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Sri Lanka President Maithripala Sirisena was invited this week by his counterparts in India and France to attend the International Solar Conference after the country joined the alliance earlier this month. It is a chance for Sri Lanka to join the energy revolution taking over the world and find more sustainable ways to power its development.  

The International Solar Alliance (ISA) comprises more than 121 countries, most of them being sunshine countries, which come either completely or partly between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. The alliance’s primary objective is to work for efficient exploitation of solar energy to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. This initiative was first proposed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a speech in November 2015 at Wembley Stadium, in which he referred to sunshine countries as Suryaputra (“Sons of the Sun”). The alliance is a treaty-based inter-governmental organisation.

But for Sri Lanka, mired in a battle of wills between State power monopoly, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), and the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), forging ahead with a comprehensive and progressive energy plan seems a distant dream at this point. Energy should be a platform for sustainable growth and not limited to just narrow decisions based on short-term costs. It is critical that Sri Lanka gets its energy combination right and does so quickly. 

In 2016, the Government launched a ‘Battle for Solar Energy’ initiative which aims to add 220 megawatts of clean power to the country’s energy grid by 2020, or about 10% of the country’s current daily electricity demand. By 2025, the country hopes to boost its solar power output to 1,000 megawatts to meet fast-growing power needs. But shifting away from coal and other fossil fuel power to renewables will be a challenge. Solar power has the potential to meet 32% of Sri Lanka’s annual power demand of around 10,500 gigawatts – but so far just 0.01% of that potential has been developed, according to the Sri Lanka energy sector development plan for 2015-2025.

Currently about 3% of Sri Lanka’s energy demand is met by renewables such as wind and solar. Hydropower provides about half of the country’s electricity during the wet season, but during the dry season, between August and October, 81% of the island’s power needs are met by fossil fuels, over half of that from coal. 

The cheapest entry-level home solar panel installation costs over Rs. 200,000 because the materials must be imported and face import duties. Compared to that, even larger users of household power pay only around Rs. 5,000 a month in electricity bills.

Cheaper costs for panels, free installation, Government help in maintaining panels and higher Government payment for solar energy produced for the national grid are some of the incentives recommended by experts, but it would mean larger allocations of resources than what might be possible for an already fiscally-constrained Government.

The world is spending heavily on renewable energy and finding its higher returns are reshaping the direction of the energy industry for decades to come. Sri Lanka needs to find its place in this trend and do so with the future in mind. India by contrast has set in motion ambitious plans which if realised will put it ahead of China on renewables. Sri Lanka cannot afford to fall behind.

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