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The power of darkness

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 13 February 2014 00:00


Comprehending darkness without power is not difficult and any news of an impending energy crisis always sends jitters across the community. Edison’s invention of the light-bulb literally transformed our lives, making nights like day and human activities expanded explosively – so much so that we even put up curtains shutting out the sun and use bulbs instead! Unlike our neighbouring countries, Sri Lanka has had no enforced mandatory power cuts in the recent past and one quickly gets used to the luxury of uninterrupted power on demand. These days, however, the public is frequently bombarded with press announcements of power plant failures, shutdowns and messages from counter-press conferences from the authorities who wish to calm people down. Norochcholai was the cynosure of all eyes at one stage as Sri Lanka finally witnessed the coming on stream of a coal power plant after years of controversy where the planning initially started with Trincomalee in the east coast and finally ended up in the north-west coast. In the case of the one and only coal power station, the number of days that the plant had been offline is striking. In the absence of its cheapest thermal power generating unit, Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) is challenged in meeting the needs of everyday consumer. As per available data there is potential to generate over 3,000 MW and the peak demand in the country today is around 2,000 MW. This indicates a surplus and the failure of a 300 MW power plant is not a critical issue in terms of supply. As excess generation capacity is available, providing power is not an immediate issue to the CEB.       Cost incurred in ensuring supply The question in front of us is not actually the supply but the cost incurred in ensuring the supply. The generation capacity constitute of facilities held both by the State and private power producers. The shortfall is likely to be compensated by purchasing power from private power producers. It is the existing purchasing prices which are known to be higher than what the CEB is selling to the public that is at the heart of the economic issue. One does have the guarantee of supply unless a few generating stations goes offline but the expensive purchasing pushes the CEB as an institution into the red. The CEB and Ceylon Petroleum Corporation coupling too is important. All thermal power generation depends on petroleum fuels and pricing in these fuels have an impact too on economic performance. As all petroleum fuels have to be sourced from abroad and we do have increased purchasing of refined products due to the non-expansion of the only existing refinery, the supply and cost equation is heavily loaded against stable economical operations. The existing renewable energy tariffs also favours the producer as the tariffs were set into promote renewable energy generation, the Government having decided that renewable energy infrastructure should develop from private investments. Today the country has a stated goal of realising 20% electricity through renewable means by 2020 and the tariff structures have indeed help in moving this sector on a productive trajectory. Whether there had been beneficial developments across all renewable energy sectors however is still questionable.     Energy is central to everything Energy is central to everything that one do and a nation having issues with energy supply and reliability is definitely handicapped in terms of realising its potential. The issue for Sri Lanka is that we have been facing the question of reliable energy supply as well as controlling cost of energy for over three decades and our efforts in realising a reasonable solution has always been less than perfect. At one time we expected the Mahaweli program to give us self sufficiency in electricity and even more revenue through power sales to India. In more recent times we expected the coal power station to slash unit prices and to improve the cost of energy and thereby positively impact the quality of life. That too has not happened as the plant has been struggling to stay online. It is also not quite known whether the expected power was ever delivered to the grid from the coal power station, thus making a continuous shortfall in supply. All sectors from households, institutions and commerce and industry depend on energy for all their tasks and ‘cost of supply’ figures significantly in the final cost structure. In ensuring energy at reasonable costs subsidies and tariff structures play an important role and we are not quite sure whether we have ever had these equations managed in a satisfactory manner due very much to short term socio-political issues. Usually the household consumer may not receive significant subsidies. Industries as important manufacturing entities playing an important economic role are expected to receive support. The situation in Sri Lanka is exactly the opposite with both commercial and industry paying higher than cost of production. Popular expectations dominate decision making and have an adverse effect on the national economy. Can we ever charge the households at real cost and support the manufacturing sector with subsidies is an important question to think about. We are well aware that our peak demand takes place at a time when we are least productive. When do we think we can move on to cost reflective pricing which is the most rational thing to do.   Importance of conservation It is also sad to see that the importance of conservation only surfaces when you are well and truly within a crisis situation. Once the rain gods have smiled on you and the thermal load reduces offering some respite we may claim that the performance of the relevant entities has improved. This type of ‘improvement’ is not a real improvement but only a respite brought in by the benevolent nature. Instead of claiming improvements one must make use of these respites to push on with the necessary reforms and corrections. A national energy conservation effort is not only for managing a particular difficult situation. The concept should be forcefully pushed and must be kept going at all times. Conservation should be part of an individual’s and an organisation’s DNA as conservation leads to efficiency and effectiveness when it is properly carried out. It is really sad to witness gross negligence that is prevailing in consumption patterns. While awards are given and some do really practice, it is yet to be seen as a national characteristic. We are not an efficient nation. We do have to admit that however unpleasant that admission may be. Energy vampires are everywhere. In some situations you may really not see the energy vampires. Some though are pretty obvious – burning light bulbs during broad day light which is a manifestation of direct energy waste, air conditioning at full flow minus occupants and with temperature settings that gives you shivers literally. There are many not so obvious ones too. For example the leaking water taps – wasting significant energy used for pumping and delivery and for treatment as well. It may well be a meeting that had been gathered to discuss something that well could have been achieved with few telephone calls. Look around yourself and you may see these energy vampires in abundance. It is up to you to do what you can in reducing this waste and making conservation a second nature. The State has pushed forward with legislation to have energy managers in certain high consuming entities and that is indeed welcome. However there is no harm in having this ‘energy professional’ in all settings. The onus to practice conservation is really on every individual and the individual responsibility has to be stressed. The wasteful practices of one, multiplied by millions really add up to significant amounts and these losses really dampen progress as well as being a significant cost burden.     Human and manufacturing capital There is also the need to build ‘human capital’ as well as ‘manufacturing capital’ with respect to energy systems. Absence of an inner strength literally translates to becoming dependent on external parties as well as geo-political stresses. It is the lack of both human and manufacturing capital that reduces us to spend time welcoming engineers at Katunayake coming to inspect a failed component. Neighbouring India went on to become a global giant in wind energy systems with complete indigenous capability. Related aspects of manufacturing were always present and continuously supported in India. The story of nuclear energy in India is inspiring and it is a lesson to us too. We continually shy away from design, fabrication and processing. This negative ‘manufacturing mindset’ citing all types of excuses ranging from limited markets to cost competitiveness over the years really has pushed us into a situation where some of these conditions today becoming quite true. To have an economy that is alive with possibilities energy is a must. Hence, one should still study opportunities closely as complete external dependence is not at all healthy and does not augur well when one aspires to become both a knowledge hub and an energy hub. [The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI     (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on ajith@cheng.mrt.ac.lk.]

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