performance of this station. Frankly, the whole electricity supply sector has to be probed, but that’s too much to swallow at one gulp. Two years ago I was asked to chair a committee of inquiry into repeated all-island blackouts frequent at the time. The then CEB Chairman, Mr Kariyawasam got into a power struggle with the all-powerful engineers union (on an unrelated matter) and was kicked out. The new Acting Chairman (some Ferdinando fellow I believe), the rump board of directors, and presumably those engineers who did not want their shortcomings investigated, united to abruptly abort the inquiry. They paid the inquiry panel fees up to its termination date, did not want to chat with us about what we had uncovered up to then, nor did the CEB Board ask for an interim report. Public money down the drain to lubricate a cover up!

The technical issues are unrelated, but the culture of secrecy is the common thread. The CEB and the Power Ministry abhor public investigation so there must be much to hide. The commission of inquiry that I am demanding must be entirely beyond the control of these entities.

[The author was an electrical power engineering 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]

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