A combination of emergency power purchases, repairs to existing power plants and low demand during the Sinhala and Hindu New Year enabled the authorities to lift countrywide power cuts from Wednesday. The power crisis, however is not yet over, as demand will start peaking again after about April 22, according to officials. Though power cuts [...]


Multiple moves end blackout for Avurudu

Power crisis not yet over; experts shed light on urgent and long-term measures

Highly inconvenienced: Escalators grind to a halt during the power cut and ( below)a barber carries on with his work, though he is unable to use his power clippers during power cuts. Pix by Ishanka Sunimal

A combination of emergency power purchases, repairs to existing power plants and low demand during the Sinhala and Hindu New Year enabled the authorities to lift countrywide power cuts from Wednesday. The power crisis, however is not yet over, as demand will start peaking again after about April 22, according to officials.

Though power cuts were announced from March 25, the public experienced lengthy power interruptions from March 18, after the Lakvijaya Coal Power Plant’s second unit malfunctioned in the face of high demand. In the wake of the breakdown at Unit 2, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) was forced to impose unannounced power cuts to prevent the system from crashing and plunging the entire country into darkness. The Power and Energy Ministry had earlier turned down a CEB request to announce scheduled power cuts.

The Ministry relented a few days later. Consumers experienced daily four-hour power cuts — three hours during the day and one hour at night — for almost three weeks, leading to severe inconvenience. The economic cost of more than two weeks of scheduled power cuts is yet to be assessed.

Lakvijaya is now fully operational while the CEB was also able to repair its barge-mounted power plant at Colombo Port by this week. The 60 Megawatts (MW) of this barge-mounted plant were successfully connected to the national grid on Wednesday, the CEB said.

It said an additional 71MW of emergency power purchased from two Independent Power Producers (IPPs) — Asia Power in Sapugaskanda and ACE Power in Matara –     had also been connected to the national grid.

This week, the Cabinet also approved a proposal by Power and Energy Minister Ravi Karunanayake to award contracts to three foreign companies to supply a further 100MW of supplementary power to the national grid for six months to ensure continuous power supply.

The approval was given to award the contracts based on recommendations made by the Standing Cabinet Appointed Procurement Committee, the Government said.

As per the proposal that was approved, electricity will be purchased from these companies at unit prices ranging from Rs. 28.43 to Rs. 30.63.

The contracts have been awarded to the UK-based Aggreko International Projects Ltd., the UAE-based Altaaqa Alternative Solutions Global FZE and Hong Kong-based V Power Holdings Ltd.

The CEB also expects a significant reduction in power demand during the New Year season, as most workplaces and factories shut down and people leave for the holidays.

Meanwhile, the Mahaweli Authority has also thrown a lifeline to the CEB by agreeing to release water for it to generate electricity from the Rantembe, Randenigala and Victoria reservoirs for the time being.

A Mahaweli Authority official told the Sunday Times that the amount of water to be released would be decided on a week-by-week basis at the weekly operational meeting attended by officials from various agencies, including the CEB and the Department of Irrigation.

A good sign for the CEB, though, is that much of the water needed for the upcoming Yala cultivation season will be released by April 20.

CEB Engineers’ Union President Saumya Kumarawadu warned that electricity demand would once again rise beginning from April 22. “If we are able to get the hydropower going and if all the power plants are running without a hitch, we should be able to provide uninterrupted power till the rains come. If they don’t come in time or if there is a breakdown at a major power plant, in the meanwhile, we may have to impose power cuts again,” he warned.

CEB spokesman and Power and Energy Ministry Directory Sulakshana Jayawardena also acknowledged that the CEB still faced a “challenge” to provide uninterrupted power. “This is why we are working hard on the demand side management aspect and are urging consumers to continue using electricity sparingly,” he noted.

Mr Jayawardena said the CEB had tried convincing the private sector to contribute to a self-generation scheme whereby companies and institutions would use generators to produce their own power, but this had only met with moderate success. Most such places that keep their generators on standby for emergencies have balked at the CEB’s suggestion that they use the generators full-time, even though the Board is paying them for it. Nevertheless, about 50MW had been released to the national grid as a result of the scheme, the CEB spokesman added.

The power generated from the self-generation scheme, along with those from the barge mounted plant, IPPs and emergency power, should be enough for the CEB to provide uninterrupted power even in the post-Avurudu season, Mr Jayawardena said.

The Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), the country’s power sector regulator, claimed that it had foreseen this situation and had been warning the licensee — the CEB — for several years now. PUCSL’s Corporate Communications Director Jayanat Herat told the Sunday Times the regulator had warned as far back as March 2016 about the power shortage expected in 2018/2019 and that the CEB itself had acknowledged this.

“The crisis could indeed have been avoided. The plans were there (to avoid a shortage), but the problem lay with the delays in implementing them,” he said.

Mr Herat recalled that the PUCSL had approved a competitive bidding process for the Kerawalapitiya 300MW combined cycle plant in November 2016. Though the plant was supposed to be commissioned in January, this year, even the tender is yet to be awarded following various controversies, he pointed out. Various other power plants approved by the PUCSL, including the 100MW wind power plant in Mannar and the 100MW barge mounted power plant in Galle, were also yet to be built, he noted. Meanwhile, in September last year, the PUCSL had recommended connecting generators owned by state institutions, but no action was taken on this front too, he lamented, adding that if such measures had been taken on time, they would have easily met the 200-300MW shortfall of electricity the country was currently experiencing.

The PUCSL is reluctant to approve emergency power purchases on principle due to their high cost, but conditionally approved the recent purchase of 100MW of emergency power considering the inconvenience borne by the public, he said.

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