The Dailymirror sat with Power and Renewable Energy Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya to discuss the power crisis and political upheavals in the country.
Q Is the power crisis over now?
Not really. For the moment we are in good shape, providing uninterrupted power to the entire country mainly due to the low cost hydro power generation of 40% and coal power of another 40% of the total demand. The thermal power generation from CEB maintained plants is about 12% and wind power generation is about 3%. One of the plus factors of the power supply is that the CEB now purchases less than 5% of thermal power which is extremely costly from Private Power Producers (PPP)
However, as a precaution, the Power and Renewable Energy Ministry has launched a short, middle and long term generation plan to meet any unexpected disruption to power generation, transmission or
We have learnt a lesson from the recent power failures at Kotugoda, Biyagama and Ambatale that took place in February and March. Steps have been taken to prevent a repetition of power failures of that
nature in future.
QThere are speculations that the island wide power failures in recent times at Biyagama and Kotugoda were the acts of sabotage. Your comments?
Not at all. The German and Japanese experts who were specially brought down to inquire into these explosions and power breakdowns categorically said there was no evidence to suggest an act of sabotage but extensive pressure on the transmitters had caused the explosions.
Q What happened to the number of committees appointed by the cabinet, Prime Minister and your Ministry to probe the issue?
There were three committees of experts appointed by me, another by the CEB and a ministerial committee appointed by President Maithripala Sirisena chaired by me to investigate and report on the power failures and the transmitter explosions.
The findings of all these committees were not much different from each other. All committees were of the view that the huge pressure on the transmission system, the increase of demand for power by about 12%, low hydro power generation and excessive coal and thermal power supply had caused the sudden power failure.
With hydro power generation dropping to less than 20% due to the drought, the CEB had no option but to go for maximum of coal and thermal power generation to meet the ever increasing demand for electricity and that set off the explosions and power failures.
To aggravate the situation, it took a few days to cool the Lakvijaya Coal Power Plant (LCPP) at Puttalam enabling the engineers to enter the plant for repairs after the break down. This is because about 30% of power generated at the LCPP consumes by the cooling plant. We have now taken steps to set up a cooling plant for the LCPP with a separate generator which will cool the 900 MWs LCPP in a couple of days, if not in a few hours.
Q The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) is a loss making venture. Engineers, numbering over 1,000 serving under the CEB to are the highest paid employees in the state or semi government sector. They were able to force the CEB increases their salaries by 70% in addition to obtaining special allowances for maintenance and preventing system failures. The entire country witnessed in the recent past how they have performed. Do CEB engineers deserve this kind of huge salaries while they are not up to the expected performance level while many lower grade employees in the CEB draw less that Rs. 40,000 per month?.
Not any further. The CEB was able to record a Rs. 15 billion of profits in 2015. This may be due to the excessive rain received at the catchment areas of reservoirs. However, the most significant achievement is the CEB’s ability to supply power to the entire country uninterrupted 24 hours per day. Sri Lanka is the only country in the region that provides power to the entire country throughout the year with no interruption. Our people are so sensitive to the use of power that they get angry even for a five-minute power break down. The CEB acts like an army with a dedicated and efficient work force that is on call for 24 hours per day. I do not think for a moment engineers or any other employee of the CEB draw an unreasonable salary or payment as they are paid for the job they do.
It was because of the professional brilliance and efficiency of engineers that the CEB has been able to come out of financial and power and energy problems. The CEB would not have been in the present satisfactory situation without the dedication and loyalty of our workforce
I must mention here that Myanmar, the fast developing East Asian country has chosen the CEB for consultancy, policy guidelines and to prepare a power generation plan of their country because they said CEB and its engineers were the best in the
region for the job.
Negotiations have already begun with the CEB by Myanmar authorities for the project.
QThe Power and Renewable Energy Ministry is not in a position to implement anymore hydro power projects as almost all the natural water resources in the country have already been utilized for power generation. What is the Power and Energy Ministry’s Power Generation Plan for the next 25 years under the backdrop of 10% increase of annual demand for power?
Yes and no. It is true that we have used 90% of out water resources for power generation but still there is space for medium and mini-hydro power projects in the country.
For instance, we have taken steps to construct a hydro power plant with a capacity of 20 MWs at Seethawaka. Another two hydro power plants are coming under the Uma-Oya multi-purpose development project and another plant at Broadland with the installed capacity of 100 MWs.
In addition the CEB has launched a project to motivate the entire country for power generation assisting consumers to generate solar power with solar panels fixing on their roof tops. The CEB provides financial assistance to consumers to purchase solar panels and purchase excessive electricity generated by them if a household generates less that 5 kilowatts. Consumers who generate more than 5 kilowatts of solar power must find a suitable place for the project and approval from the CEB. They can supply power to the national grid and earn an extra buck. The CEB expects to generate 150 MWs of solar power through this project and its entire consumer community will become stake holders.
Q Environmentalists and inhabitants in Trincomalee are up in arms against the proposed Sampur Coal Power Plant (SCPP) financed by India. How are you going to allay the fears raised by them?
We have proposed to India to convert the Sampur coal power plant to an LNG powered plant and discussions are in progress. However, we must not forget the fact that after water, coal is the most profitable energy source at Rs. 7 or less per unit.
Yes, it is true that many developed countries are right now phasing out coal power generation and certain commercial banks in the west are reluctant to fund coal power projects. But, the technology has made several strides in using coal for power generation and strict environment laws are in place when a coal power plant is commissioned. The best example is our own LCPP. You may recall the huge protest stated against the setting up of the LCPP at Norochcholai citing major environmental damages supposedly caused. But you can see by yourself that almost all those warnings and fears are unfounded and there is no such environmental damage from the
LCPP right now.
Q Many countries in the world that use coal as an energy source have decided to phase out coal power generation in the next 10 years mainly due to environment concerns. But the government has begun discussions with the Japanese government to construct another massive coal power plant with the installed capacity of 1,200 MWs at Sampur. How feasible is this?
The Japanese government with its top level technology still opts for the construction of coal power plants in Japan and other parts of the world. India, the second most populated country in the world is in the process of constructing coal power plants as coal is cheap in comparison to petroleum and generation cost is also low. The technology has advanced to the level to extremely minimize the harmful effects of
coal power generation.
QThe thinking among power and energy experts is that the future of power generation remains in renewable energy resources such as solar power, wind power and other alternatives. But the utilization of renewable or alternative energy requires huge capital investment. How is Sri Lanka going to meet this challenge?
Yes, the future of power generation remains with exploiting the renewable energy sources such as solar power, wind power and recycled energy. The Power and Renewable Energy Ministry has already initiated a programme to make all our consumers living in nearly 5 million households participate in power generation using wind and solar power.
The CEB has also urged those who obtained permits for mini-hydro projects to start construction in the next few weeks and in the case of failure face the withdrawal of their permits.
From the first week of August, the CEB will start introducing a Net Metering system to consumers enabling them to produce power with mini power projects using solar power, wind power and renewable energy for their own use and sell the excessive power to the CEB. Under this project, the CEB will provide solar panel to one million households under a concessionary loan scheme.
Q Former Power and Energy Minister Champika Ranawaka was able to relieve the CEB from the trap of purchasing extremely costly thermal power from Private Power Producers (PPP) which was a huge burden to the Treasury and the CEB. The cabinet last week gave approval to purchase 55 MWs from PPP. This is in the backdrop that the CEB expects to resume generating 350 MWs of hydro power when the reservoirs that come under the Mahaweli Authority start releasing water for the Yala season on April 15. Why?
In future, the price of a unit will be decided by the CEB under the prevailing power and energy situation in the country and not the PPPs. The CEB is to introduce a price formula to purchase power from the PPPs if and when required.
I also believe that the power tariff system needs to be reviewed and a system placed to address the requirements of the power supplier as well as the consumers. The plan to purchase 55 MWs from PPPs has been dropped
Q The animosity between the joint opposition that backs former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the SLFP led by President Maithripala Sirisena is widening by day which means a split in the party is imminent. Your comments?
The message given by those who have a voice go to the media and through it to the people swiftly. Our supporters at grass roots level who are sensitive to the ups and downs of their party are easily agitated and they fall victims to cunning politicians who have their own political agendas. But it will be a disaster for those egocentric politicians when the party loyalists realise their folly and identify the scheming politicos. You may recall that even I have been hooted by misdirected SLFPers but I think they can now decide between right and wrong.
It was President Maithripala Sirisena who saved the SLFP from defeat by forming a consensual government. He would have easily formed a UNP government by asking seven SLFP members to join the government and implement his policies. But he did not do that and the SLFP is now ruling the country with the UNP. All SLFPers who want to form a SLFP government must support President Sirisena to take the party to victory.
QBeing a close confidante of President Maithripala Sirisena and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and a trusted SLFPer for decades, don’t you think you are one of the most suitable politicians to intervene and try to unite these two warring factions for the betterment of the country and the party?
Not only former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Sirisena I was close to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. Our fervent expectation is that these two leaders of the SLFP unite putting behind all differences and take the SLFP forward with the ultimate goal of winning the next local government, Presidential and Parliamentary polls. The division will take us to disaster; and if all SLFP factions did not unite no-one could prevent the victory of the UNP.
But I must add that as a consensual government, the UNP and SLFP are working with understanding and cooperation. For instance, I work very closely with Minister Kabir Hashim in attending to issues in the Kegalle district; both of us are assisting each other. Under unity and mutual understanding, it is possible that the consensual government led by the UNP and the SLFP will be in power until 2020 despite the fact that it was formed only for