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Stalled coal fired power plant project can be shifted to Noracholai or Hambantota

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By Dr Tilak Siyambalapitiya

We never seem to learn!

Sri Lanka messed around with the Norochcholai coal-fired power plant over 1993-2005, and we still pay for the sins of the politicians, religious leaders and NGOs that blocked the vital power plant. Today, as stated by the Honourable Minister himself, the country would be reeling with power cuts, if not for the presence of the 1st stage of the Norochcholai power plant.

Many a politician raised both hands in the Cabinet on motions brought by the past Presidents and Prime Ministers, to suspend the Norochcholai power plant project, are now cheering the President all the way to Norochcholai.

Although not reeling with power cuts, and being the brave one in South Asia, the whisper in the town is that power cuts are back. Sh !!! do not tell any one, especially our South Asian neighbours, that we are in trouble.

Today, the power supply of the country is in grave danger. In year 2010 and a few months into 2011, we enjoyed above average rains (and even boasted that CEB has been turned around from the financial mess), but alas that joy was short-lived and seems to be punishing us. Punishing us for what ! For not telling the truth and not telling whole truth that CEB has been turned into a profit making enterprise, using the money that rains brought. It seems that weather gods will not let us rest until we say the truth about the power sector, that it is making losses, citizens must be willing to pay the costs, and that subsidies must go, step by step, and that transparency should be brought in. Until we do that, and the more we lie about the real health of the electricity supply system and its finances, it seems that the weather gods will not release the grip on us.

Be that as it may, tiny Lanka cannot afford to make another mistake. But is seems we are heading for a bigger disaster starting 2017.

Trincomalee coal-fired power plant is scheduled to produce 3200 million units of electricity per year from 2017, which is 19% of the country’s electricity supply in that year. To be ready by 2017, construction should begin in 2013, to allow the 48 month construction schedule. Are we any close to begin construction ? Obviously not. What comes out is occasional press statements from both sides of the Palk Straight, that the power plant is “being built”, “will be built”, “has been signed up”, etc, which simply means that nothing tangible has happened.

The power plant in Trincomalee is said to be a joint venture between CEB and NTPC, another Govt owned Company in India. Not a bad idea after all, especially that the country has some obligations to India for Trincomalee. Within that framework, we do not seem to be moving fast enough to build this vital power plant. Elsewhere in South Asia, the presence or absence of the power supply really does not matter. In many countries, power outage duration each day is longer than the duration of power supplied within the day. Half the population does not have power anyway, 24 hours of the day.

Sri Lanka is different. Thanks to various political leaders, officials and engineers who implemented projects, we have surely passed the 90% mark in electrification. Not just access to electricity, but more than 90% of households actually have an active electricity connection. Sri Lanka is also different that the security of the power supply is a jealously guarded national objective. The norm is for electricity to be available. In some countries in South Asia, the norm is for electricity not to be available.

Therefore, with or without the joint venture with India, the power plant is a vital need. There will be many others who will finance the project and will build the project, if Sri Lanka follows a competitive path for securing finances, and a competitive path to select the contractors to build the power plant. And the power plant needs not be in Trincomalee. As it has been proven, Norochcholai is workable and although land is limited, it can accommodate more power plants. Hambantota port will have ships calling every week, if the coal-fired power plant is shifted to Hambantota. Thus Sri Lanka has many options.

Now that we are whispering about power cuts, time is right to speak loudly about the stagnant power project in Trincomalee, and proceed with alternative means to build the project. Sri Lanka already too late.

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