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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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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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