COLOMBO – Among the pioneers in Sri Lanka’s early days in solar power generation, consulting for multinational agencies on the benefits of renewables or facilitating a tour for Maldivian energy officials, Lalith Gunaratne has come a full circle from his ‘exploits’ — some 30 years later and still fit-as-a-fiddle – and is now keen to [...]

Business Times

Sri Lanka needs smart grids, solar power pioneer says


COLOMBO – Among the pioneers in Sri Lanka’s early days in solar power generation, consulting for multinational agencies on the benefits of renewables or facilitating a tour for Maldivian energy officials, Lalith Gunaratne has come a full circle from his ‘exploits’ — some 30 years later and still fit-as-a-fiddle – and is now keen to engage Sri Lankan policymakers on the country’s future energy policy.

Lalith Gunaratne (now);

Pragmatic and more knowledgeable now on energy, the Canadian-based Sri Lankan engineer and business developer says the future lies in using a mix of renewable and non-renewable energy sources.

“We need to bring people (proponents of different energy sources) in this sector together in a non-threatening discourse. We need governments and policymakers to look at issues in a rational way as there are a lot of competencies here but unfortunately everyone is operating in silos and protecting their territories,” he says, in a relaxed interview in Colombo last week during a trip to discuss energy options for the country plus his own business interests.

For those readers who are unaware, Mr. Gunaratne (passing out as a mechanical engineer) and his cousin, Viren Perera (acquiring a degree in finance), met with another friend in Toronto – Pradip Jayewardene and thereby cemented a relationship that led to Sri Lanka’s first solar power panels being installed in farming homes in the mid-1980s. Their company Suntec pioneered the solar power revolution in rural Sri Lanka and eventually the company was sold to Shell.

However all that excitement in solar power happened only after the adventurous duo (Gunaratne and Perera) drove a Volkswagen Camper across Europe and Asia, occasionally sleeping in farmhouses, cafes and other rough accommodation. The rigorous but adventurous journey helped them to face many challenges thereafter including occasional societal ridicule over efforts to energise rural farmers. “We were treated like Gods by the villagers though the local MP was not happy because it was affecting his vote-for-electric power campaign,” Mr. Gunaratne recalled. At that time (1985) just 25 per cent of the country was electrified. Today 9o per cent of the country has power. Likewise a lot of water has also flown under the bridge since those Suntec days.

File picture of the solar power pioneer (right) with a Suntec panel in the mid-1980s.

While Mr. Gunaratne continues his work in consulting and the promotion of renewables, rather a mix of all appropriate energy, his two colleagues have moved on to other pursuits. The still, dapper Ottawa-based Sri Lankan is an avid student of yoga, mindfulness and an expert in martial arts, keeping fit all the time (‘It’s like a hobby now”). He has his own consultancy in management training and mindfulness, the latter of which helps him in maintaining a strong work-home balance. His training in the art of mindfulness helps to counter anger, disappointment, tragedy and even happiness (over-excitement).

One of his goals, apart from pursuing business opportunities in Sri Lanka (“it’s a great time to invest in some productive ventures”), is to hopefully bring together all the players in the energy sector and develop policies that would eventually help Sri Lanka have the best energy mix in the next 20 to 30 years.

“Utilities and regulators need to have an open mind without being short-sighted with various vested interests. They need to look at issues in a practical, non-utopian way.

We need a holistic programme. At the moment there is a lack of awareness and a will to learn from others,” he said.

He cites the example of the Reunion Islands where he facilitated (as consultant) a tour of that tiny country’s 800 MW of power plants for a delegation of Maldivian officials. The plants were powered by a mix of coal, bagasse, solar, wind and waste energy with each source being used when energy could be generated from that source. For example solar was best used during the day while power from bagasse came during the sugar harvesting season, optimising on everything they had and with the best available option.

Mr. Gunaratne, who met several experts and policymakers during his trip, believes the future in energy lies in ‘smart’, decentralised grids which are more effective because based on the area, “you set up your own power plant”.

“I am a pragmatist. Solar and wind power are transient energy sources. There is a current misconception that these are eternal day-night energy sources. The reality is that when the sun goes down, there is no energy. The same applies to wind. You need a continuous power source and until a battery bank is created that can store 10 MW, one cannot rely solely on wind and solar power,” he asserts.

Explaining the practicality of using mix of renewables and non-renewables, he says that if for example the Western Province has a heavy use of ACs during the day then solar power is the answer. This might not be the case in Nuwara Eliya, Galle or Kandy where each area has a different need to which a specific power option should be used.

“So you need to look at these areas separately and that is where decentralisation comes in. We need to be practical and use a mix of power sources. Sometimes we don’t think in a systemic way. We say we have the sun and the wind but we don’t consider the practical realities … the capacity, the load factors, etc.”

Decentralisation is a sensitive word not only in Sri Lanka but in many parts of the world, and particularly when it comes to power distribution.

Governments exercise a lot of power through power utilities and their distribution and oppose decentralisation which means taking ‘power’ away from the centre and making it a region-by-region issue.

Even in Canada, where he lives, there is big switch to renewables but the public utilities are not in favour of switching “because they then lose their grip on the people,” he says alluding to his 1980s example of local politicians holding voters to ransom by promising electricity in exchange for their votes.

“Governments generally depend on people’s needs and if there is no need then the Government (of the day) has a problem,” he says.

Since exiting from Suntec, Mr. Gunaratne has been involved as an energy consultant with the World Bank, British Council, the EU and many other agencies working in countries like Uganda, Bangladesh, Nepal, Ethiopia, Vietnam and Sri Lanka. His practice of ‘mindfulness’ and yoga not only helps keep him in tip-top shape but also enables a clear and uncluttered mind to think, breathe and generate ideas and energy options.

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