Reforming Sri Lanka’s power sector

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

 The article originally appeared in the Daily News.

Electricity was introduced to Ceylon by a private company in 1895, but since 1927, with the formation of the Department of Government Electrical Undertakings the industry has been a vertically integrated state monopoly.

The electricity infrastructure comprises generation, transmission and distribution. Transmission refers to the bulk transfer of electricity from power plants to substations located near demand centres. Distribution is the delivery of power to consumers from substations.

Some reform of the industry took place during the 1980's and 1990's. LECO, a state owned private company established in 1983 to undertake the distribution of power in Kotte. Independent Power Producers (IPPs) and small hydro developers entered the industry in the mid1990s when generation was opened to private investors following a severe power crisis in 1996.

Since 2004 policy reverted to state-lead investment with the exception of small renewable power projects. The CEB reports regular losses, is heavily indebted and has invested billions but does Sri Lanka have an efficient and economic system of electricity supply, the stated mission of the CEB?

The disaster that is the coal power plant is well known and provides good reason to reassess the long term plans for the provision of power.

Before examining long term solutions there are immediate problems that need to be addressed so some short-term measures are necessary. A peculiarity of Sri Lanka's electricity demand is the high evening peak load. A steep increase in demand occurs between 6pm-7pm which then peaks from 7pm-8pm. Thereafter demand gradually eases over the following three hours.

Peak demand is about 50% higher than average demand and coping with this presents the most urgent problem for the CEB. A study by the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) in 2012 recommended that “aggressive action is still required to curb further growth in peak demand, since an adverse trend is observed during recent past”.

The simplest solution to this is to move to daylight saving time, which means setting the clock forward by an hour. This proved to be an effective curb on demand when it was implemented after the power crisis of 1996. It was previously used in Ceylon during WWII to conserve power and also by Pakistan after a power crisis in 2008. It is a simple cost free solution that demands immediate implementation.

The management of the demand for power by bulk consumers is also needed. An overlooked aspect of this is the waste of power in the telecommunications industry. Transmission towers consume a lot of power but operators in Sri Lanka do not have a comprehensive infrastructure sharing regime. Operators regard their networks as a source of competitive advantage and share only limited sites. This has resulted in widespread duplication of infrastructure, unnecessary strain on the grid and unsightly visual pollution. The Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRC) needs to impose a proper infrastructure sharing regime. Sharing must cover all infrastructure including SLT’s fibre backbone and the TRC should incentivise the decommissioning of redundant sites. Moving on to longer term solutions should private power have a role to play?

In Sri Lanka IPPs have been controversial but the solution is not be to ignore the private sector but instead to move to electricity auctions to procure power. Auctions increase the competition and transparency of electricity procurement and are now quite widely used. Examples include the UK, New Zealand, Australia and Singapore. Open, transparent competition promotes efficiency and reduces costs to consumers. Singapore moved from state monopoly in 1995 to competitive market in stages over a period of years, yielding tangible benefits to consumers. Although the price of oil, the major cost in electricity generation, increased by 152% between 2001 and 2008, Singapore’s electricity tariff rose only 14% during that period. This was possible largely due to efficiency gains in generation, such as utilising more cost-efficient technology.

Competitive pricing encouraged firms to invest, for example in more efficient gas fired combined cycle turbines and retro-fitting existing plants. The share of electricity generated in Singapore by natural gas increased from 19% in 2000 to 79% in 2010 and overall power generation efficiency increased from 38% to 44%. Consequently, carbon dioxide emissions per unit of electricity generated declined by 30% between 2000 and 2007.

The tangible benefits from liberalising the electricity market make a compelling case to move in that direction although the process is by no means a simple or easy. Even in Singapore the major reforms were introduced gradually over a period of a decade, but this should be the vision for Sri Lanka’s power sector.

The Pathfinder Foundation published a paper in 2007 examining in some detail how Sri Lanka could move to a competitive electricity market. The conceptual model for an electricity market, in very simple terms is to have the generation, transmission and distribution split into independent units with competition between them.

It is essential to have several entities carrying out generation (IPPs and entities carved out from existing CEB generation assets). These will compete in a daily computerised auction to sell power to the transmission entity, which should have no links to the generating entities. The auction is usually held a few says before the actual despatch of power is needed. The generating units compete to supply power for fixed time slots in the day, usually for each hour or half hour and the system automatically awards the time slots to each generating unit based on the lowest cost. The transmission entity in turn sells the power to distribution units, which will be monopolies in their respective areas of operation. When distribution utilities operate in similar operational areas, the regulator can easily set up realistic performance targets by comparing their performances. Similarly since the transmission will be carried out by a separate entity the losses in transmission are easily monitored and the incentive is created to minimise leakage.

If practical advice were needed the Government of Singapore has always been willing to share its expertise.

Ravi Ratnasabapathy trained as a management accountant and has broad industry experience in finance. He is interested in economic policy and governance issues.