Zulfath Saheed weighs the prospect of power cuts in Sri Lanka in the months ahead

Dry weather and power cuts in Sri Lanka… it’s a tale as old as time itself. As the mercury rises in the early part of each year, citizens are being requested to watch their consumption of water and electricity given the nation’s reliance on hydro-resources for at least a part of its power generation.

Year 2020 appears to be no different in this regard and the warning signs have already emerged. The authorities have requested the public to use water sparingly in view of the dry period ahead. And while a majority of its electricity generation is through thermal sources, financial concerns at the state run energy supplier have meant that the prospect of power failures is all too real.

WARNING SIGNALS In early February, it was reported that the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) would look to impose power cuts of up to two hours a day. The reasons cited included the fact that the CEB had exceeded the allocation of fuel issued to it on credit terms by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) with the latter subsequently deciding to stop fuel supplies to the Kerawalapitiya Power Station.

Official power cuts have been averted for the time being at least as a statement issued by the Ministry of Power and Energy revealed that following the intervention of the minister in charge, the CPC had been requested to continue providing fuel to the CEB. This directive is subject to approval by the cabinet of ministers.

Nevertheless, Minister Mahinda Amaraweera told reporters that the CEB faced “a serious challenge to meet the electricity demand of the country,” adding that “no power plants have started in the last five years… We have to get electricity from diesel power plants at very high prices.”

FINANCIAL CONCERNS The fiscal dilemmas of Sri Lanka’s state owned entities have been well documented. For example, the CEB’s financials in recent years were impacted by the move to cancel a coal power plant.

In addition, an independent regulatory commission has failed to impose tariff hikes since 2013. And the CEB racked up foreign exchange losses of over Rs. 80 billion last year.

HYDRO GENERATION Whereas the CEB had maintained a reasonable degree of hydro-storage in the dry season, water releases – which are primarily determined by irrigation requirements – have been curtailed as the agriculture authorities aim to conserve water for the upcoming cultivation season.

Moreover, data indicates that the state run energy utility is maximising its use of thermal energy sources while using water resources sparingly.

REMEDIAL MEASURES With a view to boost energy security and self-sufficiency, the cabinet recently granted approval to enforce measures recommended by the Ministry of Power and Energy.

These include the construction of a coal power plant as an extension to that which already exists in Norochcholai, as well as establishing an LNG plant in Kerawalapitiya in the form of a joint venture between the CEB, India and Japan. Meanwhile, hydropower and renewable energy projects constructed by the CEB are set to be expedited.

It has been reported that the CEB is also extending short-term power contracts while it is in the process of gaining 200 MW in extra power so as to avoid power cuts in March.

ALTERNATIVE SOURCES In the light of these developments, it remains to be seen whether a major shift in policy would ensue in relation to the energy landscape. For instance, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election manifesto alluded to hydro and renewable energy together accounting for 80 percent of the overall energy mix by 2030 with the renewable energy mix representing 40 percent of the portfolio.

This transformation of the country’s energy mix to renewable sources also envisages adding 100 MW of wind power in Mannar by 2021, as well as the addition of 800 MW of solar energy to the national grid by implementing a wind and solar power project through a public-private partnership in locations across the island including Mannar, Pooneryn and Monaragala.

SUSTAINABLE ENERGY The practice of using energy in a way that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own – i.e. sustainable energy – is very much in focus in the context of heightened concern over climate change across the globe.

Therefore, Sri Lanka too would need to consider a steady expansion of its energy sector.

The sustainable energy sector is expected to enable numerous economic activities and continue to grow rapidly in the coming years, opening opportunities to innovate and develop clean energy technologies.

Furthermore, with Sri Lanka aspiring to be a carbon neutral nation by 2050, it would need to make the most of the energy sources available to it.