By Ravi Ladduwahetty
Sri Lanka experienced yet another countrywide blackout last Friday. The entire country was plunged into darkness beginning around 2:00 p.m. which was attributed to inclement weather and lightning strikes on the Polpitiya-Kolonnawa transmission line. Even Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has ordered a full scale probe.
Minister of Power and Renewable Energy Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has ruled out sabotage although the causes for the disaster have not been officially determined yet. Going by the official information and what was published in the media, and quotes which have been attributed to the Minister, it appears as if what happened was natural and it had escalated into a total blackout. However, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) has not yet come out with any official statement; its website is silent, despite the proposed regulations making it mandatory for it to inform the consumers through the media and through its website, almost on hourly basis, until the crisis ends.
The Minister told this newspaper on Sunday night that he has appointed a Committee of Professors to probe the incident, and said that it would take a full week even to issue an interim report. He also said that it would take the Committee of Professors a full month to make available the full report, claiming that these Professors could not be rushed into submitting a report. He said that this was an 'abnormal' situation and that no final conclusion could be reached without the report being released.
The appointment of a probe committee is all well and fine. However, we will have to wait for the report and what will happen to it, will be anyone's guess. It was not so long ago that there was another blackout, on 26 September 2015 to be precise. There was a Committee appointed then too, and according to the regulations, the Committee report should have been made public then as well, and recommendations widely discussed. It has been apparently swept under the carpet. What we have to conclude is that Professors names are thrown around to give assurance to the public that the matter is being investigated, and finally, when the good Professors submit the report, the CEB and the Minister, would both forget about it.
The idea behind the appointment of these committees is to treat them as a learning experience to all engineers, so that such tragedies do not recur. The CEB, also in this case, will like before, want to buy time and there is going to be the game of procrastination.
Similarly, there was also another major failure at the Kelanitissa Power Station in 2009 where a wire touched the ground, causing a fire, which later developed into a national disaster, i.e. a blackout. True to form, there was another similar Committee which was appointed. Members of that Committee also worked very hard and made their recommendations, which was aimed at taking lessons from the previous experiences, but akin to all other reports, nothing came of that either!
In contrast to this, in the medical profession, whenever there are medical or surgical misadventures, seminars and lectures are held, at least by the professional institutions, on how to avert these disasters, but in the Sri Lankan power sector, none of those seem to be happening! The Institute of Engineers seems to be a silent bystander! A countrywide power failure such as this is, is a very serious breach of trust and it is up to the authorities (read the CEB) to take all the stakeholders (read the government and the public) into its confidence and seek remedial measures so that there will not be any relapses.
The conclusion we have to draw from these three episodes, i.e. recurring blackouts in 2009, 2015 and now in 2016, and complete silence now and thereafter, is the indifference of CEB towards its customers. With or without the Minister or the Prime Minister kicking its back, the CEB should first comfort its customers, give them regular, complete and truthful status reports throughout the crisis. Much of the country experienced rolling blackouts until Saturday night, and CEB did not offer any loadshedding plan or an announcement. Power would simply go off for hours on end, customers would think this is their fate or curse, for being born in Sri Lanka, and being served by CEB the monopoly managed by a government appointed board. After managing the crisis, then CEB should move to investigate what happened, where matters went wrong, why the line struck by lightning did not remove itself from the network automatically, and then exactly pinpoint where things went wrong.
The tragedy in Sri Lanka is that this kind of a power outage turns out to be a witch-hunt, with various forces trying to blame individuals and units within CEB. What is more important, is to bring the truth out, what technical shortcoming caused the blackout, and what organizational weakness prevented CEB from being truthful towards their customers. We should not forget that customers in Sri Lanka pay at prices comparable with the West, pay more than a customer in America and Canada, and that they deserve to be at least told the truth and told the truth on time; never mind the unmentionably poor reliability of electricity supply compared with USA or Canada.
The tragic bystander of this episode is the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), the almighty technical, economic and safety regulator of the electricity sector. We have to remind the Commission of its legal duty, to investigate the curse of recurring national blackouts, and CEB's consistent indifference towards its customers. Ironically, PUCSL was established by the government of 2003, and the same government is again in power. If the Commission is only a rubber stamp to approve any electricity price increases, does not demand performance of CEB. Let us disband the Public Utilities Commission. Surely, CEB will be the happiest!