Some food for thought for power

By Sagala Ratnayake

Crisis again…..

Just a few months ago, in my village in Deniyaya, we started to encounter regular power failures.  With reports of the reservoir levels dropping, I immediately suspected load shedding.  Load shedding is an unannounced power cut when there is a lack of generation capacity at peak demand times.  A few days later, I could hear the Minister of Power and Energy over the radio vehemently denying these power cuts or a power crisis (the attached Generation Report of a day during that period, aptly displays the power cuts).  It was only a month or two before that, that the Minister was gloating over a Rs 5 billion profit the CEB had made under his tenure.

There is a common saying that we Sri Lankans forget good things fast, but this time even we didn’t have the time to forget before the same Minister is writing appealing to the people to go to the extent of switching off the fridge for a few hours a day, because we are in a Power Crisis and the CEB is making a loss of Rs 150 million each day.

What really happened is that CEB’s System Control deviated or had to deviate from its time tested optimal dispatch plans and took a risky gamble of running more hydro generation, probably so that the politicians could claim short term glory.  Having started 2011 with overflowing reservoirs one can only say it is sheer irresponsibility to be in a crisis now.  CEB has overcome drier periods in the recent past, without power cuts, with proper management of its generation mix.  After all, since 2007 the installed generation capacity, with Kerawalapitiya and Norochcholai coming online, has increased at a faster rate of 15% than the demand growth rate of 9%.

I was selected as Hon. Karu Jayasuriya’s Deputy Minister and worked closely with him when he took oaths as the Minister of Power and Energy in our newly formed UNF Government in 2001.  He inherited a Ministry that contributed heavily towards the PA Government’s election loss – the power cuts were as long as 8 hours a day, not only inconveniencing people but crippling industry and the economy.  Minister Karu Jayasuriya, true to his word, ended the power cuts earlier than the promised time frame.

Our responsibility went beyond this promise – to ensure that Sri Lanka is on track to a steady power supply at an affordable price.  New hydro power generation opportunity was exhausted.  The crisis had come about mainly due to the delay in the implementation of coal power generation.  It was in CEB’s generation expansion plan, but feet dragging by successive governments never got it off the ground.  Whilst securing short term solutions, we wanted to fast track the coal solution for the long term, but wanted a better location than Norochcholai for reasons I will mention later in this article.  Sampur and Hambantota were the 2 locations that were selected.  Not much later, President Kumaratunga dissolved the UNF Government, but the policy remained with only the location reverting to Norochcholai.

8 years later, with Kerawalapitya and Norochcholai adding 600 MW to the grid, people were sure that power cuts were a thing of the past – but they have crept up on us again.  Ironically at a time when an Electrical Engineer is at the helm as Minister.Will Coal help?

Currently about 60% of the power generation is dependent upon oil based power plants.  The remaining generation is from Hydro.  With the completion of the final two phases of Norochcholai in 2013, this situation will change to approximately 10% oil, 36% hydro and 54% coal.  Coal being cheaper than oil, the average cost of generation will then drop significantly – a popular belief created by the CEB and Ministry of Power Energy.

However, would this really be the case?  Whilst Coal is unarguably one of the best long term solutions to improve stability whilst bringing down cost per unit, are we setting about it right?

The reason the UNF Government was not eager on Norochcholai was because of its location which would cause it to fail in achieving a primary objective – lowering unit cost.  The unloading of coal at Norochcholai was going to be difficult.  The plan was to build an enclosed conveyor belt some 4 kilometres out to sea but what is happening now is the unloading of the coal to smaller barges from carriers anchored at mid-sea.  Both options become impossible during the South West monsoon period starting from May running up to October, a period of almost 6 months.  This means stockpiling a 6 month stock.  The unloading infrastructure, process and holding stock would add to the unit cost, not to mention the cost of externalities – health, environment, tourism, issues coming from a conventional coal plant like the one at Norochcholai, and also Australia’s impending mining tax law which would potentially raise the global prices of coal.

It is such reasons that lead me to believe that we may be tying ourselves in knots going for yet another coal plant, although IPP, infusing peoples’ tax money as well to keep up the Government commitment on the Joint Venture.  Would it not be a better option to call for bids keeping the fuel type open, negotiating on the cost per unit, and stressing on the environmental issues and reliability?  That would open the doors for better technology, or LNG, and even lower cost taking in all the aspects I mentioned earlier.

Maximizing usage of existing power infrastructure
In the meantime, feasible changes have been suggested to the Ministry of Power and Energy to maximize efficiency of the existing plants.  Whilst undoubtedly saved by the IPPs to ensure supply, CEB’s IPP commitments are huge – over 300MW of oil based reciprocating engine and 465MW of oil based Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT).  The CCGT commitments last much longer.  Collectively these comprise billions of Rs. in annual fixed cost to CEB.

There are three CCGT power plants and one Single Cycle Power plant in the system operating on oil.  CEB will depend on these four power plants for a long period to provide peak demand together with the hydros.  Since Gas Turbines could be operated on LNG at significantly lesser cost, converting to LNG could reduce the fuel bill, and even become competitive with Coal IPP.

We have a wealth of knowledge in our own human resources in the industry – use this knowledge well, and for the good of the people.  It is time the Power and Energy administration thought of the consumer or the people.

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