Sri Lanka is facing its worst economic crisis since independence. A financial crisis and the resulting shortage of foreign currency led to an inability to purchase the necessary quantities of fuel, caused restrictions in the uninterrupted supply of electricity, created commodity shortages and generated much disenchantment at the regard to the governance of the country.
The severity of the energy crisis is visible and felt across the island. From the perspective of fuel consumption, long queues are observed at gas stations, while electricity generation facilities are reduced, thus subjecting the country to power cuts for many hours by day. Affecting industries of all sizes, hurting productivity and deterring potential investment from investors reluctant to enter the market, the need of the hour is a resolution to the economic crisis. However, in the long term, Sri Lanka needs to adopt a strategic energy policy to meet the growing demand.
Decades ago, the electrification of countries led to massive improvements in a plethora of areas. Although then considered a sign of development, electricity is now a necessity. Yet reliance on fossil fuels exacerbates the problems as demand continues to grow and supply remains limited as prices fluctuate in the global market. Although alternatives have been viable and available for decades, the shift from high carbon options to a more environmentally friendly resort has been gradual but consistent.
In light of the energy crisis that has hit Sri Lanka, it is timely to re-examine the need for green energy options. The abundance of sources makes this the preferred option, but capital and technology remain the main obstacles. At this point, Sri Lanka needs to strategize for the future with more emphasis on securing technical support, recommitting to increased transition to renewable energy and understanding successful examples. of the region.
A co-publication by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in 2017 highlighted Sri Lanka’s progress in the electricity sector, with production quadrupling between 1992 and 2016; access to electricity having reached 100% at the end of 2016, against only 50% in 1990; the technical loss in transmission and distribution being less than 10%, which they said implied efficient operation; and there has been the establishment of an independent regulator for the electricity sector – the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL).
Sri Lanka was also identified among the 43 countries of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) that had agreed to produce 100% electricity by renewable means by 2050 at the latest, and had signed the declaration during the 22nd Conference. of the Parties (COP22) of the United Nations. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Morocco. Although considered “very ambitious” by AfDB and UNDP at the time given that the country expected “a sharp increase in electricity consumption per capita for the coming years”, the commitment remains commendable. and should be vigorously pursued.
The “Sri Lanka Energy Sector Development Plan for a Knowledge-Based Economy” for the period 2015 to 2025 noted that to meet energy needs, the country should “import 02 MMT of crude oil, 04 MMT of refined petroleum products and 2.25 MMT of coal per year. This costs the government about $5 billion in foreign exchange, or almost 25% of its import expenditure and nearly 50% of its total export earnings, which weighs heavily on its trade balance and exchange rates.
The current crisis in Sri Lanka is no small problem that will fade away. This is not a problem that will be solved simply with the passage of time. This is a crisis of national proportions that requires strategic action to address the issues of the day, while preparing for those that will be encountered in the months and years to come.
Therefore, the signing of an agreement between Indian and Sri Lankan institutions for a joint venture to establish a solar power plant in Sampur may have been the only good news that Sri Lankans received in a few weeks, but that would yield long term results. term and help meet a much needed requirement in Sri Lanka. Ten years ago, plans were underway to establish a joint coal-fired power station in Sampur, but were later shelved due to widespread criticism. In retrospect, this decision appears to have been prudent, as the latest venture will enable Sri Lanka to “learn how to fish” rather than just “receive the fish”.
Solar power in India is a growing industry as the country has met its 2022 targets well ahead of schedule. While ranked third in the Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index in 2021, India has the third largest installed renewable energy capacity in the world and currently ranks fifth in solar installation capacity. As a co-founder of the International Solar Alliance with France, India has been instrumental in ushering in a new era of renewable energy diplomacy, as countries around the world, having realized the potential of these energy sources, join the effort and increase their solar energy. footprint.
Solar energy is just one option that should be vigorously explored. Wind and wave energy are alternatives that require further study. India has the fourth largest installed capacity of wind power in the world, bolstering its green energy credentials. With a total installed wind capacity of 1 GW in 1997, India was able to increase it to 22 GW over two decades, where private sector investment was encouraged. This progress bodes well for Sri Lanka as its immediate neighbour.
Sri Lanka needs long-term technical cooperation which, while strengthening India-Sri Lanka relations, would act as a catalyst for the island nation to realize its true potential. Whether joint initiatives or technology transfers, immediate action is needed to ensure long-term returns, given that the energy transition takes considerable time. Unless concerted efforts and continued commitment are observed, enhanced renewable energy diplomacy will not become a reality.
An energy independent Sri Lanka is in India’s interest. As the island attempts to overcome its current crises and look to the future, it is clear that increased investment in the industry remains a solid foundation on which the future can be built. Yet the energy remains the backbone and cannot be compromised. With growing demand and use of green options, Sri Lanka would be able to create an enabling environment to attract investment from around the world, allaying Indian concerns over the island’s reliance on a single partner or to limited partners. An economically strong Sri Lanka gives India a strong trading partner and a stable neighbour.
While Sampur on the east coast is one place, similar joint projects are to be launched across the island to augment the existing power supply and enable a faster transition over the next decade. A rigorous approach in which several factories are established would bode well. In addition to solar energy, Sri Lanka must seek increased expertise in the field of wind energy and try to maximize the natural resources that the island possesses. Renewable energies have enormous potential for bilateral cooperation and can be the catalyst for the diversification of already widespread connectivity, while contributing positively to mitigating climate change and benefiting the populations of both countries.
Since the end of hostilities in 2009, attempts have been made to get the international community to identify the island as an attractive investment destination. However, such measures prove futile when the country faces crises like the ones we are currently experiencing. India has done a lot to support its southern neighbor with financial and economic aid. Such measures are useful in the short term as Sri Lanka overcomes the current crises, but it is essential to ensure that the focus is on sustainable and viable options to face the foreseeable future.
By boosting diplomatic connectivity on the eve of the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between India and Sri Lanka, renewable energy diplomacy has the potential to cement the strong ties of friendship between the two historically linked countries, in the decade to come, and as such needs to be urgently explored.
(The author is a historian of diplomacy whose main areas of research include regionalism, foreign policy, diplomacy and integration. He is a senior lecturer in the Department of International Relations, University of Colombo)
– Observer Research Foundation