Islandwide power failure on 17 August 2020
Posted on August 28th, 2020

Sarath Bulathsinghala

28 Aug 2020

From what we have heard so far down the grapevine, the power failure on 17th August 2020 has happened due to a single act of carelessness by an operative of the CEB who accidentally ‘grounded’ a 220kV electrical system during routine maintenance work.

The interim report of the Independent Committee on the island wide power failure that occurred on 17 August 2020, which was handed over to Cabinet yesterday, has concluded that the Kerawalapitiya Grid Substation tripping was due to correct maintenance procedure not being followed by relevant officials, including the Electrical Superintendent.

In his note to Cabinet under Cabinet Memorandum 52/2020/PE, Minister of Power Dullas Alahapperuma has observed that it is a huge management lapse that there was no Maintenance Protocol at the Kerawalapitiya Grid Substation for the implementation of maintenance.

Usually these protocols are worked out subsequent to what are called HAZID (Hazard Identification) / HAZOP (Hazard and Operability) studies. The Hazard Identification Study is a process that breaks a project down into component parts for detailed analysis. This analysis helps identify hazards that could cause injury to personnel, asset damage or loss, environmental damage, loss of production, etc. A hazard and operability study (HAZOP) a structured and systematic examination of a planned or existing process or operation in order to identify and evaluate problems that may represent risks to personnel or equipment, or prevent efficient operation; it is carried out by a suitably experienced multi-disciplinary team (HAZOP team) during a set of meetings. HAZOP is a more detailed review technique than HAZID.

Either there was no protocol or if there was one it was inadvertently ignored. It looks more like a systemic failure to be more to the point! That is because this is a repeat of similar electrical failures that happened in March 2016 involving ‘exploding transformers’!

What is inexcusable in this case is that there are hundreds of thousands of similar installations throughout the world and proper protocols for such maintenance operations available freely to follow or emulate to suitably modify such a protocol to suit the local situation and set up a new protocol or a set of procedures. Literally we do not have to ‘reinvent the wheel’!

The CEB Association of Technical Engineers and Superintendents who also made written submissions of their observations on 22 August regarding the incident on the request of the Committee stated, Two generators have been installed at the Norochcholai power plant for continuous operation of the cooling systems in the event of a breakdown. Had these generators run at the time of the system crash, damage to the cooling systems in Units 2 and 3 during the 17 August crash could have been prevented.” It is these very same two UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply Systems) which became an issue around March 2016 that are involved in this instance too.

Meanwhile, the independent committee in its interim report has strongly recommended a standard compliant, systematic, fool proof, safe procedures and maintenance protocols to be put in place in CEB during operation and maintenance. The committee understands that there is no operation and maintenance related risk management mechanism in place. Therefore, it is recommended to establish a risk management mechanism to determine the proper mix of preventive measures, mitigation levels, shift or retention of risks and consequent level of robustness of operation and maintenance protocols that would indicate the positive impact on the overall system,” the committee stated. 

Very powerful words indeed! What worries citizen Perera is whether all this will be forgotten as in March 2016 – four and half years earlier and another similar catastrophic event will eventuate in the not too distant future if left in the hands of the same management and the words – CEB Mafia will resonate once more on the lips of the consumer!

We are confident however that Gotabhaya Administration will put a stop to such mishandling of public assets in the future and those responsible will be disciplined.

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