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More power to the people


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 16 March 2016 00:00


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Denmark produces some 140% of its power demand from alternative energy sources such as wind power – so much more than its domestic needs that it exports electricity to neighbouring Scandinavia and even Germany. Sri Lanka once envisaged producing sufficient power to export to India, but it is evident this is a pipe dream now, as something is clearly rotten in the state of our power and energy sector

 

What’s hot, but dark, and hopeless? Well, the old answer used to be blistering hell… Now, it’s the blessed isle on a sweltering blackout eve! Today, the questions continue to pile on. Thick and fast, like instant custard:

Was the blackout a breakdown at Norochcholai? Or a failure at Biyagama? Or both? Was it sabotage, or is there something more sinister such as enemy action suspected in the deployment of the army to safeguard power installations? Would cuts continue as part of current strategic policy or perhaps it’s happenstance rather than coincidence? Will the deputy minister who’s gadding about doing good on so many fronts these days have sufficient time, interest, energy, to do his mandated duty once he’s done been civil-rights vigilante and social media champion?

But seriously, folks! It would be funny if it wasn’t so hot, dark, hopeless! Hell’s bells, what’s this? Bad old extended power-cut ’90s back from a powerless grave? Good old #yahapaalanaya at its bungling cut-price worst? It’s almost bad enough to want the heavy jackboot of a certain ham-fisted rogue-regime back… I said almost! Because there’s no doubt that the previous administration has a lion’s share of the blame to embrace for the decline and fall of power supply politics we’re reaping now as a grim harvest of Untitled-2corruption and abysmal decisions then.

What’s a citizenry that’s short on critical info (and vital power) to make of it all? Here’s a grid of interlocking and overlapping possibilities to ponder while we flounder in the dark, and business and investor confidence founder on successive governments making too light a game of our once and future energy crisis:

NAÏVE (a nice superficial surface-view): 

Power failures are par for the course in mid-career developing economies. Particularly set-ups with an inefficient matrix of traditional sources (hydro-electricity) combined with more modern technology (coal-fired power plants). 

NEED BE (the strategic perspective):

The alleged failures were actually intentionally engineered power outages. These rolling blackouts are now being made part of a manifest plan. When the first of a series of shutdowns started taking place recently, few knew or suspected it was rotational load shedding. Of course in such feeder rotation power supply should have been discontinued for non-overlapping periods of time so that some parts of the country would be lit up while others were successively plunged into brief spells of darkness. These last-resort measures have now emerged as the response of our evidently desperate electricity utility establishment to avoid a total enforced blackout due to perilously low power supply levels in the face of power demand dangerously exceeding the grid’s capacity.

NAUGHTY (an irreverent prism): 

There has been no clear statement from the authorities concerned as to what ails Sri Lanka’s power supply system. On the one hand, there are those who contend that there is insufficient generation capacity to meet the country’s burgeoning electricity needs – especially during adverse climatic conditions, such as those which the island is presently suffering from. On the other, it could be a case of inadequate transmission infrastructure resulting in interim breakdowns – exigency which was predictable as far back as a decade or more ago. In the absence of clarifying statements from either policymakers or power-suppliers, the social media savvy people have to plump for assuming that both are true… possibly a rich mix of poor vision statements and poor mission delivery. There is plenty for politicians to quibble about here… passing the ball in the dark… while the disenfranchised public is at a loss as to where the buck stops.

NASTY (that subversive lens): 

The rolling blackouts were, until the big one on Sunday last, a secretive ploy to ease the load on the electricity grid. Now that the black cat is out of the bag as to the state of power supply, power-suppliers and policy-makers alike can maintain that such load-shedding is par for the course – normal, routine, a daily event even… – in many developing countries. And take the risk that our credit rating and confidence indices will plummet by another letter or another grade. We can hardly claim with the arrogance of those newly come to power that we are now a surer path with a rapider rate of progress along the newly industrialised route. A middle income nation such as ours should not have to suffer the periodic or chronic exigencies of power outages. It remains to be seen who has the larger lion’s share of failure to accurately forecast power demand, efficiently execute power supply, adequately schedule power infrastructure investment, properly manage and maintain power networks. The guillotine is yet to descend on this government or that government – good, bad, and ugly – because this government like that government or any other government is good at camouflage and playing games in the dark. That significant political damage could and must ensue to any halfway decent or responsible government is still a power station too far in the prevalent political milieu – this is evident in fiasco following imbroglio, with ministers refusing to accept chairmen’s resignations! It simply remains for policymakers and power-suppliers in collusion to make a pretence of showcasing a belatedly well-managed under-capacity system by scrupulously scheduling blackouts and advertising the same well, and well in time, for the general populace as much as commerce and industry to sweat and labour around it. Never mind that the transmission frequency has fallen way below the safety limit once too often in the recent past for heads not to roll.

Jerks and knee-jerks

When crises come, it’s customary for functioning farce-o-cracies to bring in the clowns and make sure the circus comes to town. There are times when even serious democratically elected and otherwise responsible governments will resort to these shenanigans. The powers that be in good governance did not disappoint in this respect. 

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM 101: 

A respected and otherwise level-headed politico was obviously in favour of turning the military out of their barracks to safeguard power installations as a response to suspected sabotage.

DEVIL’S ADVOCATE 101:

The electricity unions – hah, the usual suspects! – have vehemently denied any possibility of sabotage. Only unfounded conspiracy theories on social media still have deliciously familiar filial persons – hah, the usual suspects! – lurking suspiciously and throwing switches in plain sight of all and sundry.

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM 102: 

The prime minister and the power minister have ordered “full” and “thorough” investigations. Lucky people, we – where do they get such brainwaves? Good that the powers that be are on the ball… when the power’s off, after the power’s come back on!

DEVIL’S ADVOCATE 102:

The report into the investigation is to be written – and distributed and circulated (even if the power isn’t). There is already a report. Just need to massage the facts to fit it.

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM 90210: 

A vigilante deputy minister cum social media champion has berated the CEB for its lackadaisical disregard for keeping the public informed about blackout times, damage control measures, and power restorations updates.

DEVIL’S ADVOCATE 90210:

Really, Mr Minister and MP? What do you think we are: a developed country? a newly industrialised nation? a well-managed power supply network? How to update website when there’s no power, ah?

Sorry, I know it’s not nice to poke fun at naïveté, cunning ploys, or Neanderthal power shows. But it’s easier than poking the >Sleeping Bear with a stick. That >Beast may seem to be slumbering, still; but under cover of darkness may be slouching towards Biyagama or Battaramulla to be born again. THAT’S a >Power Outage that doesn’t bear thinking about. There’s been ENOUGH >Darkness At Noon for a generation; a lifetime.


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