CEB Feeling The Heat Of Power Outage Mess
by Ifham Nizam
A high-powered team headed by Secretary to the Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy Dr. Suren Batagoda is conducting discussions with the owners of private power plants in an attempt to purchase these plants, The Sunday Leader reliably learns.
Many Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) insiders have pointed out that the nearly eight-hour rolling power cuts imposed last week by the Board could have been avoided if those plants had been in service. Power shedding was lifted on Friday.
According to Power and Renewable Energy Ministry officials, two of the major plants, Heladhanavi 100 MW plant at Puttalam and Aitken Spence 100 MW plant at Embilipitiya, would have made up for the loss of the first coal-fired power plant in Norochcholai. .
Both these plants were procured by CEB during the last UNP-led Government in 2002. When the contracts of these two plants expired in early 2013, CEB had requested that the Ministry extend the contracts as these plants would have offered a relatively cheap source of electricity. CEB was in a position to negotiate new contracts allowing it to pay only the “pass through” cost of energy without the capacity charge of the original contracts.
However, the then Power and Energy Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka had vehemently opposed the idea of extending the contracts and had ordered the CEB board not to pursue any negotiations with those power companies.
Ranawaka gave this issue wide publicity at the time and announced at a media briefing that he was able to save the country billions that would have been paid to private power developers who he called the ‘diesel mafia.’ Ranawaka often blamed the private power plants for the enormous debts faced by CEB.
The Norochcholai coal plant has highlighted once again the major weakness in CEB’s long-term generation plan which relies heavily on coal-based energy for future electricity generation. The Norochcholai plant of 900 MW capacity presently provides more than half the daily electricity requirements of the country. This contribution has helped improve CEB’s financial position greatly during the last three years.
According to energy experts, coal-fired power plants are generally designed to operate uninterrupted for a long period at their full capacity, or as ‘base load’ plants. When they are forced to shut down, it is not possible to resume operation for some hours as in the case of other types of thermal plants such as combined cycle plants.
CEB Chairman Anura Wijayapala who is also an Electrical Engineer said that the Norochcholai coal plant requires about three days to resume operations after a shutdown, which is the time needed for the boilers to cool down before they can be re-started.
Speaking to The Sunday Leader on Sunday’s blackout, Professor Rohan Samarajiva who is the founding Chair of LIRNEasia, an ICT policy and regulation think-tank active across emerging Asia and the Pacific, unplanned nationwide outages happen, but are and should be extremely rare. Samarajiva said that to have three outages within a short time period is extremely disturbing.
“Force Majeure events occur but the network should be capable of isolating the problem and spreading the outage. I hope the investigating committees will take a good look at the System Control Centre (SCC). The very fact that a tender was awarded for a new SCC in November 2014 indicates there was a weakness there.”
While consumption and generation have more or less doubled since 2000, it appears there has been inadequate attention paid to the transmission system, he said further.
In response to a query whether he is personally happy with the Norochcholai Power Plant, Samarajiva said, “Yes, if not for it, we’d be experiencing planned outages (load shedding) most of the time. I believe that its teething problems have been mostly overcome. But it’s still better that we sell it back to the Chinese and buy power from them.”
“It’s not about coal, per se. We need base load power plants that are reliable and can meet projected demand. Since these things take time, we need to start soon. But most fundamental is upgrading the transmission grid and connecting it to the South Indian grid (the feasibility study has already been done). Unless the grid is big enough, it may become unstable by the addition of a 500 MW plant. Also before the base load plant comes on stream we need to connect to a larger grid so that base loads power that is in excess of night time demand, can be sent to India.”
In response to the query whether he is happy with the energy sector regulator, Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) and CEB’s role, Samarajiva said he “cannot be happy.”
Professor Samarajiva says that the CEB restructuring has gone remarkably well with a great deal of information that was hitherto hidden, now out in the open. But it needs to move to the next stage so that incentives are created for greater efficiency and customer responsiveness. Citing an example he says it is possible that the delay in modernising the SCC (which was requested by the PUCSL in 2010 and is not yet completed) is due to difficulties in mobilising investment and timely procurement. “PUCSL is still very timid. Unless it becomes proactive, it will not be able to exercise the full powers given by the Act,” he added.
Professor Samarajiva also said it appeared that none of the CEB distribution licensees and LECO had contingency plans in place to deal with the situation that arose on Sunday.
“I am not talking about the transmission and generation units that were the causes of the unplanned outage, but the distribution units that directly face the consumer. A good communication plan, well executed, is key to building a trust-based relationship with consumers.”
Serious defects in design
According to CEB Chief Anura Wijayapala serious defects in design were hampering the effective function of the three coal-powered generators. According to him the cooling systems for the generators are powered by the same generator, so if it trips, the cooling system also fails resulting in serious damage.
In response to a query whether there was a hidden hand attempting to discredit the Board, Wijayapala said that the latest issue seems to be a technical problem.
Apart from the three separate investigations, he added that he had appointed two senior retired CEB experts to look into the matter.
“We are conducting an internal investigation as well as an investigation involving the police to find the real cause of the blast,” he said. He said the Government Analyst too had visited the site and collected data.
Speaking to journalists, Deputy Power and Renewable Energy Minister Ajith P. Perera said all aspects should have been looked into at the design stage.
“Now it is too late. But we are still appreciative of the service that Norochcholai provides. We are now planning to set up a separate generator to power the functions of the coal power plant so that if any of the three generators malfunction, the system will still be able to work.”
He said that implementation of a new control system is also to be fast-tracked under the new measures.
Perera also said that government focus remained on resolving the power crisis but emphasised an inquiry would take place eventually. However, the military is likely to remain at power stations as the Government believed “there is a threat to the system”.
“Many of the service problems had been identified but were not addressed in time,” he said, referring to reports that engineers at the Biyagama sub-station had requested maintenance a year earlier.
Champika: CEB engineers to be blamed
Megapolis and Western Development Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka at an event in Homagama hit back saying that the country’s power supply system is not controlled by ministers and that those who stole billions by building cheap power plants are now talking about power cuts.
He said that four power breakdowns had occurred in the past 10 years including one during the New Year in April 2009. However, after that for six years no countrywide blackouts occurred.
He added, “This happened thrice within the past six months. There is no reason for it to happen automatically.”
Ranawaka also said that some quarters are blaming the government and ministers for the blackouts.
“However, the power supply system is not controlled by ministers. It is being controlled by engineers of the Electricity Board. They have apologised to the country for this,” he said.
Power and Renewable Energy Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya told The Sunday Leader that Sunday’s failure of the Norochcholai Coal Power Plant was not a breakdown but an automatic mechanism that was introduced for its protection, for a breakdown elsewhere. He said the normal phenomenon is that when a coal power plant’s operation is halted, it takes nearly three days to cool down and re-commence its operation. He added that as the Norochcholai Power Plant generates 900 MW, it had a massive impact on the electricity supply.
“Although all the other extra plants commenced their operations, there would be a lack of 400 to 500 MW to cater to the demand,” he said. “So the power outages had to remain till Thursday.” However, even on Thursday most parts of the country experienced power shedding.
Siyambalapitiya urged consumers to use electricity sparingly adding, “If consumers reduce consumption by 15 percent, the CEB could provide electricity without interruption. I request the public to use power with a sense of responsibility.”
The Minister also added that the Cabinet Sub Committee had met last evening and three committees had been appointed by the Prime Minister, by the CEB and one by himself.
“Those committees are instructed to submit their first report within a week with short-term solutions,” he said. “The committees are also instructed to submit their complete report and long-term solutions within three months.”
Meanwhile, CEB Engineers’ Union (CEBEU) President Athula Wanniarchchi said the transformer which had exploded at the Biyagama Grid Sub-Station was 30 years old.
“Any doubts about a sabotage will be cleared with the detailed study which is being carried out by two independent committees appointed by the Prime Minister and Subject Minister,” Wanniarachchi said adding that they would extend their fullest cooperation to any independent investigation on this.
The Board worked right through last Sunday night to restore power to most parts of Sri Lanka and largely succeeded although several suburbs of Colombo were without power even on Monday morning. This was followed by power shedding that went on till Thursday.
However, some officials cautioned that there could be sporadic power blackouts in some areas outside Colombo over the next few days because the first coal-fired plant was not even contributing 600MW at the time of going to press.
CEB General Manager M. C Wickramasekera said that they are yet to assess the economic loss incurred from the blackout on Sunday but it would be done once power is restored in the entire country.
The hours-long blackout brought water shortages as pumping stations could not operate without electricity. Most businesses were forced to close and Internet and phone connections in many areas were disrupted. However the damage was minimal due to the fact it occurred on a Sunday.
This was the second major power failure in less than a month, following a three-hour disruption in late February, and the worst since May 1996 when the entire country was without electricity for four days.