I recently found myself in a workshop on renewable energy in developing countries, which was organized by the Climate Investment Funds (CIF) and its Scaling-Up Renewable Energy Program (SREP).

Attended by more than 90 participants from over 20 countries, the workshop brought back ideas and issues that I covered when I was writing articles about the environment, as a journalist 15 years ago. Most of the topics then and now were on a global level, just like the climate change change issues we are facing now.

As I listened to each speaker, my mind was focused on how the issues being discussed related to Cambodia. A statistic mentioned in opening remarks by the Zhihong Zhang, SREP Senior Program Coordinator, caught my attention:  

“I read the Phnom Penh Post yesterday, and the headline in the Business Section said: ‘Coal-fired plant tests new power generator’. I hope that in the near future the newspaper headlines will be on solar and other renewable energy.”  

Zhang's remark motivated me to dig deeper into the issue of renewable energy. I was particularly struck by what seemed like his very ambitious hope to see Cambodia using more solar and other renewable energy sources.

His remarks also raised two questions: 1) what potential sources Cambodia has for renewable energy; and 2) how the country can use those sources to benefit the country’s development in a sustainable way.

Since I am not an expert on energy, I spoke to Rafael Ben, who works with Zhang at the CIF, on scaling-up renewable energy.  

To my first question, Ben says:

“Renewable energy (RE) potential [in Cambodia] is high but resources remain mostly untapped. Solar energy and biomass power, for example,  have been identified as the top priorities in the country's SREP Investment Plan, based on resource and market potential, readiness of implementation and financial viability.”

Cambodia has a target electrify all villages by 2020. Right now, about 74% have access to electricity. According to Bun Narith, Under Secretary of State of the Ministry for Mines and Energy, who spoke at the workshop, by 2030 Cambodia wants at least 70% of all households to have access to grid power. The current level is about 59%.

On my second question, which is really about understanding the big picture and the factors that will make Cambodia's push towards renewable energy sustainable and successful, Ben had this to say:

“Sustainable renewable energy growth in Cambodia requires addressing the knowledge, institutional and capacity building needs of the Government as well as the mitigation of risk concerns of private sector through appropriate policy instruments. Furthermore, environmental and social issues must be addressed, and implementation arrangements and organizational structures will be required for successful project completion. All these activities are a core component of Cambodia’s SREP plan.”

Along with other workshop participants, I had the opportunity learn more about renewable energy in Cambodia on a visit to a Rice Husk Gasifier at Tang Vouch Seng rice mill in Kandal Province.  

The plant uses rice husks, previously treated as waste, to generate electricity that powers its rice processing operation

One of the challenges the owner shared was that the process generates a tar-like residue. Although it is unsightly, I was happy to learn that even that can be used as a fertilizer. The rice mill has been in business for over 25 years and eight years ago when the price of diesel was so high, the owner installed a gasifier, which generates around 550kw/h, enough to power the rice mill.

The mill employs 10 people and has a milling capacity of about 40 tons. Perhaps the most impressive thing for me is that by installing the gasifier, rice husks that were previously treated as waste, are now being used to generate energy powers the core business.

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