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Myanmar's Struggle to Fix Its Failing Energy System and Embrace Renewables

Three years after Myanmar’s transition to civilian leadership led to the end of trade embargoes and a rapid embrace of technology, the country still labors under a barely functioning telecommunications network and a power grid that only reaches a third of the population.

But the lack of infrastructure also presents an unexpected blessing, experts say: a blank slate for renewable energy. This concept has raised hopes that the country can avoid the environmental devastation that big energy projects have brought to its neighbors China and India. 

"A country endowed with natural and energy resources, Myanmar is in an optimal position for green, resilient, and environmentally sustainable development,’’ said a World Economic Forum report, New Energy Architecture: Myanmar.

According to the Ministry of Electrical Power, Myanmar has enough generating capacity to power about 67 percent of Yangon and 33 percent of Mandalay, however most of the rest of the country remains dark. Myanmar, which exports natural gas to neighboring Thailand under contracts signed by its former military government, has suffered an energy deficit for years.

More than 40 percent of Myanmar’s installed capacity across the energy mix has been sidelined due to neglect and a lack of available spare parts. This leaves only about 1.97 gigawatts (GW) operational out of a total of 3.361 GW, according to the Ministry of Electrical Power (MOEP).  Neighboring Thailand, with a similar population, has 32.4 gigawatts of installed capacity.

Myanmar’s economy is tiny compared to its neighbors, but global consultant firm McKinsey and Company sees strong growth as high as 8 percent per annum possible in seven key sectors, including mining/energy, manufacturing and tourism. With demand growing an estimated 15 percent annually, this growth will require a massive expansion in power generating capacity.

A Small Solution?

Supporters of renewable energy say that there is an opportunity for smaller electricity distribution networks to be established in rural areas off the central grid, dubbed “minigrids,” powered by solar, biogas and small-scale hydro where possible.

Andy Schroeter founder and CEO of Laos-based Sunlabob renewable energy systems provider says that minigrids offer a number of benefits that can drive development in Myanmar, including opportunities to use refrigeration and food processing to add value to agriculture products or just wait for better market prices.  They can also provide direct employment opportunities as plant operators to local villagers, and educate consumers on the need to pay for their electricity, which novice consumers are occasionally reluctant to do.  Schroeter brings over a decade of experience working in Laos and other frontier nations. He says ease of connectivity between minigrids, which allows them to link into regional grids, actually pulls the national grid towards them and hastens full connectivity. Importantly, Schroeter is running a business, not an NGO, and Sunlabob guarantees Purchase Power agreements are implemented. To Myanmar’s power problem, “the only answer is minigrids,” says Schroeter.

Decentralized renewable energy minigrids seem to have growing potential, but many see them as short-term solutions until more conventional energy capacity can be built up. On the sidelines of the 2013 Myanmar Energy Investment Conference, Knut Sierotzki, Director for Hydropower in Asia and Russia for Norwegian hydropower consultancy Poyry Energy Ltd, said that minigrids are “a good addition… but will not solve the electrification of the country.” Poyry, along with many other foreign hydropower firms, is looking for opportunities in Myanmar’s burgeoning hydropower industry.

Big Potential 

Myanmar has huge potential for hydropower, up to 100 GW, according to the Ministry of Electric Power (MEP).  Currently, 65 percent of Myanmar’s energy infrastructure is in hydropower, which generates over 70 percent of their energy supply, and this ratio looks likely to continue. Hydropower is less attractive to environmentalists due to potentially massive impacts on local ecologies and societies, the high emissions involved in concrete making and pouring, not to mention potential methane build up in the water.  As a renewable, hydro is also subject to the seasons, generating large amounts of power during the rainy season but less — sometimes not enough — during the hot season, when the demand is highest and brownouts are common in Yangon.

Yet for cheap, consistent power, the government feels that hydropower is the best option. Deputy Director Tint Lwin Oo, of the Department of Hydropower Planning under the MEP, says that hydropower presented ‘‘a very good chance for us to get cheap load-direct power,’’ due to its low operating costs and free fuel. He also notes that most of Myanmar’s hydro options are in the high mountains with very few people, “so they have a low social impact.”

Deputy Director Tint Lwin Oo of the MOEP said at least seven dams are nearing completion, adding 520 megawatts of installed capacity and capable of generating 2,387 megawatt hours of power. Another 24 projects are under investigation with the potential to add another 12 GW of installed capacity. Mr. Tint Lwin Oo says that the government has another 30 GW of hydropower capacity under consideration. Meanwhile, the MOEP is looking to add 450 MW of natural gas fired capacity by 2015 to mitigate dry season hydro shortages. 

A technical adviser to the Wildlife Conservation Society says he is guardedly optimistic about hydropower, noting that in areas of the Kachin state, sites being looked are steep gorges that if flooded, will have less impact on the environment. “All dams will require tradeoffs and deep steep reservoirs are likely to destroy fewer habitats for animals and people compared to wide shallow reservoirs,” he notes.

Roadblocks Remain

But even if new sources of power come online quickly in Myanmar, significant obstacles remain. National policies on issues like environmental impact and social impact assessments have not been finalized. The World Economic Forum report says the lack of ‘‘transparent institutional and legal framework for exploration, development and deployment of energy systems’’ is choking investment in renewables.  

Myanmar is well situated to quadruple its GDP by 2030, according to McKinsey, but its report Myanmar’s Moment: Unique Opportunities, Major Challenges, noted that the government is “working within extremely tight constraints in terms of its capacity, finances and time.” Myanmar has a GDP of just over US$50 billion, compared to US$346 for Thailand. Myanmar’s poverty needs, along with the cost of fighting several insurgencies in the tribal areas leave little money available for renewable energy R&D.

"We have encountered many financial problems, so we can’t recruit, we can’t buy new equipment," said Win Khaing Moe, Director General for the Myanma Scientific and Technological Research Department under the Ministry of Science and Technology.  Myanmar also suffers from a lack of trained personnel and certifiable data, according to the World Economic Forum.

Whether Myanmar will follow a green path toward a robust power grid remains to be seen. Outsiders are guardedly optimistic that Myanmar is sincere in its stated wish to develop sustainably. The US Embassy in Myanmar spokesperson noted that that they have seen “positive signs” that the government “is taking sustainability seriously.”

Back to Basics

But Mr. Min ultimately questions the entire value system that is being imported to Myanmar. He feels that this high energy, high consumption lifestyle previously little known in Myanmar is undermining the nation’s own perfectly functioning — and sustainable — lifestyle. He feels that instead of focusing on big energy products that will benefit the ruling class in the capital city, Naypyidaw, he advocates for a more modest goal of using renewable energy to improve traditional lifestyles without fundamentally changing them. "They have been living like that for the last 2,000 years; it’s a good model," he said.

He says that entertainment, education, even health care can all be provided through low impact, renewable energy powered systems. Imagine a grass hut on stilts above a rice paddy, surrounded by lush tropical rainforest, and complete with wireless connectivity and satellite TV, with a solar panel on the roof and maybe a rice husk gasifier in the yard; that’s some people’s idea of paradise.

"Solar is going to change this country," Mr. Min said.

Lead image: Myanmar sunrise via Shutterstock

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