In a detailed critique of the recently gazetted Sri Lanka Electricity Bill dated 17 April 2024, SLPP Member of Parliament Dr. Charitha Herath has highlighted several critical observations and concerns.

Dr. Herath commended the efforts made to enhance the Bill compared to previous drafts, acknowledging the considerable refinement and comprehensive nature of the latest version. However, he also identified fundamental issues within the draft, noting the need for further scrutiny and discussion.

Following is the full letter sent to Minister Wijesekera;

Having reviewed the recently published Sri Lanka Electricity Bill in the gazette, I wish to express my appreciation for the improvements made compared to previous drafts. It’s evident that considerable effort has been invested in refining this version of the bill, making it notably more comprehensive and effective.

Nevertheless, I have identified some fundamental issues in this draft as well. I believe that the forthcoming discussions on this draft will provide an opportunity to address these concerns. Given that the drafting committee appears to have finalised their positions on the matter, I suggest that the proposed changes to the bill should be subjected to scrutiny first in the Supreme Court and subsequently in the Parliament. I anticipate that certain comments and issues regarding the bill will be raised during the legal submission to the courts and in the policymaking exercise within the Parliament.

In the meantime, I wanted to share some of the issues I have noticed at the forefront of the bill with you. I believe your consideration, as the incumbent Minister of Power and Energy, is crucial regarding these matters. Thus, I aim to bring these issues into the national discussion surrounding this significant legislative process.

Reforms are needed

As many would concur, I share the belief that reforms in the Power and Energy sector are paramount. This necessity has been a focal point in policy-level discussions over the past two decades. The current regulations governing the Power Sector, established under the Ceylon Electricity Board Act No. 17 of 1969 and the Electricity Act No. 20 of 2009, have highlighted numerous lapses and legal complexities. These issues have resulted in delays and, in some cases, hindered the development within the sector.

In my view, the reform requirement mentioned above was not adequately addressed by the gazetted bill on 17/4/2024. Instead, it appears to provide excessive leeway for political actors to intervene in the regulatory mechanism of the Power sector. In essence, the proposed bill could exacerbate existing difficulties in certain areas and potentially delegate decision-making power entirely to political entities.

When examining international experiences, power sector reforms typically unfold in three stages:

  1. Unbundling and corporatisation, often adopting a single buyer model
  2. Establishment of a wholesale market
  3. Establishment of a retail market

These stages represent a structured approach to reform aimed at enhancing efficiency and promoting competition within the sector.

The overarching goal of reform experiences is to transform initially highly regulated existing markets, where the regulator decides on allowed Revenue and Returns of Investment (ROI) except Power Purchasing Agreements (PPAs). Consequently, reforms typically advance towards deregulation, wherein prices are determined through competition. This progression aims to foster greater market efficiency and encourage innovation within the sector.

The gazetted Bill, dated 18.04.2024, outlines an initial proposal for unbundling and corporatisation, operating within a single buyer model. Under this framework, the National System Operator (NSO) is tasked with purchasing electricity from Generation Companies (Gencos) and subsequently selling it to Distribution Companies (Discos). Additionally, the bill aims to establish a wholesale market model, wherein prices are determined through competition between Gencos and Discos. This approach signifies a pivotal step towards fostering market efficiency and promoting competition within the sector.

Given that approximately 85% of the cost of electricity in Sri Lanka is attributed to generation, it is imperative to prioritise the establishment of competition within the generation sector. Therefore, in alignment with the overarching reform expectations, it is crucial to thoroughly examine the gazetted bill. This careful scrutiny will ensure that the proposed reforms effectively address the need for competition in the generation sector, ultimately contributing to greater efficiency and affordability in the electricity market.

Some observations

  1. In order to effectively implement new reforms in the Power Sector, there are two crucial aspects to consider at a conceptual level. Firstly, it is imperative to consult and involve the main stakeholders of the industry in the proposed legal and institutional reforms. It is essential to ensure that their voices are heard and that they are actively engaged in the process, regardless of whether all stakeholders are in agreement with the Bill. Secondly, it is vital to ensure that the proposed reforms adequately address the core issues at hand. Unfortunately, it is my belief that the Government has failed to address both of these highly important issues.
  2. The proposed bill signifies a notable shift towards increased politicisation of the Electricity Sector. It is clear that key institutions to be established under this bill will be subject to substantial political influence. For example, following the bill’s passage, entities like the Long Term Generation Expansion Plan (LTGEP), National System Operator (NSO), Power Sector Reform Secretariat (PSRS), and certain functions of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) will come under direct political control.

a. The independence of successor companies and corporate good governance will no longer be maintained, as management control will now rest with the Minister in Charge.

b. The Electricity Reform Act no 28 of 2002(that was not implemented due to political reasons)had proposed the establishment of an independent agency known as the “Monitoring and Advisory Committee” to spearhead the reform project. This committee was intended to have the authority to advise the Minister on the appointment and dismissal of directors of the proposed successor companies. However, the recently gazetted new Bill (17/04/2024) does not include this independent mechanism, giving the Minister the power to appoint the Board of Directors of the successor companies. Furthermore, the Minister’s consent is now required for the appointment of the CEO of NSO, as outlined in Section 10 (1)(b) & (c) of the new Bill.

c. The “Long Term Power System Development Plan” is formulated by NSO and then forwarded to the Minister for assessment, followed by submission to the Cabinet for approval (as outlined in the recently gazetted Bill, Section 10 (7) (b)).

d. Weakening of the Regulator, PUCSL

i) The PUCSL no longer holds the power to approve the “Long Term Power System Development Plan” as it has been transferred to the Cabinet of Ministers, as per the newly gazetted Bill, Section 10 (7) (b).

ii) According to Section 3(1) (a) of the Sri Lanka Electricity Act 2009, the PUCSL has the authority to provide advice to the Government on matters within their jurisdiction. Nevertheless, the recently gazetted Bill has revoked these powers and transferred them to the National Electricity Advisory Council, which will be appointed by the Minister (new Bill, Section 3 (3)).

e. According to Section 20 (2) of the Bill that was gazetted in December 2023, the Regulator is required to simply “inform the Minister” when granting licenses for generation, transmission, and distribution. However, in the recently gazetted Bill, the Regulator now needs to seek the “concurrence of the Minister” before granting licenses.

f. The Bill’s Section 4 (10) includes provisions that enable the bypassing of competitive tendering through the provision of incentives to select technologies.

  1. Illogical timeline – Proposed approach to rescind the current Acts in 6 months without any preconditions, unveiling the Transfer Plan after the specified date, and more.

a. As per the new Act, the functions currently executed by CEB will be transferred to the newly formed successor companies within a maximum duration of six months. Section 1 (2) of the Act ensures automatic appointment within this timeframe.

b. The process of setting up new successor companies includes drafting detailed Memorandums and Articles of Associations, reallocating assets, liabilities, and human resources, preparing new balance sheets, creating financial models for tariff development, and finalising the incorporation of other supporting functions. The unrealistic timeline proposed in this new Act is a significant issue.

c. It’s not just the impracticality, the legality of forming companies according to a transfer plan which has not been approved and gazetted is also another serious issue.

  1. Electricity pricing – Guaranteeing fair returns, measures to establish private monopolies, minister directs policy guidelines to encourage specific projects/technologies, no safeguards for regional trade below domestic market prices, permitting current generation licensees to engage with distribution licensees before entering the wholesale market.

a. The increase in electricity prices is tied to the requirement for a justifiable return on investment as outlined in the recently published Bill, Section 29(5) and (9)(a). This will cause prices to rise, with the Regulator being legally required to ensure that profits are kept at a reasonable level. In times of high inflation or interest rates, electricity prices may see an uptick. The assurance of a reasonable ROI can be accomplished through tariff policies, which are not legally mandated, giving the Regulator the ability to lower profits during tough economic times.

i) Granting free access and allowing captive generation without comprehensive study as stipulated under Section 12 could lead to the general public being unable to access cost-effective power plants, ultimately causing prices to escalate.

ii) Section 30(4) permits distribution licensees to engage in power purchase agreements with generation licensees before the Wholesale Electricity Market is established. The competition between distribution licensees for access to inexpensive power plants will drive up prices.

b. In the December 2023 gazetted Bill, there was a provision that prohibited the acquisition of combinations of licences without any qualifications (Section 19 (6)). However, in the new Bill, this prohibition only applies if a company owns more than 50% of the ownership. For instance, if a company owns 49% of the National Network service provider, it can still acquire a Distribution licence and shares of multiple other companies as long as its ownership remains below 50%. Additionally, with the introduction of Additional Transmission Licenses, it is possible for a few companies to have control over more than 50% of the National Grid.

i) Private companies have been granted Additional Transmission Licences under the new Bill, as stated in Section 14 (2). Nevertheless, Section 10 does not grant the NSO the authority to utilise transmission lines owned by these Additional Transmission Licensees in order to ensure a consistent electricity supply.

ii) The new Act does not include any provisions to address monopolies, anti-competitive practices, collusion, abuses of dominant position, and merger situations that could impact competition in the Electricity Industry. Rather than enacting specific laws to combat these issues, Section 28 grants the Minister the authority to issue policy guidelines.

c. Additionally, as per Section 10(13) (b), it is stipulated that the terms of electricity trading with foreign nations must receive approval from the Cabinet of Ministers. Given that this trading has a direct impact on the sovereignty of the nation, these terms should be ratified by Parliament, especially for fundamental conditions.

i) The exportation of low-cost renewable energy to other countries may result in the deprivation of citizens from accessing affordable electricity. Regional trading lacks protection against prices below the local market costs.

Stakeholders and policymakers will have limited avenues for correcting the draft bill once it has been gazetted and tabled in Parliament. One option is to seek determinations from the Supreme Court, while the other is to propose amendments during the Committee Stage of the Parliamentary debate. However, given the current Government’s approach to passing Acts in Parliament, there are doubts about the feasibility of making amendments through the Parliamentary process. The considerable majority power of SLPP MPs is likely to heavily influence and potentially override discussions on the issue within Parliament.

I urge the Honourable Minister to carefully consider the observations outlined above and take necessary steps to amend the bill accordingly from the Government side. Furthermore, I strongly encourage the Honourable Minister to convey these observations to your advisory council for their expert input and recommendations in rectifying the identified issues. This proactive approach will ensure that the bill is revised comprehensively to address concerns and uphold the principles of fairness and effectiveness in the reform process.

Lastly, I would like to reference an important excerpt from Sally Hunt’s influential book, “Making Competition Work” (2002), which directly relates to the subject under discussion here: “In the US energy industry, it is fairly clear that the major problems with the old structure lay in the generation part of the industry – the efficiency of the investment decision, its regulation, and the tendency for decisions on generation to become politicised” (p. 28).

What I have observed throughout the process of drafting the new Electricity Act is a concerning trend towards politicisation of decisions regarding generation. I strongly urge you to take decisive steps to halt this trend and address the issues present in the bill accordingly. It is imperative that we uphold the integrity of the legislative process and prioritise the best interests of the public and the energy sector as a whole.

(Daily FT)

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