Sri Lanka’s Nationwide Blackout Sparks Suspicion of Sabotage

Some wonder if the nationwide power outage was sabotage in a move to promote renewable energy.

COLUMBO, Sri Lanka—After the whole of Sri Lanka was left without power for seven to eight hours,  initial blame was cast on a “technical issue,” but some have raised doubts about the origins of the outage.

The outage caused disruptions to traffic control and the water supply on the small island nation in the Indian Ocean with a population of about 21 million.

Minister of Power Dullas Alahapperuma, in a public statement, said that a “technical issue” at the Kerawalapitiya power complex on the outskirts of the capital of Colombo sparked the blackout, which began at midday on Aug. 17.

Kerawalapitiya is one of the largest grid stations in the country.

However, some officials placed the blame elsewhere.

“This was an act of sabotage by the government,” said Chaminda Wijesiri, member of parliament from the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, a coalition of opposition parties. “The government is planning to buy electricity from the private sector.”

The government denied these allegations and started an investigation. At the same time, it has invited foreign support and the private sector to invest in renewable energy in the country.

 

Annuruddha Thilakarathne, president of the Ceylon Electricity Board Engineers Union, said, “A technical fault caused the disruption. It was picked up during a maintenance testing.”

He said the outage was not an act of sabotage. The Ceylon Electricity Board, the largest electricity company in Sri Lanka, has set up a committee to investigate the blackout.

The Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka, the government body responsible for formulating policy and regulating power, water and other resources, has sought a detailed report from the company within a month.

Not everyone is convinced that the blackout was the result of a technical fault.

“The fully automated system control unit was built in 2018 and is supposed to prevent blackouts and restore power immediately if there is one,” said Malakha Wickremesinghe, president of the CEB General Workers Union.

“If the system could not restore power speedily, the engineer on duty or the equipment itself is at fault. In either case, our union has its doubts over the cause of the outage,” he said. “It does look like the act was intended.”

The new system was commissioned after the country was plunged into darkness for hours in March 2016. Sri Lanka also reeled from a severe power shortage last year when water levels in the country’s hydroelectricity projects were depleted considerably at the beginning of summer in March-April.

Wickremesinghe said that a unit of the Special Task Force, an elite paramilitary wing of the police specializing in counterterror operations, has been deployed at the the company’s’s System Control Center in Colombo.

“Why is the STF guarding it?” he said.

The task force had been deployed at the request of the power minister.

This is the first major crisis of the recently reelected government of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Recovering from the devastation of the civil war from 1983-2009, Sri Lanka has been trying to rebuild its economy over the past decade, during which its GDP grew at 5.3 percent per year, according to a World Bank report.

Energy is an obvious area of concern. The country has been trying to move away from traditional sources to renewable ones.

Duminda Dissanayake, minister of Solar, Wind and Hydro Power Generation Projects, recently invited support from foreign and private players, continuing a policy from the previous government.

In July, India’s largest power generator, NTPC, entered a 50-50 joint venture with the Ceylon Electricity Board to develop 300 megawatts at Kerawalapitiya. They also plan to develop a liquefied natural gas project.

Glasgow Caledonian University also has agreed to help Sri Lanka “address workforce shortages in renewable energy skills… so that it can deliver 80 percent of its energy from renewables.”

The previous government had approved the purchase of 150 megawatts of solar power for the third quarter of 2020 as a renewable resource, and another 150 megawatts for the fourth quarter.

This reportedly could save the Ceylon Electricity Board — currently reeling from losses — about $2.9 million. In the past three years, the company’s losses have climbed to $611 million.

(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Judy Isacoff.)