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From Darkness to Light with the Power of the Sun

Lalith Gunaratne

©1993 Lalith Gunaratne i^l A fe've brought a gift for you," 1/If said Gunaratne Bandara, V V the agricultural field officer, to a 14-year-old girl, Dayani, who had just returned home from the village school. She was impatient to find what the gift was.

"A SUNTEC," he answered to her excited query. Over the radio Dayani had heard of SUNTEC, the generic name for solar power in Sri Lanka, and she knew it was the latest way of generating electricity from the sun.

Piyasena and Soma, the parents of Dayani and four younger children, own a simple home in a remote village called Deniya in the deep south of Sri Lanka. The family owns two acres of wet land where rice is cultivated. They also grow bananas on a quarter acre of dry land. Their annual income is about $2000 U.S. per year, which affords them a relatively comfortable life. Being situated in a distant region has deprived this family of government-provided grid electricity. Even if the power lines came near their home, its thatched roof disqualifies the house from getting electric power due to safety regulations. The only source of power they have is kerosene, which is used to light a few lamps.

The dangers of kerosene use are well known. Often, from careless handling of lamps, village homes are burned down, causing death and destruction. So, when Piyasena was chosen by the area agricultural field officer to get a Suntec solar electric system as a demonstrator for the village, he could not contain his excitement. Like a little child when given a toy, he jumped for joy and ran off to inform his wife.

That afternoon, the news had spread that Piyasena's house was getting a SUNTEC. This became an event for the village. The neighbors had all gathered in the usual community spirit to share the happiness with the Piyasena family, and Soma cooked a feast for all. By the evening, the system was installed and — like magic — the lights were switched on. Piyasena and family had a happy glow on their faces as they entertained their guests to food and drinks. The neighbors commented on how the usual dark surroundings had been lit by Piyasena's home. They also pondered with awe, how the sun had given them electricity.

From that evening, Piyasena could operate a few fluorescent lamps and even power his radio, which had previously operated with costly dry cell batteries. The system also produces sufficient power to run a small black-and-white television set which he plans to purchase in the near future.

How we in the city take the switch on the wall so much for granted! Imagine living without electric power.

Two billion people around the world grope around in the dark after sunset. They have no access to power because they are too far away from the city. Often, they are the backbone of many developing world agricultural economies. Yet, they are left behind due to the high cost of drawing power lines to their areas.

Solar power is fast becoming a way of solving the immediate energy problems of the rural masses of the developing world. The ease of installation, maintenance and use of solar systems along with its environmentally benign nature, make PVs very appropriate. Another advantage is that the systems are modular, so when Piyasena wants to increase his available power, he can simply add on solar modules.

Solar power — already powering a few thousand homes in Sri Lanka — is poised to play a significant role in rural electrification as more and more people are opting for it.

Piyasena always viewed the sun with reverence. He knew that the sun is the single most important source of energy — the lifeline to everything that has ever inhabited the earth. So, the almighty sun's providing the little energy he needs only strengthens his veneration. As sure as the rising sun, it has brought him light by night.


Lalith Gunaratne, Joint Managing Director, Power & Sun (Pvt) Ltd., 338 T.B. Jayah Mawatha, Colombo 10, Sri Lanka • 686307 • FAX 575599

Born in Sri Lanka, Lalith Gunaratne resided in Canada until 1984. Then, he with two other Sri Lankan born Canadians, Pradip Jayewardene and Viren Perera, moved to Sri Lanka with the idea of applying solar technology to serve the rural population. About 70% of Sri Lankans do not have access to power. After much research, the three founded Power & Sun, which is the only manufacturer of PV modules (SUNTEC) and system components in Sri Lanka.

Dear Home Power,

We are a small company meeting the electricity needs of rural Sri Lankans living away from the government's electricity grid. We manufacture and sell SUNTEC brand solar PV modules and balance of systems.

You must certainly be aware of the battles one has to fight to introduce a new technology such as solar power, especially, to a commercial market. The battle is even tougher when one has to compete with local politicians who keep promising rural people grid power for votes. In most cases, there is no hope of actually giving power, as most rural homes are too far from the grid. We are only now convincing these politicians that solar PV is a viable alternative. After all, when the government endorses the use of solar power, it will be more readily accepted by the market.

So, we continue to work away at commercializing the use of solar power, as opposed to working with aid (hand-out) projects which have given solar power a bad name the world over. The responsibility for the system's purchase, operation and maintenance should lie in the hands of the user. The government should assist only, by way of endorsing the use of solar power and establishing effective finance schemes for users. We have seen a few thousand homes in Sri Lanka accepting and paying for solar power providing they know for sure the main line grid will not come their way.

Globally, a lot needs to be done yet to increase the awareness of solar power, its uses and benefits. Therefore, we solar people have to stick together and work to make solar power a globally accepted source of power for not only remote applications, but for mainstream uses as well.

...and the bottom line. We must strive to bring our costs down too and we can achieve that through economies of scale.

The happy faces of people who are otherwise left to grope in the dark at night alone is reward enough. Well partly..

All the very best. Sincerely yours,

Lalith Gunaratne

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