CEB Succeeds in Shutting down Sri Lanka which Covid -19 Couldn’t Do
Posted on August 27th, 2020

By Dr Palitha Kohona Courtesy Asian Tribune

What the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) succeeded in achieving was amazing. Covid19 wreaked havoc around the world but could not turn out the lights. The world continued to be lit up. But the CEB, either accidentally, due to an unmanageable cause or otherwise, succeeded in plunging the whole country into darkness just as a newly elected government was establishing itself in power and a new Minister with little experience in powering the nation was taking over. One begins to wonder why the plunge into darkness occurred just at this crucial juncture. Was it simply Karume?

Since lunchtime on 17th August 2020, the power supply to the entire country was cut off. The supply was restored in some parts of the country after about six hours and some parts remained cut off till much later. Intermittent power cuts continue. As such, it appears that the CEB Board which enjoys the monopoly for the supply of electricity has succeeded doing, what the Covid19 Pandemic failed to achieve, due to the heroic and selfless efforts of other segments of much less privileged but dedicated government officialdom.

The much-beleaguered spokesman at the Ministry of Power was heard to offer restoration of the supply within two hours. The brand-new Minister with all of four days of exposure to the responsibilities of this vital sector was less firm and, as it turned out, more than six hours were required for even the critical sections to be provided with power.

One cannot help but wonder, if this is the new normal we can expect from the electricity sector which the consumers will have to grit their teeth and bear in the future, not to mention the grave negative impacts on the national economy which is struggling to recover.

In the light of a similar event that occurred in the year 2016, with the breakdown of a major transformer at the Kotugoda Grid Substation, the rest of the network went down like a set of dominoes, resulting in an island-wide power loss. It was hoped that necessary corrective action would have been taken in the past years so that a single event of this nature could not result in a nationwide blackout. The fact is that not much seems to have changed in the interim as evidenced by the breakdown of a major transformer at Norochcholai via which all the wind power from the myriad of windmills is fed to the national grid. Wind power is only a small segment of CEB’s power supply.

The world, conscious of its commitments to itself and to future generations, is progressively embracing renewable energy while Sri Lanka’s monopoly utility is finding it difficult to shed its attachment to highly polluting fossil fuels. The new Minister, representing a Government which made a solemn campaign commitment to the electorate that the country would rely on renewables to meet 80% of its electricity needs by 2030, for the sake of the country and future generations, must urgently address this issue, which has given rise to a heated debate. It is now the sacred responsibility of the utility to deliver the Government’s policy commitment.

Fortunately, it did not result in a prolonged blackout but there are no signs that the situation would be rectified any time soon, losing this valuable renewable energy source of the country. No doubt the resulting shortfall in energy would be supplied by the oil-based power plants with the IPP owners grinning all the way to their offshore banks. Of course, the resulting additional loss to the CEB, which is already mired in debt, will be passed on to the general public. In many other democracies, there would have been hell to pay but not here.

It is acceptable that a complex power network would sometimes face technical problems and the failure of some elements is to be accepted. However, a well-designed and well-maintained network and equipment are required to ensure that such failures occur only rarely. This would mean the adoption of proper and timely preventive maintenance procedures and the diligent implementation of such procedures. In both cases mentioned at Kotugoda and Norochcholai , many searching questions have been asked if there were lapses on the part of the CEB.

It will be recalled that after the incident in 2016, the Minister in charge at the time appointed an expert committee to probe in to the matter and make recommendations for preventive action. But nothing is known of the outcome of the deliberations of that committee. Most certainly no one has been found liable for any dereliction of duty and appropriately penalized.

Does one more committee report appear to have ended in the bin?

Minster Alahaperuma too has instructed his Secretary to appoint yet another committee and demanded a report within a week. (The report was submitted this week). The general public has no faith in such committees which hitherto have proved to be a waste of time of some diligent experts and certainly of public funds too, with no tangible result.

However, the most pertinent question to be asked, which we hope that the proposed Expert Committee too would ask is, why should a single event, reportedly a technical problem yet to be satisfactorily explained at the Kerawalapitiya grid substation linking the West Coal Power plant, (The power plant executives have denied any fault with the power plant itself), and the transformer failure at the Kotugoda GSS in 2016, could result in an Island-wide power outage, without any preventive measures kicking in to prevent or minimize such catastrophe? Sri Lanka with a proud record of an island-wide electrical grid and decades of experience in the sector is still continuing to operate without such safeguards. One can only guess the potential damage, economic loss, and social disruptions, which the country at large and individual citizens had to endure under such circumstances.

Both the Minster and the Secretary would need the advice of truly independent experts to get to the bottom of this situation if the new government too is not to be mired in the barrage of arguments adding to popular disaffection, some mischievously inaccurate, disseminated by interested parties. This is already happening with attempts to attribute this failure to the solar power systems, the development of which the CEB has gone to great lengths to stifle. (Solar, incidentally, is a rapidly expanding source of electrical energy globally and is decreasing in cost with every passing year. In many countries it is cheaper than coal when all factors are taken into account). In Sri Lanka, the present contribution by solar to the national grid is less than 2% and is distributed throughout the country. It is ludicrous to believe that the small solar input could cause such a major instability when countries like Australia and Germany are already having over 20% solar integration and with more wind power being added as well. Obviously, the answer lies elsewhere and needs to be urgently probed and corrected.

The Minster is well-advised to call for the report submitted by the last committee and seek confidential advice from the experts who served on that committee on the outcome of their findings and recommendations.

This would certainly enable him to issue a well-considered and focused Terms of Reference to the new committees to enlarge on whatever the previous committee had determined.

In the meanwhile, the hapless consumers can only hope that the President’s Vision for a” Resplendent and Prosperous Nation” Saubhagye Dekma” does not get diluted, for which a vast improvement of the electricity sector is a most important ingredient.

Countries party to the Paris Accord of 2015, including Sri Lanka, made a solemn international legal commitment to reduce GHG emissions and to a low carbon future in order to keep global warming at 2 degrees Celsius above pre industrial levels. The ideal would be just1.5 degrees. It is quite likely that countries which do not comply with their commitments will increasingly come in for international criticism, and generate negative perceptions. Sri Lanka which has fared well internationally on environmental issues, at this stage, cannot afford to create yet another stick for its back.

In addition to the legal commitment, it makes eminent economic sense to migrate to renewables, in particular solar and wind power, as has been so convincingly demonstrated by a range of other countries. As of 2020, there are at least 37 countries around the world with a cumulative PV capacity of more than one thousand gigawatts (GW). By the end of 2019, a cumulative amount of 629 GW of solar power was installed throughout the world. By early 2020, the leading country for solar power generation was China with 208 GW, accounting for one-third of global installed solar capacity. China is also the biggest producer of solar panels. By the end of 2016, the cumulative photovoltaic capacity increased by more than 75 GW and reached at least 303 GW, sufficient to supply approximately 1.8 percent of the world’s total electricity consumption. The top installers of 2016 through 2019 were China, the United States, and India.

In Germany, renewables account for more than 46% of its electricity supply and Germany is a modern industrial country. Germany, despite being located in the global temperate zone, had the world’s largest photovoltaic installed capacity until 2014, and as of 2020 it has 49 GW. It is also the world’s third country by installed wind power capacity, at 59 GW in 2018, and second for offshore wind, with over 4 GW. Germany has been called “the world’s first major renewable energy economy”.

Solar energy is lauded as an inexhaustible fuel source that is pollution – and mostly noise-free. The technology is also versatile. For example, solar cells generate energy for far-out places like satellites in Earth orbit and cabins deep in the Rocky Mountains as easily as they can power downtown buildings and futuristic cars. Solar energy can power remote villages at a lower cost. Newly developed efficient batteries make solar a cost-effective option that avoids the need for long stretches of dangerous and unsightly cabling. The cost of batteries has been declining rapidly.

Wind power is also extensively relied upon as countries migrate to renewables. Anyone driving through Europe can not but help notice vast fields of wind farms dotting the countryside and also providing an additional income source to farmers. China has an installed capacity of 221 GW and is the leader in wind energy, with over a third of the world’s capacity. The US comes second with 96.4 GW of installed capacity. Germany, India Spain, the United Kingdom, France, and Brazil have embraced wind energy enthusiastically.

By 2018, several countries had achieved high levels of wind power penetration, 41% of stationary electricity production in Denmark, 28% in Ireland, 24% in Portugal, and 19% in Spain. These are countries whose industries depend on stable supplies of electricity.

Reflecting, the changing global attitudes, funding for fossil fuels is drying up and there is a lesson to be learned here. The European Union will stop funding oil, gas and coal projects by the end of 2021, cutting €2bn of yearly investments. The head of the World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation, has announced a bold” new policy, which would see it working with commercial banks, investment funds, and other financial institutions to shed coal from their investment portfolios. While the IFC does not directly finance coal-related activities, some of the institutions it invests in, do.

Between 2010 and 2016, the global weighted average cost of electricity from utility-scale solar PV plants commissioned in those years fell 69%, from USD 0.36 to USD 0.11/kWh. At the same time, the 1st and 99th percentile values fell from a range of USD 0.13 to USD 0.49/kWh to a range of USD 0.07 to USD 0.26/kWh.

The International Renewable Energy Agency’s REN2 report indicates that new solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind power facilities cost less than keeping many existing coal plants in operation. With the factual evidence of the competitiveness of renewable energy staring at us, in fact, glaring at us, it is difficult to understand why the CEB remains wedded to polluting fossil fuels which will make Sri Lanka, which is unfairly endowed with renewable energy sources, an international outcast for yet another reason.

Minister Dulles Alahapperuma will be well advised to study the international trends and Sri Lanka’s own international commitments as he formulates his approach to the difficult question of sustainably managing our energy supply.

Dr. Palitha T. B. Kohona, a Sri Lankan born diplomat, was the former Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations (UN). Until August 2009 he was the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was the Former Secretary-General of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process.

– Asian Tribune –

One Response to “CEB Succeeds in Shutting down Sri Lanka which Covid -19 Couldn’t Do”

  1. aloy Says:

    With apology to Dr. Palitha for not being able to read the whole article fully, I must ask the CEB engineers whether maintaining this system more difficult than rocket science?. Elon Musk who himself is an electrical engineer with first degree only was able to develop sufficient code to safely land a rocket, after it orbited the earth, on a barge vertically in high sea. Can they not isolate the most sensitive item, the Norochchalai plant which is difficult to restart, with a pre-determined manageable load in the event of a cascading effect of tripping?. Can they not include some time lags between each plant?.

    Also have they excluded the possibility of a cyber attack on the system that may have been developed at a great cost?. I like to say that the GOSL should not go for another expensive solution without investigating all the possibilities that may have cased this catastrophic event.

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