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When a power plant has to be shut down 26 times between its commissioning less than three years ago and today, questions will be asked. As we print this edition it has broken down again yesterday. Now how about some answers? On Wednesday, the Lakvijaya Coal Power Plant in Norochcholai was reconnected to the grid after a four-day interruption. It was the second breakdown in five weeks. The first one lasted 17 days, from December 13 to 30, 2013. But this was no surprise. From the day it was commissioned, Lakvijaya’s Unit 1 (there will be a total of three) has required constant repairs. Yesterday, it broke down again.
The Sunday Times obtained statistics dated July 2011 to December 2013 from the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB). Apart from three maintenance shutdowns — ranging from 24 to 56 days — the power plant has been out of commission 21 times. This does not take into account the glitches it had suffered between March and June 2011 when it was commissioned, but those were early days and problems were not unanticipated.
Lakvijaya generates cheap power using coal and water. Every time it goes out of commission, the country burns up millions of rupees worth of diesel to meet the shortfall in power. Hydroelectric power stations meet only a small percentage of the country’s requirements due to depletion of water in reservoirs combined with high demand. So each breakdown increases the debt burden of the CEB at a time when it is trying to break the cycle as an utter loss to the public purse. It also has consequences for other institutions, such as the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation and the Treasury, and the country and its people.
But ask any CEB engineer and he would tell you that the setting up of the coal power plant was a victory achieved in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. First, there had been indecision over where the plant would be sited. Once Norochcholai was decided upon, environmentalists cranked up a powerful lobby against the project, and justifiably so.
The then Bishop of Chilaw, opposed the initiative out of concern that it would impact negatively on the people living in the surrounding areas and the historic St. Anne’s Church in nearby Talawila. The Government of the day gave in and refused to authorise the letter requesting financing from a willing Japan. President Mahinda Rajapaksa had initially associated himself with the Bishop’s campaign but, as President, he resolved to take the project to its completion. The final agreement was signed in 2006. When it was commissioned, the first phase of Lakivijaya was seven years behind schedule. Today, keeping Lakvijaya running has arguably become the CEB’s biggest challenge. The frequency of breakdowns has spawned speculation that Unit 1 is a reconditioned plant dumped on Sri Lanka by China. While categorically rejecting this, a CEB spokesman admitted that there had been other issues from the start.
The fact that all instruction manuals for the plant –including its many, many auxiliaries — are in Chinese is “a big problem”. Even machine components are labelled in Chinese. Translations are ongoing ‘on the run’, so to say. What government in the world agrees to a design-build-and-transfer power plant without an assurance that basic instruction manuals are in a language that could be understood by the party expected to run it? It is difficult enough to operate a Chinese mobile phone with directions only in that language. The scale of Lakvijaya is a thousand times bigger.
Admittedly, the CEB had tremendous political pressure to have Unit 1 ready by March 2011. For commissioning to take place before schedule (and before local government elections later that month) several important tests were not done. When a plant is as large and as complicated as Unit 1 is, such decisions are bound to have long-term repercussions.
A third issue is quality. CEB engineers are now speaking more openly, though anonymously, about this subject. One said that, frankly speaking, the material used by the Chinese is “not that good”. Unit 1 has suffered mishaps from valve repairs and pipe damages to coal mill fires, abnormal fluctuation in turbine lube oil pressure, a hydrogen seal oil leak, debris filter damages, high temperature in cooling water pumps and a failure of both transmission lines.
While it might be too late to meaningfully correct the situation in Unit 1, the CEB is said to be making great efforts to ensure that Units 2 and 3 are better. But is this too little too late? Can Sri Lanka afford to make costly mistakes like this due to political expediency and questionable financial kickbacks? Is this just one case of many other projects of a similar vein, hurriedly rushed through with transparency thrown to the winds? If they had suspicions that the Chinese were installing a low quality plant and machinery at Norochcholai, couldn’t CEB pundits have acted sooner? Did the devil get lost in the details…or in the mighty rush to get this power plant installed by hook or by crooks?
Former Power and Energy Minister Champika Ranawaka has gone on record with the Sunday Times saying the Lakvijaya plant is inferior. That Sri Lanka did not get the coal power plant at the right time and that it was not built in the right place. The CEB, the Chinese contractor and the consultants who approved the project were responsible for these drawbacks in which others seemed to have cashed in, literally.
The CEB counters that, on a cost-benefit analysis, the Lakvijaya Coal Power Plant has still provided more to the country than it has taken away. A senior official claimed that, although the plant had broken down at “crucial times”, it is averaging an availability of more than 88%. Another manager said Unit 1 has saved the country at least US$500 million in foreign exchange that the Government would otherwise have spent on diesel — ignoring the repair bill though.
Still, there are no estimates on how much breakdowns are costing the country.
here are only hints. For instance, a conveyor belt transporting coal from barges to the yard recently sustained major damage while two coal ships were anchored at sea. This resulted in the CEB having to pay Rs. 5 million a day, a ship, in late fees until the belt was fixed. It is not known what other expenses are being incurred — or by what percentage they will increase when various warranties run out. The people don’t know — and the Government feels they need not know — the running cost of this project – one of this Government’s earliest forays into the many Chinese contracts that have followed.
The Opposition, some CEB trade unions and the National Electricity Consumers Movement now demand a Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate events at Lakvijaya. What earthly use comes from such committees is public knowledge. The need today is for a Right to Information Law that will provide concerned citizens access to Government information that is deliberately being hidden from the public. Lakvijaya is a text book case of a cover-up of information that would otherwise throw some light on how Governments operate — and do business.