Light of day: Solar could be a handy alternative while larger projects get under way

With an abundance of resources, especially coal, oil, natural gas, hydro and geothermal, solar is not an obvious choice for Myanmar. Solar power, however, is an excellent source of energy for the country and could help it meet some of its more pressing energy needs in the near and mid-term. Solar may also have a role to play in Myanmar’s long-term energy future, even as other sources ramp up and as the grid is improved.

Power

Like much of South-east Asia, Myanmar gets a good amount of sunlight. On average, the country receives about 5 KW per square metre per day (KWh/m2/day) of solar energy. Actual insolation rates do vary depending on the time of year and the exact location – for example, the southern areas are overcast during the rainy season, which runs from May through October. During the dry season, seven to 10 hours of sunlight a day is typical, while only three to four hours a day is not uncommon during the wetter months. But many places in the country are suitable for solar power generation. Yangon, for example, receives an average of 6.61 KWh/m2/day of solar energy in April, though only 3.43 in August, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In Mandalay, the peak is 6.30 KWh/m2/day in April.

A 2009 government report titled “Assessment of Solar Energy Potentials for the Union of Myanmar” found that 36% of Myanmar received sufficient annual solar radiation to be suitable for solar energy production. The eastern side of the country, bordering Thailand and Laos, has the lowest potential. The Dry Zone in the centre of the country has the highest potential, while some locations in the north also have good sunlight, as does the Yangon region. Myanmar has better insolation than Cambodia, Laos and Japan, though not as much as India, and is on par with Thailand.

A Good Solution, Now

The main argument in favour of solar, however, is not so much the amount of sunshine the country receives, but the state of the power supply in Myanmar. It is estimated that only 26% of people in the country have access to electricity and only 4% of the population in the rural areas. Capacity is too low; all the of country’s generators could only produce 1350 MW against 1850 MW of demand in the summer of 2012. Plants are also in poor condition, and the grid is in need of repair or even simply non-existent in many places. The situation often results in a complete lack of power or the use of diesel generators, which are expensive and polluting. An estimated 42,000 villages have no electricity at all and an estimated 14,000 are powered by diesel generators.

Solar offers the possibility of electricity, and clean electricity, before the arrival of the formal grid. Proponents argue that small, purpose-made devices, single-home solar solutions and village-wide solar generation are all possible and will help bring electricity cheaply and quickly to rural Myanmar. Solar can also be an interim or supplemental power source for businesses and certain industries, and even special economic zones.

The appeal of solar is that it does not have to wait for the rest of the country to develop a strategy or raise funds to build up generation and distribution capacity. It can be put into place right away. U Thoung Win, chairman of the Renewable Energy Association in Myanmar, notes that solar energy can be up and running in a short period of time. He estimated one day for a house and one month for a village.

Taking Action

The renewable energy community is calling for the creation of mini-grids in Myanmar. They can provide power immediately, link up with each other and then connect to the main grid as it extends into the countryside. Ultimately, they may be able to sell any excess power to the grid when the connection is made, and they may also be used to power base transceiver stations for telecommunications companies, thus allowing villages to profit and defray the costs of it.

SPCG, a Thai solar company, is planning to develop off-the-grid solar solutions for rural communities in Myanmar. Each project would be 2 MW in size, cost less than $500,000 and be independent of the power network. Laos is also seen as a model for Myanmar. In 2000 its electrification ratio was 30%, about where Myanmar is today. To address this, the government worked with the private sector to develop off-grid alternative energy solutions. This included 10,000 solar homes as well as solar-powered mini-grids. Now, more than 70% of the total population in Laos have access to electricity. While Laos is smaller, it shares some of Myanmar’s energy challenges. Proponents argue that Myanmar should follow the lead of Laos and start with small-scale local renewables, which might also include hydro, wind and biomass generation.

Solar may help balance some of the country’s other alternative sources, which are not always reliable. An estimated 2500 MW of the country’s 6300 MW of power is from hydropower. During the dry season, electricity produced by these generators can drop considerably, with some receiving only an hour of power per day. Solar would complement existing hydro capacity by providing needed electricity during the dry season, when the country is exposed to more sunlight.

Small Market

However, most solar capacity has been installed privately, as demonstration projects. Some remote hospitals have been electrified, small water pumping stations have been powered with solar generators and the Mandalay Technological Institute has fit technical schools with 3-KW photovoltaic systems. Some of the work has been remarkably simple, but useful. Panasonic has developed a solar lantern, which is being sold for MMK50,000 ($55) and distributed free of change to some rural communities in Myanmar. Such basic solar equipment is useful because it provides an immediate and tangible benefit. As of late 2013 the country was still developing a national energy policy, so there is no systematic government-level support for the technology. And while solar is mentioned in drafts of the national energy policy, it does not seem to be getting any significant or special treatment.

Despite its appeal due to its ability to meet the immediate needs of the population, solar can be expensive and quite complicated, especially in terms of storage and maintenance. And while simple solutions are easy to implement, they are not always that wide reaching. Proponents of solar concede that mini-grids may be a challenge as it is tough to get them to work financially. Users are too poor to raise the needed capital and may be unable to pay the full monthly bills. Such projects cannot be banked and need support from the government or international donors. Even buying solar panels can be a challenge. China makes high-quality cells for the European market, but has been selling low-quality solar cells to Myanmar, which can result in low power output and higher costs in the long run.

Big Power

The industry argues that small-scale solar projects are no substitute for conventional solutions or large-scale renewables. Businesses, especially, need reliable electricity and cannot be dependent on the sun for energy. Solar is still a good short-term solution for remote areas and a good supplement for diesel generators in industrial settings. However, more far-reaching economic development, traditional sources and delivery mechanisms are required. It is especially difficult for Myanmar. Solar is expensive, despite the falling cost on a dollar per watt basis, and for a country that is short of funds, other cheaper options might be pursued first. The country has clear short-term priorities. It is worried that the lack of power will slow its growth, so at least in the early stages it is more likely to go for faster and more cost-effective large-scale solutions.

However, this does not mean that large solar projects are falling out of favour. The Ministry of Electric Power and Thailand’s Green Earth Power have signed a memorandum of understanding for the construction of a 210-MW solar plant at Minbu that will produce 350m KWh. It will be developed in three stages – 50 MW, 70 MW and finally 90 MW – and when completed will be the third largest of its kind in the world. The Thai firm is seeking financing from a strategic partner or by listing on the Thai Stock Exchange for the project, which has an estimated value of $275m. A second plant with a generating capacity of 200 MW, expected to be built in Mandalay, is also being discussed.

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The Report: Myanmar 2014

Energy chapter from The Report: Myanmar 2014

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