Mekong Utility Watch

Government Power Policy should be rethought, report says

Paul Vrieze
The Cambodia Daily
October 29, 2009

The government should revise its strategy to meet Cambodia’s growing power demand through the development of hydropower dams and a national power grid, arguing instead that increased availability of advanced energy technology would provide more suitable local energy solutions, a conference on the country’s future energy was told yesterday.

“Recent technological advances have made it more economical and reliable to generate power on a much smaller scale, closer to where power is needed,” argued an NGO Forum report released at the workshop in Phnom Penh. “Cambodia’s power plan is outdated, focused on expansion of 1950s-era large-scale hydropower dams and coal-fired plans that are capital-intensive, financially risky and environmentally damaging,” the report, “Powering 21st Century Cambodia with Decentralized Generation,” added.

High-efficiency gas-fired power plans to supply urban areas and micro hydropower, off-grid solar power, and biomass technologies in remote areas are a better power supply alternative to large hydropower projects, according to the report, which was drafted by NGO Forum together with Probe International, a Canadian advocacy group working on energy and development.

NGO Forum also said the government’s current energy policy does not provide sufficient support for power generation by private providers, renewable energy technology companies and introduction of new energy technology.

According to the Socio-Economic Census 2007, only 23 percent of all Cambodian households have access to public electricity.

At the Greater Mekong Region Energy Development conference organized in late September by the US Embassy and attended by government officials and representatives of the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank—all of which were absent from the workshop yesterday—it was mentioned that energy demand in the region was expected to rise between 7 and 16 percent per annum in the coming decades.

Government officials from across the region said at the time more investment in hydropower, coal-fire plants and national power grids, and subsequently a regional power network, were needed to increase economic competitiveness in Cambodia and in the region.

Workshop speaker Witoon Permpongsacharoen, from the Thai foundation Mekong Energy and Ecology Network, said yesterday that government and international institutions like the ADB historically favored funding large hydropower projects, which always entailed a centralized transmission network, the cost of which can make up more than 40 percent of total investment costs.

“I think we need to question how big institutions like the ADB and World Bank can support decentralization” in Cambodia, he said.

NGO Forum Director Chhit Sam Ath said: “We organized this workshop to give attention to alternative, decentralized power that has less impact [than hydropower] on the environment and rivers, and Cambodian people.”

“The government needs to explore the option.”

Many argue that hydropower projects planned for Cambodian rivers risk wiping out fisheries and the livelihood of local communities as water flow and water quality is negatively affected and fish are prevented from migrating downstream.

Asked if energy technology such as solar systems or biomass power generation could substitute the huge amount of electricity generated by hydropower projects, Mr. Sam Ath said: “It’s important to think: Why do we need the power? Only for Cambodian people themselves or to export to other countries?”

Rougier van Mansvelt, an independent rural energy expert, said the government would have to consider the specific power demands it wanted to supply when deciding whether to focus on hydropower or to include decentralized power generation, explaining that solar power systems, for example, can be used for electrical appliances such as television and lighting, but current solar technology can not support air-conditioning systems.

Similarly, the government would have to consider the extent of the coverage of a national power grid, as the costs of the transmission of electricity increased sharply 40 to 50 km from a central power source, Mr. Mansvelt said.

In remote areas decentralized home solar power systems would therefore be a cheaper alternative for electrifying rural households, he said, adding, “So it is an economic question of how much money you want to invest per household to extend such a grid.”

Categories: Mekong Utility Watch

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