From The Daily News - By Rasika Jayakody The much talked about blackout on Sunday evening – the worst power outage in 20 years – plunged the national unity government into an uneasy situation at an unexpected moment.
Although the power outage happened due to a technical fault, many fingers were pointed at the government authorities – especially at the Power and Energy Ministry and the Ceylon Electricity Board, two main state bodies handling the electricity sector.
The fact that this was the third islandwide power outage in less than six months added more insult to the government’s wound. Before Sunday’s blackout, there was a similar power outage on February 25, crippling activities of the entire country for a few hours.
The Power and Energy Ministry, a high profile Ministry of the government, is shared between the SLFP and the UNP, the two main stakeholders of the ruling coalition. Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, an ally of President, heads the Ministry while Ajith P. Perera, a dynamic politician in the UNP, functions as his deputy.
The main reason for the power outage, according to authoritative sources at the Ceylon Electricity Board, is a technical fault caused by two breakdowns in the national grid.
The main issue was at the Biyagama plant where a transformer exploded due to an undisclosed reason. The CEB authorities, on Monday, said they were still investigating into the reason and no official comment could be made.
Meanwhile, the CEB detected another technical fault in the transmission line running between Habarana and Ukuwela. A senior CEB official, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Daily News that a fault of that nature could cause “more tension” in other lines.
Interestingly, from the CEB’s point of view, the breakdowns were reported at a very critical juncture. On Sunday, nearly 24 hours before the incident, there was a lengthy discussion at the ministry over its future course of action on the Norochcholai coal power plant, funded by China.
At the meeting, there were many indications that tough decisions were likely to be made with regard to the power plant, which had experienced over 20 breakdowns since its commencement.
On the other hand, there was a flurry of media reports on the procurement of coal for the power plant, pointing out various chinks in the system. So, on Sunday, the CEB was grappling with issues on two main fronts and union offices were becoming a hive of activity.
“The ‘timing’ of the blackout was the main reason behind sabotage fears,” a senior CEB official who spoke to the Daily News explained.
“In addition, the mysterious explosion at the Biyagama plant is another matter we need to look into. At the same time, it should be examined whether relevant authorities, including engineers, took damage control measures on time,” he added.
The first power outage was reported around 2.20 p.m. on Sunday and it lasted for over six hours. In some areas, power was restored, but there were intermittent outages. In some areas, the power outage lasted for nearly eight hours without any sporadic supply. This incident happened while the country was experiencing an unprecedented heat wave and it brought activities of all main cities, including the capital city Colombo, came to a grinding halt.
Apart from ordinary households, some politicians too became victims of Sunday night blackout. Among them are some members of the Joint Opposition who held a meeting at Parliamentarian Dinesh Gunawardena’s house on Sunday evening. Parliamentarians Wimal Weerawansa, Mahindananda Aluthgamage, Bandula Gunawardena and Udaya Gammanpila attended the discussion at Gunwardena’s house where their preparation for March 17 rally was widely discussed.
As a result of the power outage, the meeting was held under candlelight and the heat wave was also troubling the UPFA dissidents who seemed irritated during the meeting.
At the same time, the water supply in most parts of the country was disrupted due to non-availability of electricity. Water purification plants in Ambatale, Biyagama and Kandana did not function for nearly eight hours, plunging the public from the frying pan into the fire. When contacted by irate consumers, the Water Board officials said they were in a helpless position as their operation relied on electricity.
CEB Chairman Anura Wijepala, not surprisingly, was at the receiving end of a lot of negative criticism especially on social media platforms. Wijepala, an Electrical Engineer from the University of Moratuwa, has vast experience in the field and is known as a professional with high professional integrity. Soon after the islandwide power outage was reported, he contacted Ministry Secretary Dr. B.M.S. Batagoda and informed that he was resigning.
Batagoda advised the CEB Chairman not to take any drastic decision and to remain patient. However, the CEB Chairman said he would nevertheless send his letter of resignation when the power supply is fully restored. He said he was ashamed to function as the CEB Chairman as there were three blackouts within a period of six weeks.
However, the Minister and the Ministry Secretary took a collective decision not to accept Wijepala’s resignation. Instead of accepting the resignation, they urged the CEB Chairman to remain in the position and assist the government in investigations into the power outage.
‘Sabotage fears’ behind the blackout led Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to summon a meeting with all relevant authorities at the CEB.
The Prime Minister directed officials to take stern action against employees if found to be willfully hampering operations.
“The Prime Minister has directed to dismiss employees if found to be responsible,” Power and Energy Ministry Secretary Dr. B.M.S. Batagoda said, after the conclusion of the meeting.
“We have not ruled out sabotage. We still don't know the exact reason for the power failure, so it could be sabotage,” he said.
The Prime Minister also instructed to appoint a special committee to probe into the incident and prepare a comprehensive report. At the same time, the minister also initiated a separate inquiry into the manner in a bid to ascertain the reason behind the outage.
The Ministry Secretary, on Monday, also wrote a letter to the President requesting his immediate intervention to resolve a multitude of issues crippling the power sector.
“We are still short of 300 megawatts on the national grid. Norochcholai has faulted and we are presently not using our hydro power due to the water shortage,” he told the Daily News on Monday.
Moving a step further, President Sirisena directed that the Army be deployed to provide security at all CEB installations connected to the national grid.
The move was aimed at preventing any party with vested interests from sabotaging activities at power plants.
The President also appointed a ministerial committee to inquire into the matter and present its recommendations within three months.
The Committee consisted of Power and Renewable Energy Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya, Ministers Susil Premajayantha, Patali Champika Ranawaka and Sagala Ratnayaka, Deputy Ministers Eran Wickramaratne and Ajith P. Perera. The ministerial committee is expected to submit its first interim report next week.
However, electrical engineering experts who commented on the matter did not fully attribute the entire issue to an act of sabotage. An Electrical Engineering Professor, who spoke to the Daily News on Monday, said the incident happened on Sunday evening was every electrical engineer's nightmare.
The cause for Sunday's all island power failure and explosion of a transformer in a critical substation of the national transmission grid is a very difficult situation to handle under any circumstances, Peradeniya University Professor in Electrical and Electronic Engineering Prof. Janaka Ekanayake said.
He said in a situation like this, the system is unable to handle the power supply that comes in from different plants in the country and automatic re-routing will take place.
The re-routing may have resulted in over current of some of the feeders that would result in tripping of more lines, which would have aggravated the situation.
The transformer equipment that was damaged is not easily available and is expensive, and would even take as much as a month to repair and bring back to normal, Prof. Ekanayake said.
“We could have avoided the situation if it was only the transformer explosion that occurred yesterday. It was the shut down in Norochcholai that caused the blackout,” another expert who wished to be anonymous told the Daily News reporters on Monday.
While the country was experiencing the worst blackout in 20 years, the admins of the Ceylon Electricity Board Facebook page had their share of fun by celebrating the success of receiving 20000 likes for the page.
A post shared on the CEB's official page on Sunday thanked those who subscribed to the Facebook page of the institution.
Many subscribers, who posted their comments on the CEB's Facebook page, ridiculed the state-run institution for publishing this post while the entire country was grappling with a blackout.
It was common knowledge that more people subscribed to the CEB’s Facebook page to get more information about the power outage as the country was kept in the dark about the whole issue.
Heated debate at PUC panel discussion
It was all too evident that electricity was becoming a hot and contentious topic as a result of the latest developments at the CEB.
Meanwhile, at a recent panel discussion held at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute, Colombo 7, Professor Rohan Samarajiva found himself in an uneasy position when a person in the audience posed an unexpected question about the Norochcholai coal power plant. The Public Utilities Commission organized the panel discussion and it primarily focused on the rights of the electricity consumers.
Professor Samarajiva did not allow the person to raise his question on the grounds that it was not directly relevant to the topic, which was being discussed at the forum.
The man who posed the question however insisted that it was relevant as power consumers were bearing the cost of the Norochcholai power plant which suffered numerous breakdowns in the recent past.
He said the electricity consumers had a right to know about the power plant’s future, but the authorities were keeping the country in the dark about the matter.
The Professor however flatly shot down his request and an organizer took him away from the forum. The Professor’s rigid approach and the organizer’s move to remove him came under criticism from some sections of the audience who said Samarajiva should have taken a cue from Barack Obama.
“When a man expressed dissenting viewpoints at a Town Hall meeting, Obama handled the situation in a very diplomatic manner. Obama shut him down, but he did not seem undemocratic. The man was not evicted from the discussion in this manner,” another member of the audience said directing his criticism at the Professor and the organizer.
However, it is now clear that electricity is becoming a major issue in the social and political domains. Like any other problem in the recent past, this issue too was politicized to a great extent and that prevented the society from having a constructive dialogue on finding a solution to this critical issue.
The Colombo Port City, the Chinese funded development project, which was at the centre of major controversies under the Rajapaksa administration, has now received a new lease of life.
The Cabinet has already given its green light to the government to proceed with the port city project and the government is holding discussions with Chinese authorities on its revival.
The construction of the Port City commended just months before the Presidential election in early 2015 and multiple parties raised concerns with regard to its numerous environmental impacts.
The Port City’s construction came with a direct foreign investment from China worth US$ 1.43 billion, and the project intended to reclaim 233 hectares on the sea between the Southern edge of the new Colombo South Port and the Fort Lighthouse. The former government and the Chinese company reached agreements to proceed with the project to incur investment of over US$13 billion in the coming decade.
Apart from the project’s environmental impact, Maritime sector veterans also highlighted the dangers Sri Lanka might face due to giving outright ownership of a plot of land to China. This gave rise to questions related to the country’s sovereignty and aviation laws. The project was also criticized by the then Opposition for its lack of transparency and alleged irregularities such as the involvement of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority without a proper mandate.
After the new government came to power, they conducted a new Environmental Assessment with regard to the project and its report, according to government sources, was taken into consideration before giving then green light to the project.
Several authoritative government sources also told the Daily News that the final negotiations in this regard would take place during Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s official visit to China in April. Recently, Ministers Malik Samarawickrama and Sagala Ratnayaka were in China to hold talks with the Chinese authorities and it was widely speculated that the Port city project was also among the matters discussed during the visit.
According to Minister Malik Samarawickrama who spoke to media following his visit to China, initial issues have now been ‘sorted out’.
The minister said there were several changes to the new plan including the ownership issue and the extent of the land from the earlier plan. Earlier, a part of the reclaimed land was to be given on a freehold basis – now it will be given on a long lease.
“As far as the extent of the land is concerned, approval has been given on the basis of not less than 233 hectares and the EIA assessment has been done on the basis of 269 hectares - that is the maximum,” he explained.
The move, quite obviously, has been made to circumvent issues relating to sovereignty and other similar matters.
“So we have asked them to proceed as per the agreement of 233 hectares and any change can only be done after discussions with our consent. The total investment is USD 1.4 billion; it is up to China to decide if it is to be increased,” he said.
When the land is filled, the development of the reclaimed real estate will be done in a joint venture between Sri Lanka and China. The Urban Development Authority handling the project will be the joint venture partner on behalf of the government. The ownership ratio is yet to be discussed, he said.
However, the interesting question at this juncture is the ‘cost’ involved in this renegotiating process. From the point of view of the Chinese government, the initial Port City agreement was signed with the Sri Lankan government and any regime change in Sri Lanka cannot affect bilateral agreements.
Therefore, according to many economic experts, the Sri Lankan government too will have to make up its mind for a “compromise” while renegotiating the Port City agreement. The nature of that “compromise” is still away from the public spotlight and may surface in the future. Consequences of this compromise will most probably compel the government to deal with a plethora of fresh issues, in local and international domains.