By Niranjala Ariyawansha
A transformer in the CEB's Biyagama grid substation exploded at 2.20 p.m. on Sunday 13 March plunging some areas immediately supplied by the Biyagama plant into darkness for many hours until the CEB engineers restored supplies in a comparatively short time.
The senior management of the CEB is heavily criticized while Trade Unions allege that the overriding position enjoyed by the CEB Engineers' Union has given rise to several problems at Board level.
Secretary of the Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy Dr. Suren Batagoda said it had been decided to review the management structure of the CEB and introduce a system of recruitment based on seniority and merit for senior management positions. The report Dr. Batagoda sent to the President points out that the obtaining management system is not specifically tailored to produce the expertise needed and the system needs adjustments if this objective s to be achieved.
A senior engineer of the CEB Engineers' Union said it was the lack of foresight and appropriate planning to deal with natural or unnatural emergencies that is the basic cause of the persisting problems the CEB is facing of late. He pointed out that this systemic flaw would not have existed had there been intelligent planning before the plants were commissioned.
CEB Chairman AnuraWijepala has also been aware of this situation, he added.
Certain sections of the government and media alleged that the serious breakdown was a result of sabotage. They pointed out that such interruptions had occurred three times within the past seven months.
On 27 September, the entire country was plunged into darkness from around midnight for about four hours – and that too on a night when the weather was inclement and lightning struck a multiple high tension wired 'tower' linking Laxapana to Kolonnawa. The breakdown on the 13th was the biggest ever since 1996.
CEB Chairman Wijepala was humble enough to acknowledge responsibility for the incident and submit his resignation that was however rejected by the Minister of Power and Renewable Energy Ranjith Siyambalapitiya which he said he felt was not an appropriate time for such a resignation.
The CEB Chairman then complained to the CID about the explosion in the Biyagama grid substation. This marked the first-ever complaint made by the CEB to the authorities about a power outage. Government also called the Government Analyst to the scene.
Meanwhile, media reports said Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Deputy Minister of Power and Renewable Energy Ajith P. Perera had not ruled out sabotage in connection with the recent exlsosions at national power plants.
The CEB Engineers' Union has in a media statement apologized for the interruption and the inconvenience caused by the breakdown but has vehemently rejected any suggestion of sabotage.
The Secretary to the Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy Dr. Batagoda also told Ceylon Today that it was doubtful whether sabotage was involved in these incidents , thus contradicting the opinions of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Minister.
Before all these arguments and counter arguments died down, President Maithripala Sirisena ordered deployment of strong Armed Forces security at the nation's power plant and lesser grid substations of the CEB.
Dr. Batagoda said the President had directed Defence Ministry Secretary Karunasena Hettiarachchi to deploy military security to these sensitive nerve centers .
Meahwhile, this series of sufficiently unexplained near-crisis events have triggered heightened public debate about whether the proper technologies have been installed, whether the minimum international standard protection devices and systems have been installed, and also whether the CEB, if it has been manned by competent men, has not failed in its nationally demanding role of ensuring effective preemptive strategies to protect the national energy systems.
Indications point to the fact that the government questions the bona fides of statements made by the Secretary and the Engineers' Union that there was no sabotage behind the major and too frequent power outages of late.
Media reports quoted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as saying that the government would not tolerate a recurrence of such breakdowns throughout the country.
CEB General Manager M.C. Wickramasekara has appointed an internal Committee comprising Additional General Manager A.K. Samarasinghe and several senior engineers to probe the incident.
The mandate of the external Committee of professionals headed by Prof. Ranjith Perera appointed to probe the breakdown on 25 February has been extended.
Additionally, the Prime Minister handed over the investigation to the Committee headed by Dr. Kumar David which had been appointed to probe the earlier breakdown.
Finally, the President appointed a Cabinet Sub-Committee comprising six Ministers including Minister of Power and Renewable Energy Ranjith Siyambalapitiya and a former Minister of the subject Champika Ranawaka, for an additional independent probe.
Effective 14 March, the CEB decided to impose power cuts throughout the country without prior notice and the Deputy Minister issued a statement justifying it. The CEB divided the country into four separate power zones to ensure minimum inconvenience to the people and industry/commerce by the aggregate 7 ½ hour power cuts.
The 900 MW three-phase China constructed Norochcholai coal power plant was rendered inoperable by the March 13 explosion. The CEB pointed out that it needed three or four days to cool the system before refilling water into the turbines of the plant prior to resumption of islandwide electricity generation.
The near-crisis situation had by Friday 18th almost retuned to normalcy with the CEB announcing that the power cuts imposed throughout the country would be lifted. And just then the Biyagama plant exploded !
The reports of the four aforementioned Committees are still in the pipeline. Minister Siyambalapitiya has said that the report of the Cabinet Sub-Committee would be submitted to the President on 22 March. The Prime Minister is also expected to peruse these reports and then compile and submit to Parliament on 23 March a comprehensive report bringing together all facets of the four separate reports. The loss to the economy caused by the four outages has not been computed as yet. It affected many of the essential services including health and water supply throughout the country. The stock market was suspended for 17 minutes on 15 March. Production in industry and trade could have been negatively affected.
The major allegation against the CEB has been about its alleged failure to overhaul the 33-year-old transformer in the Biyagama grid station. The engineer in charge of the station said that he had informed the General Manager on 31 December 2014 about the need to overhaul the transformer but the latter had overlooked it. The report submitted by the Ministry Secretary to the President says that the failure to overhaul the transformer can be one reason for the explosion.
CEB General Manager M.C. Wickramasekara told Ceylon Today that retired officer Shavindranath Fernando was the General Manager during that controversial period.
Current CEB Chairman Wijepala said he had appointed a committee comprising former General Managers Prof. K.K.W. Perera and Mohideen, to investigate whether the transmission lines of the Biyagama grid substation had been properly maintained or not. Wijepala also said that there obviously was a major issue to do with the transmission grid and it needed to be identified.
"The explosion in Biyagama grid was a massive one. The pieces scattered for as far as 50 to 60 meters. We have never experienced such incidents. We don't think that it is sabotage. Norochcholai is not the problem. Even now, I do not rule out the possibility of more breakdowns if something unforeseen happens at the major substations" Wijepala said.
Proving his premonitions right, on Friday around 3 p.m. there was a similar explosion in the Kotugoda sub-station in Ja-Ela. Dr. Batagoda said he saw similarities in the two events. The Air Force which was there in record time to deal with the fire brought it under control within 10 minutes. The engineers took measures to disconnect a part of the link to the Norochcholai power plant from the national grid to avoid a recurrence of total failure. Two phases of the Norochcholai power plant were re-connected to the national grid by that time.
What happened on 13th?
One of the CEB's Senior Engineers said "It was an unusual case. There are two transformers in Biyagama. One was under maintenance. The transmission system automatically switches off in such a situation for network safety. Norochcholai tripped off after this blast. But it did not behave as we expected it to. We had insisted on a system that responds to emergencies as it should. This is one factor that led to this crisis. If the Biyagama transformer automatically switched off it would not have resulted in adverse effects on other transmission lines too. But it did not switch off automatically and exploded causing power outages via all the other feeder lines. The total failure at Biyagama could have been contained had Norochcholai been restored to full and effective functionality in the context of responses to emergencies. But things worked out otherwise and resulted in another surge and yet another explosion and power failure. No control system is totally guaranteed to stave off such crises. No one can avoid the automatic shutdown. If this is done manually there will be a worse explosion.
"Norochcholai was operating at 810 MW capacity at that specific time. This may not have happened if Norochcolai has a single phase system. Its responses can then be predictable. But it's a 3-phase system. The problem is not in Norochcholai only. We're still unable to say what specifically happened at Biyagama"
Another senior engineer of the CEB who sought anonymity said Norochcholai's large load leads to such breakdowns in the network. We must not forget that the CEB's engineers have pointed out that the [ Chinese] technology of the Norochcholai power plant is substandard.
"We can restart generation very quickly provided the shutdown in normal. But the shutdowns on 25 February and 13 March were not normal. They were forced shutdowns due to the lack of auxiliary power. We have to wait for 2 or 3 days for the safety of the machines. If we can shutdown the machines with auxiliary power, we don't need 3 or 4 days to reconnect it to the system.
In this context, as a solution to this issue, to restart generation within a short period after a total failure, the CEB has begun construction of a smaller power plant within the premises of Norochcholai.
He also pointed out that such a huge power plant should not be constructed within one area, but would ideally be smaller plants distanced from one another over a broader area.stributed throughout the country.
"The best place to build a coal power station is Trincomalee. The cost is less there since there is a natural harbour. Next is Puttalam, and third is Hambanthota. But the war ruled out the Trincomalee option. Hambanthota was ruled out because of environmental issues. Finally, the 900 MW massive plant was established in Norochcholai. But there is a need to acknowledge the fact that in some instances development needs override environmental risk conditions to some extent," he explained.
What is the solution?
Can a total failure recur if such mishaps occurs again in the national grid network ?
"We examined this probability on 25 February when an earth conduction failure actually occurred when lightning struck the Polpitiya grid substation and caused a total failure in the country. The probe identified that we had no alternative. This can recur and we have only long term solutions for the problem," he said.
"In such a context, the generation will be insufficient to cater to the national need. It will be an even bigger problem during the dry seasons because 45% of the supply to the national grid is generated by Norochcholai. There is no solution to this but when we say this the government permits private sector construction of power plants" he added.
Electrical engineers point out that the solution to this issue is the purchase and installation of closed diesel generators by the CEB. They also point out that a shutdown of these diesel generators after the contract period was another reason for power cuts.
"When the contracts are signed we know when they expire. In such a context, the CEB can purchase them at low prices. If we did so, we could have stand-by power generators. Then it is not necessary to depend entirely on Norochcholai," they argue.
Problems of planning branch?
The senior engineer further accused that the failure of the planning branch to plan for buying such private generators was another reason for the situation.
"The engineers in the planning branch must work according to their conscience. Results of long-term generation and transmission planning can be seen in five or ten years. We are experiencing the results of what was not done."
He said the CEB is instead busting up huge amounts of money on situations such as in Biyagama behind a guise of managing power crises. "Tender procedure does not apply in such contexts. Open tenders are not called due to emergency situations. They become million-rupee business deals for some people in the CEB".
He also added that the CEB had no proper plan for future needs. The generation plan compiled by the CEB for the next 10 years has been rejected by the Public Utilities Commission (PUCSL)
However, the CEB Engineers' Union alleges that the Public Utilities Commission has done so to achieve its narrow objective of giving an opportunity to the private sector to move into the energy sphere..
These engineers added that the deployment of military for the security of the stations depressed them.
However government sources said that government now plans to introduce new legislation to make the senior management of the CEB, including engineers, answerable for any further nationwide outages. The Government in 2001 also tried to introduce such legislation but a change of regime shelved that plan.
When we asked about this, Ministry Secretary Dr. Batagoda said that plans were underway to bring a bill to develop the power sector. "We will not permit any legislation that is potentially damaging to the power sector."
Meanwhile, the senior management of the CEB has been summoned by COPE.
The Secretary to the Ministry of Power and Renewable Energy has informed the China National Machinery and Equipment Import and Export Corporation (CMEC), which administers one phase of the plant, that the entire control of the plant must be handed over to the CEB.
Government sources say that the Chinese company which does not take kindly to that proposal could also have a role in the breakdowns. We need to realistically reckon with attempts to expand Chinese influence when we speak of sabotage endeavors by engineers of the Board itself.