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How to think about Sri Lanka electricity tariffs
15 Mar, 2013 06:10:11
By Rohan Samarajiva
Mar 15, 2013 (LBO) - Suddenly, electricity is on everyone’s minds. I watched vox pop segments on a TV show (people on the street speaking to a camera). They were very upset. One even said that all that is left is to commit suicide.

So I thought it would good to gain some perspective. The Department of Census and Statistics conducts a large-sample representative survey called the Household Income and Expenditure Survey ( According to the last one conducted in 2009-10, the average household expenditure per month was LKR 31,331. Of this, the average spend on electricity was LKR 532 (1.7%). Surprisingly, this was considerably lower than average household expenditures on transportation (LKR 2,317 or 7.4%), education (LKR 1,018 or 3.2%), and even communication (LKR 755 or 2.4%).

With regard to electricity there is an assumption that the households that use the least electricity (less than 30 kwh) are the poorest. According to another representative-sample survey conducted by researchers at the University of Colombo for the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), the below 30 kwh group spent LKR 1,140 on education, LKR 1,000 on transportation, LKR 453 on communication and only LKR 120 on electricity. It is noteworthy that this “poor” segment of the population spent more on “free” education than on not-free transportation. The amounts spent on electricity among the entire population as well as the “poor” subset were among the lowest.

Why is a tariff increase needed?

“LKR 59 billion” is the short answer. This enormous amount, higher eventhan the subsidy of LKR 29.8 billion (LKR 29,800,000,000) spent on giving almost-free fertilizer for all crops in 2011, is represented by the inability of the CEB as well as the Petroleum Corporation to pay their bills on time. Money is owed to the Peoples’ Bank. The loss appears in multiple forms and is patched up using ad hoc methods. In the end, we all pay: through inflation and directly. CEB is broke and as a last resort, government pays with our money. Government decides; we pay.

Why is the CEB in such horrendous financial shape? According to our analysis, many factors contribute. Our consumption is increasing, with the country well on the way to connecting 100 percent of houses to the grid. We have a lot more appliances in our homes, as should be the case. In 2009-10, according to the Household Survey, 60 percent of households in the Western Province had refrigerators, with the country average being 40 percent (four in ten households). Television ownership was even higher, with 80 percent of all households owning one.

The increasing consumption can only be supplied with very high-cost electricity. The last five percent of electricity used to meet peak demand is responsible for almost 50 percent of the costs. The alternative is load-shedding (blackouts) at peak times. While this is commonplace in neighboring India, we do not like blackouts. Therefore, CEB cannot pay its bills and has to be bailed out by the government with our money repeatedly.

We have ended up in this mess because our political leaders failed to build the necessary low-cost generating capacity over the last two decades or more. The Norochchalai Plant was delayed 15 years, at least. From the last five yearswe have been talking about commissioning a 500 MW coal-powered generating station in Sampur by 2016. It has been all talk; no action. Not one sod has been turned.

Coal is increasing in price and natural gas is coming down. Where the plans to build right-sized, right-fuel plants that are both economical and fit our energy use profile? What is the status of planning for the power cable connecting us to the South Indian grid so that we can make better use of the right-sized plants?

When there are no low-cost electricity sources left, there are only two ways peak demand can be met: blackouts or expensive diesel-based electricity. So we use extremely costly imported diesel to give us 24/7 power.

Thankfully, Norochcholai Stage 1 was built. Otherwise, we would be in a much bigger hole today. Hopefully, Norochcholai Stage 2 will be connected to the grid next year. With that, we should be able to dispense with the most expensive generators for a few years until the next crisis hits.

Basis for a decision

This is the context within which the CEB has proposed a tariff revision and the PUCSL has to make a decision. No government can afford to pump LKR 59 billion into a bottomless pit. The ad hoc way in which pricing has been decided all these years has yielded a tariff structure that is wildly out of line with costs. Unless they are aligned and the government adopts a rational approach to supplying the electricity this middle-income country needs, no progress can be made.

The National Energy Policy of Sri Lanka gazetted on 10 June 2008 lays out the principles that must guide the PUCSL in its decision:

3.5 Adopting an Appropriate Pricing Policy

* The PUCSL will be empowered to regulate the energy sector including electricity and petroleum sub-sectors, to ensure effective implementation of the pricing policy.

* Appropriate pricing strategies will be formulated and implemented by PUCSL, which will prepare and regularly update plans to achieve a cost-reflective pricing policy for all commercial energy products (electricity, petroleum products, LPG) and implement them. These prices will include elements such as a reasonable return on equity, internal cash generation for capital investment and debt service.

* Necessary steps will be taken by PUCSL to ensure that the optimal energy supply expansion plans are implemented in time so that the cost reflective prices will be based on these optimal plans.

* A mechanism will be established by PUCSL to identify target groups of consumers that deserve special consideration owing to social needs or commercial realities.

In sum, prices must be cost-reflective. The question of subsidies must be separated from tariff design. Instead of throwing away LKR 59 billion on ad hoc bailouts and irrational subsidies, the government should focus subsidies on the families with the greatest difficulty in making ends meet, for example, by giving energy vouchers to Samurdhi households. It will take some time to set up such a system, while the new tariff must come into effect in April. This year’s tariff determination must include conditions for CEB to cooperate with the PUCSL to develop a better way to target and deliver subsidies as required by the National Energy Policy.

But interim relief is needed to cushion the impact for those who cannot easily afford the increase. The only quickly implementable solution is to give a credit, say of LKR 100, on the electricity bills of all households consuming less than 90 units a month (this should actually be pegged to average daily consumption for the billing period) may be implemented. A household consuming 30 kwh will pay an extra LKR 75 a month if the tariff proposal is implemented as proposed; a household consuming 60 kwh will pay LKR 174.15 more and a household consuming 90 kwh will pay LKR 432.60. The LKR 100 credit for this entire group will cost in the range of LKR 4.3 billion, which is way less than what the government pays to keep the government airlines afloat.

How do we get out of the hole?

Tariff design must contribute to bring down peak demand by around five percent. This is a policy objective pursued in many countries, especially in light of climate-change concerns. In our case, it is a necessity because that last five percent is busting the budgets of the government, the CEB, the CPC and of each household in the country.

If something is really important, one does not take half-hearted measures. One uses all the tools at one’s disposal. The most powerful tool is the price signal. The new tariff design that increases the unit price of electricity depending on level of consumption (e.g., a household with consumption below 90 units a month willpay LKR 8.50 per unit for all units, while a household with a consumption of 91 units will pay LKR 15 per unit, again for all units consumed), creates powerful incentives to reduce consumption. This must be supplemented by targeted messages reminding people to shift consumption from peak hours.

Demand side management can succeed if the price signals built into the new tariff structure are supplemented by incentives to high users. This will require additional investment in smartmeters, ICT based feedback mechanisms are so on.Ideally, investment in smart meters for a specified number of high-volume users could be condition of the tariff approval.

The window of opportunity created by a tariff design that approaches cost-reflectivity and the likely cutover of Norochcholai Stage 2 next year must be used to implement a serious demand side management program that will allow all our people to use more energy as befits citizens of a middle-income country, but more intelligently than now.Until the core problem of unaffordable electricity can be solved, all other reforms become meaningless. The 2013 tariff approval is the place to start.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to LBOs main navigation panel and click on the 'Choices' category.

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11. manesh Mar 18
Dear Rohan
Awesome analysis... how about transmission losses? getting rid of old AC plants and fridges will also be a solution. promoting LED tvs although high nitial investment cost..

staggering the transmision of popular tv programs to different regions of the country could be a solution...

10. A.Zand Mar 17
Unacceptable act by the government, the government should bear the added cost of electricity, and should give it a loss, it doesn't matter as the Sri lankan's living in this country isn't concerned about the higher cost of living, but the dilemma of Halal and other religious counter-trims affected, this of course was a sub due in return of getting all the attention diverted so the government could put in something like this, where are all the protestors?

why are they sleeping! They should go in to the streets and demand that they get justice for this corrupt system, The Hambantota project cost BILLIONS, which could have been used for necessity needs of upgrading the electricity fiasco, unfortunately the return was much higher by projecting these types of projects as they say the country develops, but we get half the share, pity on you Sri Lankan's for not standing up for your rights!

9. Rohan Samarajiva Mar 15
Total renewables in the mix is around 7%, including mini hydro and wind. The impact of solar will be miniscule at the present time. A cable to connect our grid to that of S India will look after many of these issues.
8. A citizen Mar 15
In Sri Lanka, public sentiments over run the reality in case of public sector decision making. However, if the sentiments fix in the right way we can do great things, permit me to write this Eg. A Car running from Kotawa to Pinnaduwa pays Rs. 400 for a simple one Journey. I am taking the lowest tariffs on one full journey. Pls see.

Same people are having concerns over paying a Rs. 500 more on the MONTHLY electricity bill. We need to understand one thing there is a cost to provide you the electricity. There is a challenge on identifying the fair cost of electricity. If someone goes to buy a shirt from a shop, if the shop is charging unaffordable price he/she can go to another shop, In case of utility there is no choice for consumer. They have to deal with the price determined by the seller (CEB). As consumers we know the situation when sellers fix the price.

They naturally fix the price higher than the COST. To avoid this unfair situation Regulatory Mechanism has come to the Picture. There are issues in the effectiveness of the regulatory system.

Lack of information is one of the most difficulties that regulators face throughout the world. Public Consultation has an opportunity for people who know about the Sector to bring those ideas to the attention of CEB. High cost of energy is our own problem. This is not a problem of donor agency to come and show us how to deal with it. It is our problem. We have shown to rest of the world that we can find our own solutions. This is an opportunity, let’s work together and find solutions.

7. Prasad Mar 15
Good article. However I strongly reccomend to price electricity based on the cost per unit to CEB. This will save billions of our hardly earned money consumed for Petrolium oil. Higher prices means we will save more and more. Smart meters means further improved system.
6. Niro Mar 15
I guess net metering by CEB compound problems with demand side management.

People who produce electricity using Solar panels pump electricity to the grid during day time, and consume electricity during night time.

With the current system, with net metering, they offset the consumption by production. However, they consume electricity during the peak demand (6PM - 9PM) where the cost of production per unit is at its peak.

Net metering benefits the customer, unfortunately this scheme compounds the losses at CEB as it has to generate electricity during the peak hours at high cost.

RS: any thoughts?

5. IP Mar 15
Mr.Rohan I have been reading your articles for along time! and its seems to me that you live in a different world! and Sad to say you are not qualified to write about economic articles at all! As you don't have the basic knowledge. People like you try to fool innocent people and lives your life comfortably using their
4. Rohan Samarajiva Mar 15
There are no time-of-day tariffs for residential customers at present. Getting smart meters out to a significant proportion, esp to those who are high users such as apartment complexes, will lay the ground work for introduction of such tariffs quickly. That will be critical for effective demand-side management.

We seem to have done quite well with energy saving bulbs even without subsidy programs.

I am not denying the existence of corruption, inefficiency, etc. But their effects are dwarfed by the pass-through effects of burning expensive diesel and fuel oil to meet peak demand. Once we get the costs down to a reasonable level, we can (and should) focus on structural reforms that address inefficiency and corruption.

3. Mash Mar 15
The article is very informative with lot of facts.
If we are to strictly discuss the loss of CEB it is my belief that the non payment of debtors (The main culprits with big tags are government institutions), corruption and inefficiencies also fuel the said loss.

So it appears that the government is taking the easy way out by taxing the people instead of making every efforts to take corrective actions so that the people will not be burden. The Govt could direct their own entities to make payments for all their dues, as they are supposed to operate from the money allocated through the budget which is again paid by us. It appears people being doubled taxed

2. Murtaza Mar 15
There is a case for a partial subsidy on 2 LED bulbs each for low income households - this will reducing demand in the peak hour. The CEB can administer the sale and eligibility would depend on energy usage below 30 units.
1. Curious Mar 15
What is the cost of a smart meter? Is there a possibility where - say a large household can opt for a time of day tariff?

Are there any precedents in other countries where such measures have been successful?