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Blackouts: Is Sri Lanka suffering alone?

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By Dr. Tilak Siyambalapitiya

On Monday 17th August 2020, at 12.35 pm, Sri Lanka experienced the fifth countrywide blackout in recent memory. Probably, it was around 10.30 pm that night when all customers were reconnected to the grid. In my article ,”The Anatomy of a Blackout” in The Island on Wednesday, 19th August 2020, I explained how a grid operates in dynamic equilibrium and what protection mechanisms are there to save the grid from a total collapse. Why those systems failed to arrest a grid failure, on the 17th, would hopefully be explained by the investigating team of the Ministry of Power.

Today we ask the question: are we alone in the world, when it comes to frequent national blackouts? Do we have more or fewer blackouts compared with our neighbours? How about blackouts in advanced economies? This account is inno way justifies the five blackouts in Sri Lanka in recent memory, but presents a small subset of hundreds of diverse blackout events that happened in other countries.

 

United States

The Northeast blackout of 2003 is considered to be the worst blackout in the history of North America. The previous major blackout was reported in 1977, affecting New York City. . It was the summer peak in the northern hemisphere. On 14th August 2003 at 3.05 pm, a 345 kilovolt transmission line carrying a heavy current sagged as it is designed to do so, but the sagging line got too close to a tree. The heavy current failed to sound the alarm and the sagging line finally touched the tree. The first ring of protection recognized the line has touched a tree, and switched the line off, automatically. Controllers failed to recognize the root cause and another transmission line, now carrying the current of the first line that switched off, tripped 30 minutes later. A third line tripped in a further 15 minutes. Loss of three important lines caused the “dynamic equilibrium” to be lost. In some areas there were more customers than electricity produced; in others, there was more electricity production than what customers wanted. Lines that pass extra power in one region to another were already dead. A cascading failure of more lines and generators resulted. The disturbance spread to neighbouring Canada, too. Over 60,000 megawatt of customer electricity supply was interrupted when over 500 power plants stopped working. About 50 million people in the USA and Canada were affected for two days, as controllers struggled to restore power. Electric trains, industries, businesses, and homes were badly affected. The economic impact was estimated to be $10 billion.

Southwest blackout of 2011, in the USA, is considered to be the largest blackout in California. Power was interrupted for around 12 hours on September 8, 2011, affecting 2.7 million customers. The main reason was identified to be the dependence on power imports from Arizona at the time. Imports to California were approximately 2,750 megawatt, just below the limit of 2,850 megawatt. On that day, generation and transmission lines had been taken out for maintenance, with approval, but the shortage meant the California grid was running on a thin margin.

 

Brazil

Itaipu, until recently was the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant, shared by Brazil and Paraguay. Itaipu power plant stopped at 10.20 pm local time, on 10th November 2009, causing more than 190 million people to lose electricity. The power outage was not resolved for more than two hours. It is reported that heavy rains and strong winds caused three transformers to short-circuit, resulting in cutting the line and automatically losing power transmission. Brazil’s grid operator later confirmed that the failure of a 345-kilovolt line was provoked by the pollution of insulators due to deposits of soot.

More recently, a failure in the transmission network led to a large area blackout in Brazil on March 21, 2018. It started at 3.40 pm and some parts of the affected area regained power 20 minutes later while others took a much longer time. The problem was because of chain reactions caused by the protection of a circuit breaker which was inaugurated three months before the incident. It affected around 10 million customers and 18,000 megawatt was lost. The main causes were identified later as lack of necessary stability analysis before the event, defects in security control, maloperation of protection, and unreasonable configuration of the third line of defense.

 

India

Two severe backouts occurred in succession on 30th and 31st July, 2012. India operates six regional grids, most of them interconnected by strong transmission lines. At 2.35 am on 30th July, a circuit breaker on a 400 kilowatt transmission line, tripped, disconnecting the northern regional grid from the rest. About 32 hours later, a similar disturbance emerged. There was an unprecedented increase in agricultural demand in the northern region and a power surplus in the western region. Two transmission lines were already disconnected for maintenance and this situation exerted extra pressure on the available two lines, one of which was already carrying power at its capacity limit of around 1,000 megawatt. This line collapsed causing the first power outage on 30th July. Even after this, no proper steps were taken to balance the demand in the northern region or to curtail the generation in the western region. Instead, power from the surplus western region detoured via the central and eastern states to reach the deficit northern region. Even though the third level of protection with under frequency relays functioned properly, reports indicate the utility was under tremendous political pressure to continue drawing power from the grid.

The 30th July blackout affected over 300 million and a day later, the 31st July blackout affected 620 million people. An estimated 32,000 megawatt of power was lost. The 31st July 2012 blackout is considered to be the largest power outage in the history of India. Electricity service was restored between 31st July and 1st August 2012, a full 10 days after the blackout.

 

United Kingdom

The largest blackout, since the great storm of 1987, was reported on 28th August, 2003. A large portion of the UK grid went off at 6.30 pm and was restored in most of the places half an hour later. The initial cause was identified as a failure in a transformer at Hurst substation, near Bexley, due to an oil leak. A second fault occurred seven seconds later forcing the underground cable between New cross and Wimbledon stations to trip as automatic protection equipment identified and thought there was a fault. Later it was revealed the protection device on the transformer had the wrong rating.

Another, blackout across the UK, happened more recently, on 9th August 2019. Two large power generators (Little Barford gas-fired power plant and Hornsea offshore wind farm) disconnected from the system, causing the frequency to drop below safe limits. Little Barford power plant tripped shortly before 5.00 pm due to a technical issue. The outage was followed minutes later by the unexpected shutdown of the Hornsea wind farm. The demand at that time was 28,995 megawatt. The combined loss of power from two power plants added to 1,136 megawatt representing 4% of demand at that time. One million customers were affected. Over 500 train services were canceled or stranded. Power was restored from 45 minutes onward.

 

Argentina

This power outage happened on Sunday, 16th June 2019, at 7.06 am. It affected around 50 million people in Argentina and parts of Uruguay and Paraguay. Much of Argentina had heavy rainfall over the weekend and Uruguay’s utility reported some parts of their system were damaged by rain. A 500 kilovolt line in Argentina, from Colonia Elia to Campana was under maintenance. The company bypassed the line on maintenance using a nearby overhead line but missed to alert the automatic generation shutdown system which is designed to alert generators of network changes that would require to lower generation. Further, it was identified lack of coordination led to the propagation of failure. By 10.30 pm, almost 15 hours after the outage, power was restored throughout Argentina and most of Uruguay.

 

Bangladesh

The national grid of Bangladesh tripped two times on 1st November 2014. It tripped first at 11.30 am. Reports show the reason was excessive electricity imports from India. The power supply was partially restored from 2.50 pm., but it again collapsed at 4.30 pm on the same day. India normally delivers 250 megawatt to 350 megawatt to Bangladesh, but on that day, India had supplied 444 megawatt power to the substation. The outage affected about 100 million people in Bangladesh. Power was restored for half of the coverage area by 9.30 pm, 10 hours after power was lost.

 

Turkey

A power outage, affecting 70 million people, occurred in Turkey, on March 31, 2015. Four 400 kilovolt lines were not in operation at that moment. Parallel lines in service were carrying around 4,700 megawatt. One transmission line which was carrying 1,127 megawatt tripped on overload causing loss of synchronism between the Eastern and Western subsystems. Within 1.9 seconds, all parallel lines were disconnected. It took 6.5 hours to restore supply to 80% of customers.

 

Venezuela

This blackout is considered as one of the longest blackouts in history. It happened on 7th March 2019, affecting 30 million people. Analysts and engineers identified the event as a result of years of underinvestment in a network that had been mismanaged and neglected. It started at 4.45 pm on March 7, 2019, which lasted through March 14, a full week.

It should be noted that the above are not the only blackouts in the world. There were numerous blackouts in other countries that were not adequately reported.

 

Sri Lanka:

At 1.30 am on 9th October 2009, a transmission line carrying currents well within its limits was severed inside the Kelanitissa substation, with the two stubs of the broken line falling within the substation premises. A fire ensued, which finally caused all the generators to trip out within 3.5 seconds. The entire country was without power. A complete restoration was reported by mid-day, almost 9 hours after the line fell on the ground.

Sunday, 27th September 2015 was a Poya Day. Most parts of the country were experiencing rainy weather and the temperature in the night was lower than on a normal September day. At 11.53 pm, one generator at Lakvijaya power plant tripped, causing a cascading failure of generators. While restoration was going on, at 1.10 am on 28th September 2015, the grid collapsed again, causing restoration to be delayed. The power supply was fully restored by 4.02 am on 28th September, 4 hours after the grid collapsed.

At 1.52 pm, on 25th February 2016, a blackout occurred in the Sri Lanka grid. A lightning strike on the 132kV Seethawaka – Kolonnawa transmission line was the initiating event. Restoration of Colombo was completed in 1 hour and 40 minutes, but the total time taken to restore the entire grid is reported to be 3 hours and 20 minutes.

On 13th March 2016, the grid failed and is widely considered as the longest blackout of all recent events.

And on 17th August the grid failed again, for the fifth time in recent memory.



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Features

Port City Bill Requires Referendum

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by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne,PC

The Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill was presented in Parliament on 08 April 2021, while the country was getting ready to celebrate the traditional New Year. With the intervening weekend and public holidays, citizens had just two working days to retain lawyers, many of whom were on vacation, and file applications challenging the constitutionality of the Bill in the Supreme Court within the one-week period stipulated in the Constitution. One wonders whether the timing was deliberate.

Special economic zones are common. They are created mainly to attract foreign investments. In return, investors are offered various concessions so that their products are competitive in the global market. Several negative effects of such zones have also been highlighted. The sole purpose of this article, however, is a discussion on the constitutionality of the Bill.

The Bill seeks to establish a high-powered Commission entrusted with the administration, regulation and control of all matters connected with businesses and other operations in and from the Colombo Port City. It may lease land situated in the Colombo Port City area and even transfer freehold ownership of condominium parcels. It operates as a Single Window Investment Facilitator for proposed investments into the Port City. It would exercise the powers and functions of any applicable regulatory authority under any written law and obtain the concurrence of the relevant regulatory authority, which shall, as a matter of priority, provide such concurrence to the Commission. The discretion and powers of such other authorities under the various laws shall thus stand removed.

The Commission consists of five members who need not be Sri Lankan citizens, quite unlike the Urban Development Authority, the Board of Management of which must comprise Sri Lankan citizens only. One issue that arises is that the vesting of such powers upon persons with loyalties to other countries, especially superpowers, would undermine the free, sovereign, and independent status of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 1 of our Constitution. It would also impinge on the sovereignty of the People of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 3 read with Article 4.

The removal of the discretionary powers of the various regulatory authorities is arbitrary and violative of the right to equal protection of the law guaranteed by Article 12 (1).

Under Clause 25, only persons authorized by the Commission can engage in business in the Port City. Clause 27 requires that all investments be in foreign currency only. What is worse is that even foreign currency deposited in an account in a Sri Lankan bank cannot be used for investment. Thus, Sri Lankans cannot invest in the Port City using Sri Lankan rupees; neither can they use foreign currency that they legally have in Sri Lanka. The above provisions are clearly arbitrary and discriminatory of Sri Lankans and violate equality and non-discrimination guaranteed by Article 12. They also violate the fundamental right to engage in business guaranteed by Article 14 (1) (g).

Under clause 35, any person, whether a resident or a non-resident, may be employed within the Port City and such employee shall be remunerated in a designated foreign currency, other than in Sri Lanka rupees. Such employment income shall be exempt from income tax. Clause 36 provides that Sri Lankan rupees accepted within the Port City can be converted to foreign currency. Under clause 40, Sri Lankans may pay for goods, services, and facilities in Sri Lankan rupees but would be required to pay a levy for goods taken out of the Port City, as if s/he were returning from another country! The mere repetition of phrases such as ‘in the interests of the national economy’ throughout the Bill like a ‘mantra’ does not bring such restrictions within permissible restrictions set out in Article 15.

Clause 62 requires that all disputes involving the Commission be resolved through arbitration. The jurisdiction of Sri Lankan courts is thus ousted.

In any legal proceedings instituted on civil and commercial matters, where the cause of action has arisen within the Port City or in relation to any business carried on in or from the Port City, Clause 63 requires Sri Lankan courts to give such cases priority and hear them speedily on a day-to-day basis to ensure their expeditious disposal.

The inability of an Attorney-at-Law to appear before the court even for personal reasons, such as sickness, shall not be a ground for postponement. These provisions are arbitrary and violate Article 12.

Clause 73 provides that several Sri Lankan laws listed in Schedule III would have no application within the Port City. Such laws include the Urban Development Authority Act, Municipal Councils Ordinance, and the Town and Country Planning Ordinance. Under Clauses 52 and 53, exemptions may be granted by the Commission from several laws of Sri Lanka, including the Inland Revenue Act, Betting and Gaming Levy Act, Foreign Exchange Act, and the Customs Ordinance.

The Commission being empowered to grant exemptions from Sri Lankan laws undermines the legislative power of the People and of Parliament and violates Articles 3 and Article 4 (c) of the Constitution.

Several matters dealt with by the Bill come under the Provincial Councils List. They include local government, physical planning, and betting and gaming. Article 154G (3) requires that such a Bill be referred to Provincial Councils for their views. As Provincial Councils are not currently constituted, passage by a two-thirds majority will be necessary in the absence of the consent of the Provincial Councils.

The exclusion of the Municipal Councils Ordinance from the Port City area is not possible under the Constitution. When the Greater Colombo Economic Commission was sought to be established in 1978 under the 1972 Constitution, a similar exclusion was held by the Constitutional Court not to be arbitrary. Since then, under the Thirteenth Amendment under the 1978 Constitution, local government has been given constitutional recognition and included under the Provincial Council List. Under the present constitutional provisions, therefore, the Port City cannot be excluded from laws on local government.

The writer submits that in the above circumstances, the Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill requires to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approved by the People at a Referendum. Quite apart from the constitutional issues that arise, such an important piece of proposed legislation needs to be widely discussed. It is best that the Bill is referred to a Parliamentary Committee before which the public, as well as citizens’ organizations and experts in the related fields, could make their submissions.

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Investigative Journalism?

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I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.

We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?

At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!

We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?

We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.

I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?

In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.

Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.

Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.

Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.

All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!

 

 

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The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants

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Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.

It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.

On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.

My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.

Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!

Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.

And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.

I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.

There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.

But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.

When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.

Come on, they are no babes!

On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.

It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.

Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.

The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.

The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.

I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.

Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!

Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!

Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.

The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.

They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.

Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.

My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.

For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.

In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’

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