Norochcholai Fast Becoming A White Elephant
By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema
The country’s first coal power plant in Norochcholai is fast becoming a burden on the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) adding to the institution’s already heavy losses.
The constant breakdowns in the power plant even before the lapse of a year since being commissioned has added to the CEB losses and a shortfall in the power supply. Out of the CEB’s losses for the last year, Rs. 14 billion has been due to the breakdown in the power plant and its failure to provide the expected power supply.
The CEB last year had expected to receive 1,500 energy units from the Norochcholai power plant, but had received only 1,000 units. The shortfall had to be met through expensive thermal power.
The Power and Energy Ministry states the CEB in thelast year incurred a total loss of Rs. 18 billion due to the failure on the part of the Norochcholai power plant and the plant at the Kelanitissa power station.
The latest breakdown of the plant on January 21 this year has cost the Board a loss amounting to Rs. 2.5 billion, Power and Energy Minister Champika Ranawaka said.
Ironically the value of the part that had to be replaced in the plant had been less than Rs. 100,000.
Ranawaka observed the CEB has had to incur a Rs. 109 million loss every day the plant was not in operation since measures had to be taken to meet the shortfall, of 300MW in the national grid.
The cost of the repairs had been borne by the Chinese contractors since the plant has a defect liability period of two years. However, the CEB had to resort to purchasing power from alternate sources during the period of the breakdown.
Ranawaka said before the recent fuel price hike, 1 kilo watt of thermal power cost Rs. 26 when a kilo watt of coal power cost only Rs. 7.80.
“The CEB therefore had to incur a loss of Rs. 18.20 when purchasing one unit. The Board had to purchase six million such units every day,” he explained.
He added that one of the key problems faced in the country’s energy sector was its heavy reliance on the coal power plant when it was commissioned last year.
“We started repair work on some other small plants because we relied on the coal power plant to supply the required amount of power, but that failed,” Ranawaka observed.
The Norochcholai plant finally resumed operations on February 20 after completion of the repair work almost after a period of one month.
Since the commissioning of the 300MW first phase of the coal power plant last March, the plant has recorded three major breakdowns that resulted in the closure of the plant for long periods.
The CEB states the Norochcholai plant had not been in operation for 35 days between March and December last year due to scheduled and unscheduled repair work.
The power plant was built by China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation (CMEC) on a US$450 million loan from China’s EXIM Bank.
The plant is to be expanded to add a total of 900 MW to the national grid by 2014.
When asked about the problems with the Norochcholai power plant, Ranawaka said there was no problem with the main plant, but the breakdowns have been in equipment in auxiliaries.
He explained that there were several shortcomings on the part of the CEB due to the lack of familiarization with the equipment and technology.
“Most manuals and systems were in Chinese. Even the Chinese technical staff was not too fluent in English and there was a language barrier. It took a little time for the local staff to get familiar with the process,” he said. Citing an example, the Minister noted it had initially taken about 23 days to unload 75,000 tons of coal, but now it is done within seven days.
With regard to breakdowns in the Norochcholai plant, Ranawaka said three areas had been looked into – machine defects, mishandling of equipment by operators and sabotage.
“The problem was in the design,” he noted.
The coal plant was built under the supervision of the CEB, Swiss consultant firm Poyry (formerly known as Electrowatt) and constructed by China’s CMEC.
“The plant that generates 300MW is massive and in one unit and therefore problems occur when it runs 24/7. The plant should have been in two 150MW units and a post cooling system should have been put in place,” the Minister explained.
During any breakdown, the plant takes between 15-18 days just to cool down before initial examination work could be carried out.
According to Ranawaka, the problems in the plant’s design and the decision to accelerate the coal power plant project in 2007 to meet an energy deficit in 2010 could be the reasons for the breakdowns in the plant.
However, the Minister observed steps would be taken to mitigate these issues in the second phase of the Norochcholai coal power plant project.
“We have taken certain measures to address the current crisis due to the constant breakdown in the coal power plant. A committee headed by Prof. K.K.Y.W. Perera has been appointed to carry out an independent evaluation based on the Poyry report, mitigate the issues in the next 600MW phase of the coal plant and streamline the proposed Sampur power plant,” Ranawaka said.
The construction of coal power plants in the country as part of the long-term generation plan was first mooted by then Energy Minister J.R. Jayewardene in 1977. The decision to set up a coal power plant was decided in 1985 and the locations of Trincomalee, Mawanella and Puttalam were identified for the project.
The project however was delayed for several decades by successive governments due to various reasons including protests by the people.
The Norochcholai coal power plant finally commenced construction in 2007 due to the realization that the country was heading towards a massive power crisis.