Will Myanmar turn green?
Myanmar stands on the threshold of change. The country is faced with the challenge of dramatically upgrading and expanding its electrical grid to not only reach the 60 percent of the population who are not connected, but also to help power the coming industrial and manufacturing revolution that Myanmar government politicians so often wax lyrical about.
In theory, Myanmar could leapfrog fossil fuels and jump on the renewable energy bandwagon - in theory. That was the hope of delegates attending last week’s Myanmar Green Energy Summit in Yangon – an event that sought to highlight the renewable energy options for the country as it tries to power up.
In practice, whether or not Myanmar takes the renewable route appears hostage to conventional thinking - and inconvenient timing. The Nay Pyi Taw government and its advisors are largely focused on how to quickly turn the lights on across the country. This means focusing on hydropower dams, and polluting coal and gas-powered stations. Even though the construction of new power plants or the rehabilitation of aging plants takes time, this is the conventional approach, and typically it receives encouragement from international funders, including the World Bank.
This “conventional” approach also appears to be echoed in neighbouring Thailand, where the military junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has “just told his Energy Ministry to do the wrong thing,” as a recent Bangkok Post editorial put it, when he told his ministry to “forget about renewable and alternative energy sources” and throw its weight behind fossil fuels, particularly dirty coal.
Myanmar faces a challenge in that it needs to power up quickly and conventional thinking sees little viabil- ity in such options as solar power. Harnessing the sun might appear to make sense in a country with record sunshine for much of the year. But a vision for largescale solar power generation appears to be lacking, despite the hopes of the delegates crowding the green energy meeting. Some small-scale solar initiatives are already underway in the country to use solar to generate electricity. Micro-projects are also underway where homes or offices are fitted with solar panels to power conventional appliances. In addition, some householders in far-flung areas have taken to installing a single solar panel that can power lightbulbs, TVs and possibly refrigerators.
Some of these initiatives come out of desperation, given either the lack of an electricity grid in much of the country or due to frequent power black-outs.
Given the current rush to power up Myanmar, conventional energy options – coal, oil, gas and hydropower – are likely to rule, though the inevitable delay in reaching far-flung parts of the country will mean increasing numbers of people will look to solar power on a domestic or small business level.
Renewable energy may be the buzz-word around the world in the face of the massive pollution that is blamed for climate change and word is out amongst technology watchers that the world is on the brink of a “clean energy” breakthrough – several, in fact. Apart from an increasing number of breakthroughs in terms of wind, wave and thermal power, solar developments – both in terms of solar panels and batteries – are now under the spotlight and subject to increasing media coverage.
The world could be on the brink of a new, cleaner energy world. But will Myanmar energy planners do more to entertain a cleaner energy future?