Environment and health issues arising from coal dust and erosion from the coal-fired power plant in Nuraichchoalai in Puththa’lam and the plant under construction in Champoor continue to dog the affected villagers in Sri Lanka. Compounding the problem, frequent breakdowns of power plants worsened by draught induced reduction of hydro-power, and the resulting power cuts are drawing public anger, reports from Colombo say. The Chinese designers accused Sri Lanka’s plant managers for the overuse of the plant without scheduled maintenance, while calls for investigations into mismanagement of the Electric Utility and alleged misconduct of officials in the financing and contract offers increased, Colombo media said.
The first phase (300MW) of the 900MW Nuraichchoalai coal-fired plant, built by the Chinese as part gift in 2011, with largely opaque financing arrangements, has a history of chronic breakdowns.
India, the other dominant international stake holder in Sri Lanka power industry, is constructing the 1000MW coal-fired station to be commissioned in 2014 in Champoor in Trincomalee. Tamil families uprooted from Champoor for the construction are living in temporary shelters amid constant harassment from the Sri Lanka military to move to less fertile areas for resettlement, NGOs say.
While international power players jostle to increase their stakes in Sri Lanka’s energy sector, the state power utility is deep in debt owing more than $170m to independent power producers and another $160m to state-run Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), business circles said.
CEB’s financial crisis is further worsened by trade unions demanding substantial pay hike up to 45%.
Doubts linger among energy experts on the capability of the Chinese built Nuraichchoalai plant to function at 80% availability. A fully operational 900MW plant with a 80% load factor (i.e. % operational time at the said load) produces 900(MW) x (365 days x 24 hrs) x 0.8 = 6 tera watt hours of energy. A reduction of the load factor to 60% will result in reduction of 1.5TWhr energy which is equivalent to "losing about half of all hydroelectricity that Sri Lanka generates in an average year," Kumar David, a retired professor of Electrical Engineering said.
Coal-fired power plants have been operating reliably across the world including China which expands its power generation capability by adding a large plant every fortnight. Questions persist on what had gone wrong with the current Chinese supplier, and if the State is willing to proceed to the next two phases of the plant with the same opaque financial dealings that has ruined the public trust, observers say.
"The plant had been well designed but had been operated from March 2011 without annual maintenance," one of the Chinese designers, Zhao Wenxue, pointed out, according to media reports.
"According to normal practice in China, a thermal plant should undergo a one month maintenance period annually. Only then can the unit be more reliable and efficient and expected to perform well," Wenzue was quoted in Lanka Business as saying.
Sri Lanka and Chinese records use the village name Norocholai, a corrupted and Sinhalized version of the Tamil village name Nuraichchoalai which means "grove of Nurai fruit trees."