Country in for a shock

Reservoirs are drying up; power stations are reporting frequent breakdowns; the CEB and CPC trade charges while power and energy minister denies any mismanagement in power production.
Anthony David reports

Sri Lanka’s power generation is heading for a crisis with the hydro power generation dropping to one of the lowest in recent years, technical issues resulting in breakdowns and the cost of electricity production escalating.

The Ceylon Electricity Board is being hit by an estimated loss of Rs. 150 million a day whilst also trying to get one of the plants at the Kelanitissa power station repaired as soon as possible.

Moussakele reservior (Above & Below): One of the three where the spill level has dropped more than 50 percent. Pix by C.T. Perumal

One of the worst setbacks has been that hydro power generation has dropped to as low as 18 per cent prompting the CEB to depend on thermal power. The water levels at some of the reservoirs have been steadily dropping reaching a situation where no more hydro – power can be generated from the locations.

The Victoria, Moussakele, and Castelreigh reservoirs which are considered the highest three contributors for hydro-power generation has dropped to more than 50 per cent of the spill level. In the other reservoirs too the water levels have been decreasing.

The Meteorological Department confirmed that the catchment areas had not received sufficient rains during the past four months. (See table on this page). But, earlier this year due to heavy rains many of the reservoirs had reached spill level prompting the Power and Energy Ministry to step up hydro power generation and reduce thermal power production in anticipation that the monsoon rains will be received in time.

A Petroleum Ministry Source told the Sunday Times that the decision to step up hydro power generation had prompted the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) to hold back stocks of fuel which had been imported for power generation. “In contrast the Power and Energy Ministry has asked the Ministry (Petroleum) for urgent stocks of fuel for power production,” the source added.

But Power and Energy Minister Champika Ranawaka said the allegations of mismanagement of power production by stepping up hydro power were not correct. He said when releasing water, priority is given for purposes of drinking, followed by irrigation and finally power generation. “If the argument that the reservoirs from which water was drawn for power generation have dried up as excess water was used then it should not apply to the Nuwara Wewa, Kala Wewa and the Basawankulama tank in the Anuradhapura district which also reached spill level. But today these tanks too have dried up,” he added.
“What happened was that since there was a crop loss due to the floods in the previous season, more water was released to farmers for crops to make the next season a success,” he said.

Mr. Ranawaka said that the usual trend was that about 35 to 45 per cent of the power requirement was hydro – power and the catchment areas had this time received less than 30 per cent of the rains received. “The rainfall figures are some of the lowest in 50 years,” he added.

CEB Sources said that the Kerawalapitiya plant station and the Lakwijaya power station in Puttalam were malfunctioning, but the minister denied the claims saying they were running without serious problems.

However, the Minister said that due to a dispute over payment of fuel bills to the Petroleum Corporation the Kerawalapitiya station had been shut down. But CEB sources said despite claims by the Minister the Lakwijaya plant in Puttalam which is supposed to generate 300 Mw was not generating power to its maximum capacity and was generating around 150 Mw.

They also said that though the Lakwijaya plant was supposed to be a coal power plant, fuel was being used to generate power.

However Mr. Ranawaka countering this said that between March and July, when test runs were being done the plant was switched off and regularly fuel had to be used to start up the plant. “This is the practice in any plant in the world,” he added.

He said to overcome a future power crisis the government was working towards building on the thermal power production to ensure that even if there was no hydro power generation they could manage. “Of course the cost will be high, but we will have no option because of climatic changes,” he said.

Despite claims that the plant was running smoothly employees stationed there say there were regular interruptions at the plant built by the Chinese with the latest occuring this week where teams had been called from Colombo urgently to attend to the repairs.

In addition to the issues of power generation, the CEB is also facing a threat by some workers who are demanding arrears of a salary increment. The demand came after the Minister claimed he had been able to bring the CEB to a profitable situation.

A section of the workers backed by opposition unions have called for a token strike on Wednesday threatening further trade union action if their demands are not met. Their demand if met will cost the government Rs. 1.3 billion.

Mr. Ranawaka said that CEB workers salaries are increased every three years and their demand to pay the arrears immediately was not reasonable. He said that the salary increase in 2009 was not given due to military operations at that time.

The minister said that the workers’ demands have been forwarded to the Treasury and proposals have been advanced to look into ways on how their demands could be met through alternate methods.

“However we will be taking strict action against those trying to sabotage the supply of power to the Public,” he said.

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