Failure of successive monsoons, the prevailing heatwave and a series of technical breakdowns are causing a severe strain on the National Grid (NG), as the country prepares to mark Vesak on a grand scale. According to the Power & Renewable Energy Ministry, daytime electricity demand soared by 18.4%, while nighttime peak demand, from 7 pm-10 [...]


CEB powerless, bends national grid backwards to deliver

While failed monsoons, prevailing drought, continuing heatwave wreak havoc, technical breakdowns add insult to injury

The dried up Mahaweli river. Pic by Karu Gamage

Failure of successive monsoons, the prevailing heatwave and a series of technical breakdowns are causing a severe strain on the National Grid (NG), as the country prepares to mark Vesak on a grand scale.

According to the Power & Renewable Energy Ministry, daytime electricity demand soared by 18.4%, while nighttime peak demand, from 7 pm-10 pm., also climbed by 10% in the past few weeks, due to the heatwave. This is mainly attributed to the increased use of air-conditioner units and fans, according to officials.

A senior Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) engineer told the Sunday Times that the NG experienced a peak electricity demand of 2,455 Megawatts (MW) on April 24. “This is themaximum peak electricity demand recorded in CEB history,” he added, noting that, normally, peak hour demand is between 1,800-2,200 MW. Meanwhile, the maximum daily usage of electricity units ever recorded was also reported on the same day, with 45 million units used. The normal rate is 38-42 million units.

While demand has soared, hydropower, which makes up 40%-50% of the country’s energy requirement, has been hard-hit by the drought. Two successive monsoons have failed since last year, while two inter-monsoonal seasons also failed to bring the expected rains. As a result, water levels in catchment reservoirs have reduced at an alarming rate. The hydropower capacity is now hovering around 31%, the lowest in decades. As such, only about 10% of electricity is currently generated through hydropower, while power generation is mostly with coal and oil.

“The situation is unlikely to change for sometime, with significant rain- southwest monsoon- expected towards the end of this month,” said Meteorology Dept Director General- Lalith Chandrapala. There hasn’t been any significant rainfall in catchment areas since the brief spell of heavy rain earlier this year. That, however, was not enough to keep water levels from dropping. “We are facing a very serious situation,” Mr. Chandrapala acknowledged. “The good news, however, is that, we expect the upcoming monsoon to be a normal one, which should bring an adequate amount of rainfall to most reservoir areas.”

The country’s electricity woes have been compounded by several other incidents. One 270 MW generator, known as Unit I, at the Lakvijaya Coal Power Plant in Norochcholai, has suffered another breakdown. It had only been reconnected to the NG on April 24, following a near week-long breakdown earlier. Unit I, however, malfunctioned again due to a failure in its boiler tubes. Experts from the Chinese company which built the plant, are now in the country, conducting tests to determine what went wrong and how best to repair the generator, said CEB Media Spokesman Sulakshana Jayawardena. “We can’t be certain when Unit I will be repaired and reconnected to the NG,” he added.

In the midst of the drought, the 900 MW Lakvijaya coal power plant is key, to provide uninterrupted electricity to the country. While the loss of one generator will not compel the CEB to impose islandwide power-cuts, it will be extremely difficult to manage if another is knocked out. Given that, the plant has now broken down some 38 times in total, authorities admit they are nervous.

Additionally, one 130 MW generator of the 300 MW West-Coast Power Plant, which is an Independent Power Producer (IPP) connected to the NG, is also offline due to a technical fault. CEB sources said the entire plant is scheduled to be shut down this weekend for repairs.

Meanwhile, the collapse of the Meethotamulla garbage dump on April 14, caused heavy damage to a major transmission tower, knocking out two 132 kilovolt transmission lines from Kolonnawa to Kelaniya, which had CEB engineers scrambling to prevent a catastrophic system failure.

According to CEB sources, the incident forced them to use more water from the Laxapana hydropower complex, than they had originally intended, to overcome the system imbalance caused by the loss of the transmission lines.

Repairs to the tower, though, are due to be completed by last evening. As such, officials believe the lines could be made operational again from today (7).

Given the urgency of the power situation, the Govt, last week, made it compulsory for factories having their own generators, and registered with the CEB, to activate them from May 2-6. About 250 such factories are currently registered with the CEB and authorities say the privately owned generators have a combined capacity of about 500 MW. As an incentive, the CEB will pay Rs 36 per unit of electricity generated through self generators, during peak hours.

Power & Renewable Energy Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya told the Sunday Times that, while only 40 MW had been added to the NG from these generators on May 2, it had spiked to 100 MW on May 3. “We expect this to pick up further as the week progresses,” he said, adding, “If we can add at least 300 MW to the NG from these factories, we can consider it a success.”

In the backdrop of the Ministry’s warning that the national grid was under strain, concerns have been expressed whether it could affect the coming Vesak week celebrations. While Vesak Full Moon Poya Day will fall on Wednesday (10), the United Nations Vesak Day celebration will be held in Colombo and Kandy from May 12-14. Foreign dignitaries expected to attend include Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Nepali President Bidhya Devi Bhandari.

Minister Siyambalapitiya said, “However, the Govt did not foresee a power crisis during Vesak, as electricity demand during the week is expected to be low. Many offices and factories will be closed. While there will be an additional demand due to the heatwave, it will not be difficult for us to manage.”

The Minister though, lamented the lack of public support towards energy conservation this time. He stressed that, saving more energy would help provide both uninterrupted power and prevent electricity bills increasing, given that, the power crisis meant increased purchase of electricity at great cost, from diesel power plants.

Deputy Minister Ajith P. Perera too, expressed confidence in an improved situation next week. With Wednesday (10) and Thursday (11) being Vesak holidays, Mr Perera said they had been informed that many factories and even some offices would close on Friday, with employees given the day off. “So, we are looking at a 5-day-long weekend for quite a few places,” he observed.

“The worst is behind us. We managed to maintain an uninterrupted power supply through the most difficult period from February through April,” he said. “Furthermore, the CEB managed to get through it by purchasing only 60 MW of emergency power,” he added.

While the Ministers expressed confidence, a CEB official, speaking on grounds of anonymity, cautioned that, it would still be difficult for them to meet the demand just before Vesak (May 8 and 9) due to the prevailing situation. He too, urged the public to be mindful of electricity usage.

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