Sri Lankans are angry, nay furious over the latest round of power cuts. But they can be cynical and amusing at the same time. “Muladi apita thibuna Gota-ge eliya. Than avilla thiyenne Ravi-ge karuwala(Earlier it was Gota’s ‘eliya’. Now Ravi’s ‘darkness’ has arrived),” Kussi Amma Sera said with amusement, chatting with comrade-at-arms Serapina and down-the-lane [...]

Business Times

“Power-ful” blame game


Sri Lankans are angry, nay furious over the latest round of power cuts. But they can be cynical and amusing at the same time. “Muladi apita thibuna Gota-ge eliya. Than avilla thiyenne Ravi-ge karuwala(Earlier it was Gota’s ‘eliya’. Now Ravi’s ‘darkness’ has arrived),” Kussi Amma Sera said with amusement, chatting with comrade-at-arms Serapina and down-the-lane gossip Mabel Rasthiyadu.

The trio was seated under the Margosa tree, meeting after three weeks as Serapina and Mabel Rasthiyadu had returned from their extended village vacation. The conversation then turned to anger and frustration. “Balanna, Akke….…Sri Lanka-va pura viduliya kapanakota, Kolombata vitharak ne(See……while the whole of Sri Lanka is having power cuts, Colombo city is spared),” said an angry Serapina.Ov….…meka harima asadharanai (Yes, this is very unfair),” interjected Mabel Rasthiyadu, adding “Kolombata kiri apita kekiri (Colombo is having milk and we are having kekiri)”.

While the schedule of daily 4-hour powers cuts enforced this week covered Sri Lanka in its entirely, from Colombo to Batticaloa and Matara to Jaffna, in the case of Colombo, it was stated in the schedule as “maximum possible self-generation”. What it means wasn’t explained but many Colombo city residents confirmed that they appear to belong to a ‘privileged’ class by being exempt from power cuts.

While most Sri Lankans were not upset over the power cuts given the acute drought and erratic weather patterns, they were furious over Colombo being given power while the rest of the country was in darkness.

Rather than put their heads together and jointly work out a solution, the political leadership and state entities, meanwhile, were daggers drawn against each other revelling in a blame game which often plagues Sri Lanka during a crisis. Solar power producers blamed the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) for delaying several solar power project approvals; the CEB blamed it on someone else; the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) blamed the CEB for unscheduled power cuts and vowed to take action; and the President blamed the clash between PUC and the CEB for the crisis. Power Minister Ravi Karunanayake promised a resolution of the crisis before the Sinhala and Tamil New Year, while Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also said a solution was being worked out expeditiously.

As I prepared to write my copy focusing on the power cuts, the phone rang. It was Karapincha Perera, the tea-kade gossip, on the line.

I-shay…….all the politicians and officials are blaming each other and passing the buck but no one has apologised to the country for these power cuts. Even Ravi’s apology was very feeble,” he said, settling in for a long conversation on the power crisis.

“You are right, the political leadership must take responsibility for this,” I said.

“Furthermore, it’s unfair why Colombo city is exempt from power cuts while the rest of the country has to suffer in silence and darkness,” he said, adding: “I hope someone complains to the Human Rights Commission (HRC) on unjust, unfair and discriminatory power cuts or even file a fundamental rights case in the Supreme Court because it violates a citizen’s right to equality.”

We then continued for a long time until I cut him short saying that I had to complete my column before the crippling power cuts.

In this day and age of new technology and rapid progress in the use of renewable energy against the traditional hydro power generation, why hasn’t Sri Lanka found the right mix of power generation, but is still relying to a large extent on hydro power which packs up whenever there is a drought? It has been reported that the authorities didn’t want to rely too much on hydro power generation as water was required for farming purposes. Efforts to resort to artificial rain – spraying chemicals in the clouds – didn’t work on the second day, after it worked on the first day, with showers experienced over the Moussakelle reservoir in Maskeliya last week. The experiment was then called off.

Be that as it may, the Government’s much touted solar power generation plan has also run into a storm of protests from potential solar power producers, who this week complained of inordinate delays in getting their projects approved.

The Solar Industries Association (SIA) accused the authorities of delaying approvals for nearly 600 applications and urged that these be fast-tracked which would largely help to reduce dependency on hydro power, particularly during a drought.

At a news conference, the SIA reportedly said that close to 600 applications for solar power plants, which would have added an estimated 1,480 MW to the national grid, had been delayed. “It is clear, given the weather issues we are facing now, that the CEB is struggling to provide uninterrupted power. The seriousness of this situation could have been reduced if the Government had rolled out the promised solar power projects and given approvals for applications that have been pending for about four years,” SIA Secretary Lakmal Fernando had said, according to media reports.

The demand-versus-supply generation is a perennial problem and calls for immediate action given the increasing demand. According to the Central Bank’s 2017 annual report, total power generation recorded slower growth in 2017 of 3.7 per cent compared to 8.1 per cent growth in 2016. Furthermore, hydropower generation contracted by 12.1 per cent in 2017, compared to 29 per cent contraction in 2016, due to the prolonged drought that prevailed in the catchment areas. Yet-to-be released data in 2018 would also show slower growth in power generation in 2018 which means the authorities have known for many years that the energy generated is insufficient to meet demand and calls for urgent solutions and increasing renewable energy options.

According to official data, the total installed power generation capacity of the country in 2017 was 4,043 MW, consisting of 900 MW of coal power, 1,215 MW of thermal power, 1,720 MW of hydropower and 208 MW of non-conventional renewable energy sources such as wind, mini-hydro, biomass and solar power plants. In 2017, the PUC reportedly approved the ‘Lowest Cost Long-Term Generation Expansion Plan’ with the aim of ensuring energy security and according to this plan, 240 MW of major hydro, 215 MW of mini-hydro, 1,380 MW of solar, 1,205 MW of wind power and 4,800 MW of LNG were to be added to the installed capacity between 2018 and 2037. However, these plans have been stalled due to clashes between the CEB and the regulator (PUC).

During the crippling power cuts in the 1990s, some residents fixed solar power units in their homes which were sufficient to light up three bulbs and a fan while the crisis triggered calls for a proper power generation plan. Today, many homes have solar power but since it is connected to the national grid, it cannot be used independently and, accordingly, such homes also suffer power cuts.

Before winding up (to also beat the impending power cuts at home), one needs to ask the question: Will someone file a complaint with the HRC or a fundamental rights case in the Supreme Court over unjust and unfair power cuts being arbitrarily imposed? I hope someone does!

Sri Lankans have always been willing to brace themselves to face any crisis and the power crisis is nothing new. What they are fuming about is why the citizenry out of Colombo are being treated in one way and those in Colombo in another. Are those outside Colombo “lesser” citizens?

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