Lots of shouting - little light

Are they taking things lightly till another shock comes?

By Shelani Perera
It was a dark New Year for Sri Lanka with three countrywide power failures within ten days and more to come with the Ceylon Electricity Board blaming them all on testing programmes connected to modernization.

At the beginning of 2002, the country was going through power cuts due to an unprecedented drought. But 2003 dawned with unprecedented heavy Northeast monsoon rains, yet the country was plunged into darkness not because of natural causes but through technical defects. Either way, the people suffer, whether its bad weather or bad brains.
The CEB draws up a long-term generation expansion plan each year and introduces a base plan indicating the future expansion projects.

But questions remain as to how many of these projects have got off the ground and whether the CEB could achieve the targets.

Investigations by The Sunday Times reveal that some of the biggest power projects are yet to get off the ground. Some of them are held up due to political squabbles and others due to protests from environmental and civic action groups.

The demand for electricity increases by about 10 per cent a year. This means the average annual requirement increases by 170 Mw.

Over the past few years the CEB has not been able to push forward its expansion projects and is badly behind schedule. The most controversial and highly-charged was the coal power project. The long battle began at Mawela in Matara in 1991. The proposed coal power project there was put off due to protests over the displacement of some 200 families.

Then the CEB went to Norachcholai where a battle went on for years with the government going hot and cold. Both major parties, the UNP and the PA, clearly played politics with coal and eventually it was decided to move the project to Trincomalee. But there, too, strong protests have arisen and the coal power project is now hanging fire. Regular warnings have been given that the country could face a bigger power crisis than the 2001 blackouts unless urgent and effective action was taken. But despite the blessing of some of the heaviest rains in recent years, the process of modernizing and expanding power projects is far from bright.

The UNP while in opposition blamed the PA government for delaying power projects. But with the UNF now in office, the current is still not flowing and instead going backwards as seen in the Upper Kotmale controversy where at least two ministers and other parties are clashing openly. The Upper Kotmale Project is expected to generate 150 Mw by 2008 and over 1,800 MW after that.

Power and Energy Minister Karu Jayasuriya backed by his son-in-law and Deputy Minister Navin Dissanayake is strongly plugging the project, but strong opposition is coming from Minister and powerful CWC leader Arumugam Thondaman backed by environmental groups, estate unions and most of all by the Mahanayake of the Malwatte chapter. Amidst the crosscurrents and undercurrents, the Japanese government which offered a big aid package for the project is known to be ready to blow the fuse if a firm decision is not taken soon.

The Sunday Times learns that despite official claims that the government is going ahead with the project, it is for all purposes and intent, at a standstill.

Hydropower is the cheapest source of energy. Sri Lanka began utilizing this source through Laxapana in 1950 and the process reached a peak with the Mahaveli projects in the 1980s but the last hydropower project to be commissioned was Rantembe in 1999.

Over the past decade the emphasis is more on thermal power which is more expensive, while in recent years the trend for some reason has been on buying power from the private sector. The officials who know the situation inside out are the engineers. CEB engineers union chief Susantha Perera told The Sunday Times they had been shouting themselves hoarse on the vital need to work out new projects and more importantly implement them on schedule. But it was largely a case of a lot of shouting and little light.

He said they had warned time and again that if urgent action was not taken, Sri Lanka would be plunged deeper into darkness than in 2001.

Whiel projects are delayed and weather experts warn of more drought to come, the government authorities appear to be not too disturbed about buying power from the private sector at a highly expensive rate. Power is bought at the rate of Rs. 12.50 a unit and given to consumers at Rs. 3.50 - meaning a massive subsidy which is provided from public funds, besides the loss to the CEB, thus providing stronger currents for privatization.

CEB chief says he is powerless

CEB Chairman S. Zubair says the non-implementation and delaying of power projects are causing serious problems for the Board. He said he agreed with the engineers that the main problem was the non-implementation of the proposed projects on time. He said one new plant was under testing while the CEB was having problems with the contractors for two other plants at Kelanitissa.

"Things are beyond our control as the private company is delaying the plants. We could go to court and get some money, but what we want is power for the people," the chairman said. Referring to the coal controversy, Mr. Zubair said the dispute was largely political and not engineering. He said Trincoamlee was the latest site proposed but there were protests again. Mr. Zubair said that if not for the disputes coal power should have been in operation from 2001 and electricity rates might not have been so high today.

Referring to Upper Kotmale, he said the disturbances and interruptions were not so serious and the CEB hoped that this long-term project would eventually start moving. He said the three power failures this month were caused by malfunctioning at a massive new plant.

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