Three Hour Power Outage Lifted Off
By Dinidu de Alwis
On Friday, the Ministry of power and energy announced that the three-hour power outages – which were put in place till the Norochcholai power plant came back online – will be stopped till further notice. The move came mere hours after weather conditions changed, resulting in showers to the areas which feed into hydro power plants. Whilst Norochcholai is still undergoing repairs, the island’s national power grid hangs in an intricate balance of attempting to match the electricity production with the rising electricity consumption.
In a report released in 2010, the government forecasted a near-tripling of the island’s power consumption over the next fifteen years. In 2010, according to to the Annual Report by the Ministry of Finance and Planning, Sri Lanka consumed 10,740GWh of power. The figure was expected to “increase considerably” with a projected economic growth of 8% at the time.
Whilst new calculations have not been done about how the consumption will rise, the previous estimate stands at a requirement of 27,559GWh by 2025.
One of the most ambitious projects of the current government is to achieve complete coverage of the island by the end of year 2012. With a mere four months to go for the year to end, this is not a target that can be achieved. Government statistics show that household coverage stood at 90% in 2010, rose to 91% in 2011. Even though the figures are a substantial improvement from 77% coverage in 2005, only Colombo, Gampaha and Hambantota districts have achieved 100% electrification by the end of 2010.
The figures are even bleaker for the districts of Kilinochchi and Mulaitivu – the former warzone where the infrastructure was almost completely destroyed during decades of violent conflict. The North of the island is still not connected to the rest of the national grid, and regional officials from the Ceylon Electricity Board – the government-run entity which has a virtual monopoly of electricity production and distribution – says that getting the area connected to the national grid would in excess of two years. This is despite a plan of getting the North linked up by mid-2012. Islandwide electrification still stands at around 90%.
Whilst the method of generation changes from time to time, the bulk of the electricity generation is borne by thermal power sources – coal and diesel still produce nearly 2/3 of power. The remainder is filled mainly with hydro power, with wind turbines and solar filling in a small fraction of power.
This, experts say, is an inversion of what the power structure should ideally be. The majority of the generation should be from cheap production sources – being hydro, and thermal should only kick in when the demand peaks, and the base generation is unable to handle the load. With the exact opposite of this happening, Sri Lanka has become more dependent on oil and coal imports to keep the nation lit.
The power dependency comes at a bigger price. Coal power plants in Sri Lanka run almost exclusively on Chinese coal, which means that the island’s policies should – at least for the foreseeable future – be China friendly. The political ramifications of this, at a time when Sri Lanka is looking both towards India and China as potential guardians against war crimes allegations, are complex and diverse.
Power generation through diesel is also under the same form of pressures. When the United States imposed sanctions against Iran this year, Sri Lanka managed to secure an exemption. Sri Lanka is heavily dependent on Iran for its oil imports – the credit terms are healthy for Sri Lanka, and the Sapugaskanda refinery is designed to process Iranian crude oil. Whilst the exemption meant that – at least for now – it shed light onto the fact that Sapugaskanda refinery needs a complete overhaul. It is estimated by the Petroleum Ministry that an overhaul would cost in the range of US$ 4 billion.
The CEB does not have the best financial health either. A multitude of government institutions are at debt to the CEB, which in turn is in debt to others – key among which is towards to Ceylon Petroleum Corporation. The total amount of outstanding debt that the Treasury has guaranteed to, stood at Rs. 38.24 billion as of the end of 2011.
The government’s policy of subsidised electricity for lower-consumption users – mainly small households – will cost another Rs. 59.19 billion this year.
Despite these figures however, the CEB recorded a net profit of Rs. 5 billion in 2010. “This is a major relief to the government which had to absorb the huge losses made by CEB over the years through budget support. Some strategic decisions taken by the CEB and the capability of operating all hydropower plants at their maximum capacity had led to this achievement. Maximization of efficiency of using hydro power plants and considerable reduction of wastage and illegal use has contributed to these improvements,” the government said in a report
released last year. Wastage and illegal use of power still remains an issue that needs to be addressed.
The infrastructure that is used to transmit power across the island is growing old, and an estimated 15-20% of power is lost during transmission, the CEB estimates. The government is fully aware that to reach relative energy independence, drastic and substantial steps should be taken. “However, the power sector in Sri Lanka needs to urgently turn its attention to gaining energy security, deciding on long-term fuel options, reducing system losses, preventing the theft of electricity, energy conservation, environmental implications and ensuring the sustainability of energy resources,” the same report said.
Powering the future
The government is also getting ready to engage in nuclear power generation if needed in case the country has no other options. The Cabinet has appointed a steering committee to undertake a pre-feasibility study to consider nuclear power for Sri Lanka.
The installed capacity for power generation, at the end of last year, stood at 3,141MW. Even with the addition of 450MW from Norochcholai and Upper Kotmale power plants, nearly 1/3 of the generation capacity still stands in the hands of the private sector. Out of the 36MW that is generated through wind power, 33MW is contributed by the sector, at a premium price.
A total of Rs. 167 billion was spent in 2010 to improve the energy sector. With nearly Rs. 100 billion in investments since 2010, the government says it is confident of meeting the energy requirements of the island. Whilst the idea of becoming an energy hub might be a distant dream, steps should be taken to ensure that the requirements are met to keep the industries going, and the country lit.
Hydro, whilst being cheap, put the energy sector at nature’s mercy; thermal – both through diesel and coal – remain expensive to run and increases Colombo’s political dependency; solar and wind are insanely expensive to install and again are dependent on how the weather changes; the mere mention of the word nuclear worries the environmentalists. The ongoing and committed power generation projects will increase the installed capacity to 4,588MW by 2020, the government says. In addition to the planned projects, new power plants should be planned for a capacity of 1,914MW by 2025 to meet the power shortages. Otherwise, like shown in neighbouring India, the country should brace for massive crippling blackouts – something that the economy is never ready to handle.