Interview: U Zeya Thura Mon

What can be done to ensure Myanmar’s power supply can meet the growing demand?

U ZEYA THURA MON: There are a lot of things that need to be done in terms of infrastructure development. In terms of power, there is room for more generation than we have at the moment, from the current 4362 MW up to 23,600 MW, with 30% achieved within the next 15 years. This represents a huge opportunity for the power sector. One challenge that the government still needs to overcome is the price at which electricity is distributed. For more than 60 years huge subsidies have been allocated for electricity. So we need to raise awareness among the public as to what is a fair price, which will take time and will come with its drawbacks.

Myanmar has huge resources but these will take five to 10 years before they are available. We have to think about the short-term plan. One of the easiest solutions would be to import energy. We can buy electricity from Thailand, China or India, or we can import energy in the form of oil and gas. This is an expensive solution, which is why the government is hesitant to take this path, but if you look at our neighbouring countries like Thailand, China and India, they are all importing energy. In fact only a small number of nations are not importing energy. While we have huge potential for energy generation, this potential cannot be tapped into in the near future. For example, a medium-sized hydropower plant can take up to eight years to become operational, or if you find a gas field, it can also take up to eight years. The short-term solution is to import energy.

In your opinion, what kind of power generation model suits Myanmar best in terms of efficiency?

MON: Hydropower is the best solution for long-term power generation in Myanmar. The country has extensive waterways and huge potential for hydropower plants, but it will take time. Another opportunity is gas-fired generation, which is faster and easier to implement than coal-fired, which has more of an impact on the environment. So the long-term solution should be hydropower, which will require large investments. However, for a quick fix there is a lot of potential in gas power plants, which are less expensive.

There are also alternatives to those options. We are currently implementing a waste energy project, which is more technical and presents a greater challenge in terms of meeting international environmental standards. We are working with Norway’s government for gap analyses to achieve Norwegian environmental standards, which are the highest in the world.

What steps are being taken to enhance power output in the country’s rural areas?

MON: Power output in rural areas depends first on grid availability and the distribution of generation, which depends on the government. Power is concentrated on the national grid, which, if you compare to the previous 10 years, has expanded dramatically and at a rapid rate. As a result of this expansion, some rural areas have benefitted from new grid access, but there is still a lot that needs to be done to provide electricity to the rural population.

In my opinion we could be faster. One drawback is the negative voice of some people, who are advising us not to go too fast. There are international organisations such as the World Bank and donor nations that are willing to assist in the progress of Myanmar’s power generation, but certain formalities mean that these projects cannot be realised in one or two years. So to a certain extent the people need to be patient. If you need 100 MW this can be up and running in four months; if you need more then it will take longer.

While large World Bank projects will be realised in between three and five years, it is not currently possible to announce a shortlist of potential operators, which suggests delays. However, independent power plants can be realised within anywhere from four months to one year, depending on the size of the plant in question. The public needs to keep these factors in mind, especially the concept of a fair price for everyone.