CEB heads for emergency power purchases

*Yet no date set for restoration of Norachcholai

By Ifham Nizam

With the 300MW coal power plant at Norachcholai having broken down last Friday, the third such major breakdown since its commissioning last year, the Ceylon Electricity Board is now hard pressed to find an alternate power source to meet the shortfall.

The Power and Energy Ministry early this week said that the plant would be back in operation by the first week of February, but yesterday they said it would take two weeks. However, officials at the plant said they were still not in a position to give an exact date for the resumption of electricity generation.

A senior engineer said that six million units that Norachcholai produced per a day now had to come from hydro or thermal power. Under present conditions the CEB was making use of the full capacity of all its plants to meet the demand and going at the present rate they could go on till April even without rainfall.

However, if the Norachchoali plant continued to be dysfunctional for more than three weeks or so, the situation would turn from bad to worse. "In that case, probably, emergency power purchases from the private sector is the only solution," he added.

A majority of the members of the powerful Engineers Union, however would not support the purchase of costly emergency power till their demands were settled. Engineers were keen on a ratio between the highest and lowest salary levels and an injustice caused to a senior Assistant General Manager.

Fearing a serious supply shortage in the first half of 2012, the CEB Board last month decided to call tenders for supplying 100MW of emergency power from March 2012.

The Island reliably learns that CEB General Manager Nihal Wickramasooriya informed the Ministry of Power and Energy, by letter dated December 9, 2011, that the emergency power purchases would cost around Rs. 13,000 million based on auto diesel and Rs. 8,000 million if heavy fuel oil (HFO) was used.

However, a number of senior Cabinet Ministers have said the amount was too much of a burden on the Treasury. Even President Mahinda Rajapaksa was not happy over the rush for emergency power purchases, according to officials.

Since its commissioning in March 2011 the Norachcholai coal power plant built by the Chinese has had several breakdowns.

In his address at the elaborate opening ceremony of the Norachcholai coal power plant last year, Power and Energy Minister assured the nation that power cuts were a thing of history and would be removed permanently from the vocabulary.

However, within a few short months of this promise, the CEB was forced to shed loads in mid-2011, following the highest rainfall recorded in history in the previous year. These unannounced power cuts were a direct result of the CEB’s wrong policy of maximizing hydro generation in the first four months of 2011, without making use of cheap thermal power made available by several private power plants.

The CEB last used emergency power in early 2002. According to a document circulated by Minister Ranawaka, last year, the CEB had been making profits steadily until 1996. It was in 1996 that CEB resorted to purchasing emergency power for the first time (from Aggreko).

Power and Energy Media Secretary Dhanushka Ramananayake, told us to contact, CEB Chairman, Professor, Wimaladhrma Aberwickrema, who didn’t answer the phone.

CEB Working Director Pasan Gunasena said that they had called for tenders. However, he was not informed of the present need for emergency power.

He said that he was not aware of the grievances of the engineers. Usually discussions take place between Engineers Union and the General Manager.

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