Solar Energy: Canada Helps Sri Lanka Make History


Solar energy panels being sold in a roadside shop in Sri Lanka (courtesy of Lalith Gunaratne)

A remarkable initiative that put Sri Lanka on the global solar energy map grew out of a Canadian link. The story combines an idea ahead of its time, entrepreneurship, adventure, friendship, multinational and multiorganizational cooperation.

Solar energy in rural areas is the dream 

In the mid 1980s Sri Lanka had over two million homes without electricity. Thus there was no energy to power water pumps, irrigate farm land or provide lighting to deter elephants or to allow students to study or play  cricket in the evenings.

In 1985, three self described drifters, two of them young Canadians of Sri Lankan origin were travelling the world when they decided to pursue their solar energy dream for Sri Lanka.

The 2 Ray(e)s 

Lalith Gunaratne (the engineer), Viren Perera (the economist) and Pradip Jayawardene (the marketer) got advice from Sri Lanka’s well known inventor, Ray Wijewardene, then they returned to Canada to raise money and get technical help. A small company, TPK Solar, founded by Carleton University electronics Professor Dr. Raye Thomas, provided the turnkey solar module production line. TPK was one of the first to set up solar factories in India, China, Sri Lanka and in Zimbabwe. Training in Sri Lanka was done by, then TPK Solar R&D Manager, now Supan Technologies President, Dr. Sudh Varma, an Indian born Canadian. They established a Negombo factory with 30 workers and 130 trained youth village sales agents who sold 50 solar modules per month. The factory was inaugurated by their friend, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, who had initially brought together and encouraged the Sri Lankans.

A group photograph of the “Drifters” with Sir Arthur C. Clarke (courtesy of Lalith Gunaratne)

An idea ahead of its time? 

When Dr. Thomas started work in solar energy in 1973 with National Research Council of Canada funding, Canada had so little knowledge of the field that Dr. Thomas needed Dr. Varma (whom he met through a Canadian International Development Agency project) to come to Canada to help produce the solar panels. Dr. Varma then went to Sri Lanka to train staff to implement the system in Sri Lanka’s villages. Dr. Thomas’s company, TPK Solar, was undercapitalized and there was a very small offgrid market in Canada. When Dr. Thomas reflects today on solar energy growth, he is elated. “What is happening now is what I tried to make happen in the 1980s”.

The endeavour against tremendous odds was sufficiently successful that Lalith Gunaratne, an engineering graduate of Toronto’s Seneca College, received the 1995 “Outstanding Technical Achievement Award” from the Ontario Association of Certified Engineering Technicians and Technologists. Six years earlier, the Toronto Star featured their story under the title “Trio hope their solar panels will light up Third World”. The President of Sri Lanka gave Pradip Jayawardene a prize for excellence in entrepreneurship in 2005.

A Toronto Star newspaper article about the solar energy project in Sri Lanka

Today solar energy is a rapidly growing business, a hot topic in Ontario and around the world and a field reality in Sri Lanka where there are 150,000 solar home systems. The worldwide industry includes India and China as major solar energy producers. Sri Lanka operates four solar energy companies, including Pradip Jayawardene’s one, Suryavahini. He is not Canadian but worked in Canada on the solar project from 1982-86. Sri Lanka today is one of the larger per capita solar energy markets in the world and a model for many other countries.

Pradip Jawawardene states, “our greatest achievement was to create a sustainable business model to take solar energy to rural houses. The model has been replicated elsewhere and Bangladesh (where their solar programme was modeled on our program) has now gone well past a million installed solar houses”.

Multinational and multi-organizational cooperation 

The Canadians and Sri Lankan demonstrated an uncanny private sector ability to bring together other people from various organizations and countries to make their dream a reality. They tapped technical expertise from India, got one million rupees as start-up capital from various Sri Lankan Government banking institutions, learned from solar energy project experience in Zimbabwe and China, brought investment from Malaysia (Azmi Wan Hamza), USAID funding with Coopers Lybrand Management for a feasibility study, World Bank and Sarvodaya’s SEEDs financing and loan collection support in the villages. Finally, Shell invested US$2 million to create a network of solar centres and brought in other companies.

Entrepreneurship, friendship and adventure and where it leads 

The three “drifters” who came to Sri Lanka in 1985 threw themselves into a business that lurched close to disaster nearly every week, whether from JVP insurrection threats, instability or undercapitalization. A sense of adventure, friendship and “can do” entrepreneurship kept them afloat for years before they closed the factory in 1993 and went on to other things.

Today, Pradip Jayawardene, Lalith Gunaratne, Dr. Thomas and Dr. Varma are still in the solar energy business. Thomas also handcrafts traditional Irish drums and Varma spent years in space research. Viren Perera founded Asia Capital and as a venture capitalist formed one of the largest IPOs in Sri Lanka involving the Oberoi and TransAsia/Cinnamon Lakeside hotels. His cousin, Lalith Gunaratne, operates “Sage Training” which focuses on human resource development and leadership training. He was the instigator behind the Energy Forum in Sri Lanka to promote renewable and rural energy. He globe trotted for years to share Sri Lankan solar energy experience with others and returned to Canada in September 2011, to reunite with Dr. Thomas and Dr. Varma to scale up the solar business as opportunities expand.

The technical achievement award ceremony with Lalith Gunaratne in Toronto (courtesy of Lalith Gunaratne)


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