South-South Champions: Mr. Harsha Wickramasinghe,
Deputy Director General (DSM), Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority
The world is facing new challenges and we need new development paradigms to address them. Developing countries are in a better position to help each other as they are developing new ideas, new technologies and new solutions that can reach a large population with affordable costs. (Mr. Harsha Wickramasinghe, 2021)
The interview with with Mr. Wickramasinghe was held on 2 September 2021 and was facilitated by UNDP staff.
Could you please give examples of your work with the concept of South-South Cooperation (SSC)? Are there any SSC projects that you are particularly proud of?
Mr. Wickramasinghe indicated that he has worked extensively with neighboring countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and some African countries, though not necessarily using the modality of SSC. His very first SSC project, he said, is the recent Trilateral South-South Cooperation (TSSC) project with China and Ethiopia, supported by UNDP. This project taps into three renewable resources: biogas, solar power and biomass to upgrade the agricultural industry of Sri Lanka. The project helps to establish networks with Chinese and Ethiopian partners and brings opportunities to collaborate and learn from these two countries, within a short period of time.
What are the advantages of working with more than one country in this South-South project?
He responded that, “The project is beneficial not only because it brings experience from China on renewable energy technologies, but also provides opportunities for Sri Lanka to exchange ideas and lessons learnt with Ethiopia, even if the two countries have different challenges. For instance, Sri Lanka has abundant freshwater resources whereas Ethiopia has to face the problem of water shortage.” Through the project, Mr. Wickramasinghe said, his team learnt about Ethiopia’s strategy in dealing with the issue of water scarcity and can apply that in some drier parts of Sri Lanka.
Which one do you think is better, working with a country that has similar context or a country which has different challenges?
Mr Wickramasinghe opined that there are benefits in working with countries that have different contexts, as solutions adopted by other countries may never have been tried in Sri Lanka before and can inspire new approaches. In Mr. Wickramasinghe’s opinion as the expression goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention”, and so innovations are driven by different circumstances. He said that for example, “Sri Lanka has rich biomass resources from food surplus, which are not available in some African countries, so these countries may resort to other sources and Sri Lanka could learn from their experiences as well.” He noted that even with neighboring countries, the context can be different sometimes. Mr. Wickramasinghe shared an instance where Sri Lanka recommended reaching out to their farming communities to popularize an idea through leaflets. However, in that context, the literacy rate was below 20% while in Sri Lanka it stood at 100%. So, what is workable for Sri Lanka may not work elsewhere. “However, this was also a great learning experience for Sri Lanka as we learnt that they used radio extensively as a medium of communication to the public, an approach that could also be tried in Sri Lanka,” he said.
He added that it is indeed easier and speedier sometimes to cooperate with countries that have similar challenges because it is easier to understand each other.
In your working area, why do you think SSC matters?
In Mr. Wickramasinghe’s opinion, SSC is more efficient in addressing development partners’ needs. He noted that in his experience, it took weeks, even months for a big, multilateral donor agencies to make decisions. For a smaller country like Sri Lanka that has a smaller and more compact network for decision-making and collaboration, that can be frustrating. “That’s why working with a country of similar context can be faster, more interactive, and productive due to the mutual understanding of respective situations.”
The Deputy Director General added that for developing countries, it makes more sense to follow the development trajectory of another developing country rather than that of a developed one. “The world is facing new challenges and we need new development paradigm to address them. Developing countries are in a better position to help each other as they are developing new ideas, new technologies and new solutions that can reach a large population with affordable costs. These solutions may not originate in developed countries”.
Does Sri Lanka have any upcoming proposals/ ideas/ projects incorporating South-South cooperation regarding sustainable energy in the next few years?
Mr. Wickramasinghe stated Sri Lanka’s desire to share its experience in developing small-scale renewable energy systems with other developing countries through South-South cooperation. “Sri Lanka is 100 per cent electrified and has 20 years of experience in scaling up our renewable energy use from four sources: hydropower, wind power, solar and biomass”. Mr. Wickramasinghe related how SLSEA had introduced a very successful project of rooftop solar power systems in Sri Lanka which has added 400-megawatt of capacity after a decade in operation, which is now supplying 3 per cent of the national electricity generation.
He shared on Sri Lanka’s development constraints. He explained that Sri Lanka is facing serious challenges in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Its updated NDCs this year are very ambitious, and renewable energy development offers the potential to achieve these goals. Unfortunately, it will require billions of dollars to implement the projects needed and such huge resources are not available in Sri Lanka right now. International financial assistance is needed to address the gaps.
On areas that Sri Lanka may require external knowledge, he noted that digitalization of electricity networks and energy supply systems is a possible area for SSC. Mr. Wickramasinghe foresaw great energy-saving opportunities in Sri Lanka and suggested that Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and power electronics will help to unlock this potential. “Integration of renewable energy and scaling down the renewable energy systems (from medium size to small size) are also important in reaching out to remote areas in Sri Lanka. ICT will also play a key role in addressing the technical challenges in these areas” he said.
Mr. Wickramasinghe also highlighted small-scale waste-to-energy plants as a possible area for working with other developing countries for Sri Lanka’s benefit.
What would you like to see introduced or changed in the way we have been applying SSC in Sri Lanka and the Asia-Pacific region, in the field of sustainable energy and sustainable development?
Mr. Wickramasinghe highlighted the importance of understanding the scale and contexts of partner countries. “China as a large country has much larger power plants. The capacity of one power plant in China can be bigger than Sri Lanka’s total capacity and understanding each other’s contexts is crucial to effective communication and collaboration for the TSSC project.” Mr. Wickramasinghe suggested that more interaction between partners, such as consultative meetings, study tours and field visits are important to enhance mutual understanding.
He added that having a database of country profiles would be useful for building partnership. He said that his team once undertook an industry profile analysis to foster partnerships among businesses. Each business presented its context through its profile and this helped to facilitate cooperation. “A similar approach can be taken for countries to work together,” he suggested.
How can UNOSSC further facilitate SLSEA’s work to help scale up SSTC?
Mr. Wickramasinghe proposed that UNOSSC could help to establish a platform or framework for Sri Lanka and other developing countries to expand the scope of collaboration on renewable energy. He added that, besides the current TSSC project in the agricultural sector, SLSEA also plans to work in other areas such as transportation, improving energy efficiency and increasing productivity through renewable energy. He emphasized that a systematic framework, methodology and structure of cooperation to work with other countries rather than packing everything into a donor’s programme is necessary. He also indicated that SLSEA also needs support in developing good knowledge products to share its experience and lessons learnt in an interactive and interesting way.
Are there any other thoughts that you would like us to convey to readers?
Mr. Wickramasinghe reaffirmed Sri Lanka’s interest in sharing its experience in developing off-grid renewable energy systems to achieve 100 per cent electrification, through SSC. He also stressed the country’s focus on waste management, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, as large quantities of medical waste were generated throughout the country. Data collection and monitoring for energy use in the agricultural sector is another priority for SLSEA as Sri Lanka doesn’t have regular and reliable data at the moment. “Improving public transport is another focus as Sri Lanka is losing 1 per cent of its public commuters to private transportation each year and this poses a big challenge to energy use in the country,” he said. He added that SLSEA is also working to increase urban canopies in Colombo, (which used to be known as a garden city) and hopes to learn from other countries’ experience in this respect.
Harsha Wickramasinghe is the Deputy Director General (DSM) of the Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority
Education / Profession: Chartered Mechanical Engineer by profession, graduated from University of Moratuwa with a BScEng (Hons.) and earned an MBA from University of Colombo.
- Energy policy, energy efficiency, renewable energy development and project financing
- Operational efficiency of industries and processes.
Achievements: Drafting of the National Energy Policy & Strategies of Sri Lanka as the convener of the National Energy Policy Committee. Key contributor to the design of cost based technology specific tariff regime for renewables, efforts to introduce net-metering concept and enhancement of same to net accounting and Net + Plus schemes, one of the architects of the Sri Lanka Sustainable Energy Authority.
Roles: National Project Director – UNDP NAMA project, UNDP Biomass project Leads the National Energy Efficiency Improvement & Conservation Programme of Sri Lanka .
Consulting: Consultant to several agencies in India, national electricity utility of Kenya and the Maldives Energy Authority