Need for establishing a national electricity consumer movement
By Asoka Abegunawardana

Having electricity for domestic requirements is a basic need of the modern human. It is the duty of the government to provide the infrastructural facilities to provide access to electricity. The successive governments during the last 20 years with the financial assistance of multi lateral agencies and foreign governments took steps to increase the electrification rate of Sri Lanka from 30 per cent to 85 per cent; a great achievement. A further 03 per cent of the population has established stand alone renewable power generation schemes financed by lending and grant schemes of the World Bank. 

 

Priority should be given to under-privileged segments of the society that has access neither to national grid nor to renewable energy technologies. The Government is determined to extend the grid to every corner of the country however it is also important to have an integrated plan to provide alternative energy technologies to remote areas where grid extension is not economically feasible. The government budget has allocated funds to provide a grant of Rs. 10,000 per household to get off-grid energy technologies however during the past three years the administration has failed to establish a mechanism to release the funds. The voice of the off-grid communities is still unheard. The Government has also provided a fuel subsidy to the Samurdhi recipients who do not have access to grid. However this subsidy is not available for the Samurdhi recipients having off-grid renewable energy technologies. It has been an obstacle to maintaining the off-grid schemes as low-income off-grid power communities are finding it difficult to meet the operation and maintenance of the schemes.

The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) which is managing the national electricity grid is currently running at a loss. The Government has to provide a subsidy over Rs. 30 Billion to bridge the gap in 2008. This implies that all citizens have to contribute to it. Accordingly the 15 per cent of the population that do not have access to national grid too has also indirectly contributed to meet the running cost of the national grid. This is an injustice to this under-privileged segment in the society. It is necessary to recover the national grid related expenses from the grid-connected consumers; without burdening the low-income off-grid families.  

The grid-connected consumers also have a number of unresolved issues. There are complaints that the grid connection fees are high and there are delays in giving the grid connections even after making the relevant payments to the utility. This situation in the power sector is very much similar to the situation which existed in the telecommunication industry before the sector reforms. There are concerns that the power sector utility charges exorbitant fees for providing minor services such as changing names of the owners which is a matter of simple paper work. In some areas the recommended electricity voltage levels are not maintained by the utility, causing hardships to the consumers such as damage caused to the electrical appliances. Frequent breakdowns and delays in rectifying the faults is also a matter of concern to the electricity consumers in certain areas of Sri Lanka. There are complaints that the utility miscategorizes consumers in order to charge a higher fee for electricity. As an example, there are instances of Industrial Purpose consumers are arbitrarily categorized as General Purpose consumers to get higher revenue for the utility. The final decision was in the hands of the utility and the consumers are left helpless.

Government initiatives in the power sector have created an enabling environment to rectify the situation. The new electricity act which was enacted this year is a positive step towards addressing these consumer issues. With the new act the power sector regulator the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) was delegated with the power to look into the issues of the consumer.

The present electricity tariff structure is not the ideal scheme to protect the domestic low income consumer. Electricity is a basic need of the modern human however it can also be used as a luxury item. The electrical appliances such as TV and bulbs can be considered as items used to meet the basic needs whereas Air Conditioning can be considered a luxury. The domestic sector consumption distribution pattern in Sri Lanka should be analyzed to get a clear picture of demarcation line between basic needs and luxury wants.

The electricity consumption of about 75 per cent of the domestic consumers is only 45 per cent of the total domestic sector consumption. The households coming under this consumer group consume less that 90 units per month. Accordingly, it is fair to consider the basic electricity requirement of the domestic sector in Sri Lanka as 90 units per month at present. On the other hand the consumption of the balance 25 per cent of the domestic consumers is as high as 55 per cent of total domestic sector consumption. Incidentally these same percentages of 45 per cent to 55 per cent apply to annual generation of electricity from hydro power and oil, respectively. This shows that the annual hydro power generation is sufficient to meet the demand of the 75 per cent of the domestic consumers who consume less than 90 units per month. Hydropower delivered unit cost is about Rs. 4 and the oil fired unit cost is over Rs. 20. The costly oil fired power plants have to be operated to meet the demand of the higher electricity consuming group. These plants are operated not for satisfying the basic electricity requirement of the 75 per cent of the consumers. There is a popular myth that the lower power consuming groups are provided with electricity at a subsidized price, however the actual situation is the opposite. The expensive oil fired power is produced to meet the luxury requirement of the affluent. But, they are provided electricity at a subsidized rate. The poor are paying for the affluent. It is necessary to introduce a better tariff structure to rectify this discrimination.

The international climate catastrophe negotiations are gaining momentum currently to strike a balance between the developed and developing world regarding CO2 emissions reductions. The developing world is insisting the developed world commit and taking actions to reduce their emissions level to 80 per cent against 1990 level by 2050. The developed world on the other hand is insisting the developing world commit and taking actions to reduce their CO2 emissions level by 30 per cent against 1990 level by 2050 to get the global average to the 50 per cent reduction mark for limiting the global warming to 20C. Contrary to what's happening at the negotiating tables Sri Lanka by 2005 has increased it CO2 emissions levels by 230 per cent and the power sector expansion plans if implemented as proposed will increase the CO2 emissions level to 820 per cent by 2020. The solution to this crisis in Sri Lanka is establishing renewable energy infrastructure. Accordingly, the Government has offered a cost reflective renewable energy Power Purchasing tariff for the private sector to build the renewable energy infrastructure facilities. The scheme however has achieved a little success in meeting this challenge.

The renewable energy potential is not concentrated but scattered in nature. Government cannot tap this scattered renewable energy potential in Sri Lanka on its own. The people of Sri Lanka need to get together and establish the infrastructure to tap this renewable energy potential scattered island-wide by tapping the potential in their own surroundings. The Government for their part has taken the initiative to get the support of the electricity consumers to produce energy by introducing the Net-Metering Scheme in addition to the already existing Renewable Energy PPA scheme. Unfortunately the scheme currently available is inadequate to give the expected kick start.  It is the responsibility of the electricity consumers to respond to this initiative of the government positively and highlight the weaknesses in this scheme and to come up with recommendations for rectifying the situation.

Taking into account all these issues in the power sector and the enabling environment created by the Government, having a well-organized national electricity consumers’ movement would be handy. The role played by the Federation of Electricity Consumer Societies (FECS) to look after the needs of the off-grid renewable energy users is noteworthy, however organizing the rest of the off-grid communities and the on-grid consumers under one umbrella should be a very important step forward not only to meet the aspiration of the electricity consumers but also to meet the future challenges of the nation for building the power sector infrastructure for the post fossil fuel era.