Islandwide blackout today as CEB Engineers strike?

The draft Bill to amend the Electricity Act, No. 20 of 2009 is due to be presented to Parliament today (9), despite the Ceylon Electricity Board Engineers’ Union’s (CEBEU) strike action against it, which could lead to an orchestrated islandwide blackout cum power failure from today morning, while President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared electricity supply an essential service via a Gazette notification issued last night (8). 

“The amendment to the Act, which is due to be presented to the Parliament, will not eliminate the competitive bidding process for energy generation projects. The only thing this amendment will do is expedite the process of adding a renewable energy service provider to the national grid after they obtain a licence from the Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority (SLSEA),” Power and Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera said in Parliament yesterday. 

However, the CEBEU has stated that this amendment is brought in to “entirely abolish” the competitive bidding process for the procurement of electricity from the private sector, which ensures the least cost as per the existing Act. 

The draft Bill is due to be presented in Parliament today with the aim of passing it on the same day. 

Wijesekera accused a set of engineers at the CEB of working with vested interests in opposing the amendment. 

“The CEB has requested that the Cabinet of Ministers approve an increase in the electricity tariff by 300%. This amendment will bring down the generation cost of electricity, as it will allow privately owned renewable energy sources to generate electricity. If the CEB officials are not ready to bring down the generation cost, then I will not allow them to increase tariffs just so they can increase their salaries. If you want to oppose it, you go ahead and oppose it. There is a power crisis in this country, and the public will then know who is responsible,” said Wijesekera. 

Wijesekera and representatives from the CEBEU had a final discussion last afternoon as well, which failed to see a compromise between the two parties. 

“There was no positive response from the Minister. It was not a meeting, merely a one-sided communication from his side. He is severely misinformed. He has only been the Power and Energy Minister for a few months and has never given a union the opportunity for a discussion. He is new to this post, but there are engineers with about 30 years of experience who can point out the repercussions of this amendment. He was not ready to listen,” a CEBEU spokesperson told The Morning following the discussion. 

Thus, the CEBEU said that they would commence their strike from midnight yesterday. “This is a very serious issue. We will wait to hear any positive response, even if Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe or President Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants to speak to us.”

“We will gradually shut down islandwide power. We want to safely shut down the system, so in a few hours from midnight, there will be an islandwide power failure by 8 a.m. today at the latest,” the spokesperson added. 

The CEBEU’s strike action demands the following: To withdraw the proposed amendments with immediate effect; to stop the handing over of the country’s wind and solar resources to the Adani Group (paying in US dollars) without following the competitive bidding process; to stop driving the CEB towards privatisation under the guise of reform; and to appoint a suitable professional with unblemished character to the post of CEB Chairman without further delay.

“Arrangements are being made at a rapid pace to gift the most prolific wind energy belt in the country in Mannar and Pooneryn to the Adani Group, an Indian-based private company, for a 500 megawatts (MW) wind power plant through an unsolicited proposal. The offered unit price of $ 7.55 is almost double the current market rates and the payment will have to be made in US dollar denominations amidst a severe foreign exchange crisis faced by the country, despite the fact that local investors have offered an attractive lesser price which could be paid in the Sri Lankan rupee equivalent,” the CEBEU further alleged.

Meanwhile, Premier Wickremesinghe, speaking in Parliament yesterday, requested the CEBEU to reconsider the blackout. “Only India is providing us assistance in getting fuel at the moment. If there is a blackout, then don’t ask me to go get help from India,” said Wickremesinghe. 

Opposition and Samagi Jana Balawegeya (SJB) Leader Sajith Premadasa said in Parliament that the SJB would oppose the proposed amendment, as he believes it would lead to unsolicited proposals, noting that it could also lead to a project where electricity is obtained at a higher cost in US dollars from private suppliers.

However, Wijesekera said that Premadasa is misinformed and that the process of obtaining the lowest cost per unit is still vested with the CEB, the SLSEA, and the Ministry of Power and Energy.

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