Interview: Ken Tun

What current projects are being considered to bolster rural electrification efforts in Myanmar for the coming years?

KEN TUN: The World Bank has devised a plan to electrify the whole country by 2030, which would require approximately $3bn per year in investment, given current transmission, distribution and generation shortages. However, rural communities cannot afford to wait 15 years.

If you look at the current mindset worldwide, there is a focus on efficiency and green development when it comes to energy. In the past, there has been a focus on the top-down approach but now we see that the bottom-up approach is cleaner, more efficient and better for the people. The best possible strategy to get electricity nationwide more quickly is a combination of a centralised system (the top-down approach) and distributed energy (the bottom-up approach).

A distributed energy system is where a national grid is supported by multiple regional power initiatives in the form of mini-grids. In terms of bureaucracy for energy development, you have the Ministry of Electricity and Energy taking care of the union level and you also have the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation taking care of rural development. This leaves little confusion as to who is responsible for certain projects.

According to the constitution, regional governments can implement projects no bigger than 30 MW. If Myanmar completes 1000 projects of 30 MW over five years – a distributed energy project – then people will have access to power, which can improve productivity and uplift those in poverty.

The challenge of this kind of model is getting the first major project up and running. Parami Energy Group is working alongside EDF Energy to electrify 7000 households within five years – the first minigrid project of this scope in Myanmar. This project will act as a showcase for social engagement and will demonstrate the potential of renewable energy in bringing power to rural communities.

How are the obstacles to developing renewable energy expected to be overcome?

TUN: In terms of resources, there is an abundance of renewable options, including solar, wind and hydro. However, to develop renewable energy you need good policies in place.

This does not require a rocket scientist: you can adopt policies from the governments of Thailand, Morocco or the Philippines, which have all put in place successful frameworks and incentives to attract investment. It is also critical to have a government body to act as the regulator and monitor of renewable energy standards. All Myanmar needs to have is the political will and look at what other countries are doing.

A major issue is that everyone thinks the term renewable means charity. It is critical to develop a business case or environment in which renewable energy is not viewed as a charity case, but as a sustainable and practical business model. The only solution to create the demand is a mini-grid. The national grid will need to adapt in order to receive renewable electricity, but the mini-grids can achieve this by tapping into the national grid. We first need to develop a mindset around mini-grids. If you want to electrify the country within a reasonable timeframe then mini-grids are the best solution. Myanmar can become the champion of clean energy by adopting this mindset.

Another major hindrance that is holding back energy development is the cost that emerging countries pay for energy projects due to their risk profile. Financiers, international governments and developers need to sit at the same table and view access to power as the basic human right that it is.