Early February turned out to be a very busy time for the countries participating in the SREP – the Program for Scaling up Renewable Energy in Low Income Countries – one of the four programs of the Climate Investment Funds (CIF).  First, representatives from over 20 SREP countries traveled to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, for the SREP Pilot Countries Meeting, and then to Nay Pyi Taw, Myanmar for a mini-grids learning event organized jointly by the CIF and the World Bank Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP). 

Cambodia is the newest SREP country that presented its investment plan last June.  Myanmar expressed its interest to join the SREP three years ago but was not selected mainly due to the lack of an enabling policy environment for renewable energy development.  Both of these rapidly growing Southeast Asian countries have set ambitious electrification targets.  The Royal Government of Cambodia aims to expand electricity grids to all villages by 2020 and to 70 percent of all households by 2030, while the Republic of the Union of Myanmar is committed to achieving universal electricity access by 2030 through implementation of both grid and off-grid programs.

Renewable energy is at the nascent stage of development in these two countries.  Cambodia’s electricity generation – growing at 20 percent a year during the last five years – has been dominated by coal and large hydropower.  No doubt that Cambodia needs electricity – lots of it – in order to power its economic growth and to lift the poor out of poverty.  Renewable energy has started to make its way to Cambodia, with the first 10 megawatt solar PV plant at Bavet under construction and scheduled to be commissioned this year.  It is a good beginning, but a lot more can be done. 

According to a recent study by the Asian Development Bank, up to 1,000 megawatts of solar PV can be integrated into the grid in Cambodia.  Biomass and other renewable energy potential also exists that can be harnessed for power generation, especially for those who do not have access to electricity in rural areas.  SREP meeting participants had the opportunity to visit the operations of biogas digesters, rice husk gasifiers, and a rooftop PV system installed by the newly opened Coca Cola plant in Phnom Penh. 

(Video: Cleantech Solar)

We hope that the SREP is sowing the seeds in Cambodia for scaling up renewable energy in the years to come.

In Myanmar, 70 percent of the population (in 2014) and 84 percent of the rural households do not have access to grid electricity.  The task to achieve universal electricity access by 2030 is daunting, and the country’s aggressive grid expansion drive has been complemented by off-grid and mini-grid programs.  Participants of the CIF-ESMAP mini-grid learning event visited two villages in central Myanmar that are currently served by mini-grids, one powered by diesel and one by solar PV.  Both are owned and operated by the local Village Electricity Committee (VEC).  The 10 kilowatt diesel generator at Ton Lon Village serves about 30 percent of the 100 households in the village, and each household pays about a $2 monthly fee for a 26-watt CFL or $3 to also include a television.  That one CFL per household is used to light either the house or a family business. 

At Myin Chi Naing Village, we visited the newly-installed solar PV mini-grids that are providing electricity to 200 households in the village.  The pilot project has benefited from a grant from the Asian Development Bank that pays 80 percent of the capital costs to put the infrastructure in place, such as power poles, solar panels, batteries, and meters. 

200 households in Myin Chi Naing Village, Myanmar, get access to electricity from newly-installed solar PV mini-grids 

Each household has two 5-watt LED bulbs, and many also use the electricity to charge cell phones and watch TV.  But for now they can consume up to 3 kilowatt-hours per month, and pay about $1.2, based on their consumption.  The villagers are delighted that their houses – and their streets –are no longer dark at night, and they all want to consume more.

The good news is that the private sector in Myanmar is gearing up and is bullish on the solar business.  Mr. Kyaw Min Tun, Managing Director of SolaRiseSys, the company that installed the systems at Myin Chi Naing Village, told me that they are ready to replicate and expand, even without subsidies.  What he needs is conducive mini-grid policies and regulations by the government. 

The pathway to electrification in most countries in the past has been through the expansion of the national electricity grids and by adding thermal and hydropower generating units.  For the developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, where 1.1 billion people still live without electricity, a new pathway is needed to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”, set forth by the world leaders as one of the Sustainable Development Goals.  With technological advancements and cost reduction, renewable energy, especially solar, has emerged as a viable option to achieve universal energy access by 2030, while renewable energy mini-grids have the potential to bring electricity to rural villages, before the main grid arrives, if ever.

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