Solving Myanmar’s power problem
ABB believes microgrids are the solution to Myanmar’s power shortage problems. A senior executive at the power grid company explains how it can be done.
Stay in Yangon long enough and you’ll probably experience the electricity going off halfway through your meal at one of the city’s many restaurants. The problem is so common in the city that you might also have noticed the other patrons carrying on with their dinners unperturbed by the sudden power disruption. Stay a little longer and you, too, may not bat an eyelid the next time the lights go off.
But Myanmar’s power problem must be fixed if the country is to keep up with the pace at which its economy is developing, Chaiyot Piyawannarat, managing director of power grid maker ABB Limited in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, told The Myanmar Times.
“The Myanmar economy has been growing fast and the country’s infrastructure has not been able to keep up with the demand. Myanmar could have expanded even faster than it has if it had better infrastructure for power generation and distribution,” he said.
Myanmar derives most of its electricity from hydropower. In recent years, the use of imported liquefied natural gas has also been growing.
Currently though, just around 30 per cent of the Myanmar population receives electricity, according to Khun Chaiyot’s estimates. “The existing power grid by the Ministry of Electricity and Energy (MOEE) covers just one third of the population, with two thirds still not covered,” he said.
That’s because it is not economically viable for the government to invest in extending its cable and distribution network to areas which are geographically unsuitable or scarcely populated.
Already, Myanmar is generating electricity at an annual loss of more than K300 billion, or a loss of K23 per unit of electricity produced, said U Myint Oo, deputy director general from MOEE’s Department of Electric Power.
In 2016-17, it made a loss of about K337 billion in electricity transmission, deputy minister at the MOEE Dr Tun Naing told the Pyithu Hluttaw last month.
In 2017-18, the MOEE estimates that the nation’s electricity demand should hit 3,100 megawatts. It expects to make a loss of around K376 billion for the period.
But Myanmar doesn’t need to spend hefty amounts to develop its existing infrastructure, Khun Chaiyot said. The way he sees it, by implementing new microgrid technologies in Myanmar, large swathes of the population could enjoy electricity without the need for a conventional power grid.
Microgrids are low or medium-voltage grids located at or near the consumption site and can generate power from both renewable and conventional sources. They are also equipped with energy storage systems and can run on batteries. Importantly, microgrids can be connected to the main power grid or be completely off-grid.
“Myanmar can actually leapfrog the conventional grid by embracing new technologies like the microgrid,” said Khun Chaiyot. “Currently, the majority of the population without access to power can enjoy the benefits of the microgrid, which we can now build and install much more cheaply compared to ten years ago.”
He added that “pulling transmission lines or building a transmission network that reaches the remote villages take time. But by tapping the microgrid, many more areas can receive electricity more reliably, efficiently and cost effectively. Microgrids are ideal for rural areas.”
Importantly, the microgrid will also take the funding burden off the government. “The government subsidises electricity in Myanmar to keep prices low, but ultimately, it is not sustainable,” said Khun Chaiyot.
So what should the government and industry do to get implement the microgrid in Myanmar? “First of all, the country must have a policy which is supportive of technology and which encourages the implementation of new technologies,” Khun Chaiyot said.
Both the public and private sector must work closely to develop a master plan for implementation. “Bureaucracy must be minimised from all the processes and steps involved,” he said. For example, getting permission to invest in and develop the new technology must be simple and painless.
“The technology is already there and it is more economical to implement now than ever before. It all has to do with how fast and easy things can get done,” said Khun Chaiyot.
Access to funding is also important. “Funding must come from the government but currently, they are fiscally limited. So, more schemes like public-private partnerships, international funding from the World Bank, Asia Development Bank and Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank are needed to fast-track the pace of investment. There is a lot of money required to get started,” he said.
Of course, even with the support of the government, companies like ABB face stiff challenges in introducing the microgrid in Myanmar. One of the biggest hurdles is the environment and objections from locals fearing displacement. In 2011, a US$3.6-billion, Chinese-backed megadam project in Kachin State, the Mytisone Dam, was called off due to environment concerns. Meanwhile, investors have been reluctant to fund coal-fired plants, fearing reprisals from the locals.
The other concern is supply volatility. “The power supply for the microgrid will most likely come from renewable sources like solar and hydropower. But supply from these sources is usually erratic. For example, solar power may be affected by cloud cover and you may not get enough hydropower during the dry season,” Khun Chaiyot said.
“So, our networks and storage systems need to be powerful enough to handle intermittent fluctuations in power.”
Khun Chaiyot isn’t worried though. The way he tells it, it’s just a matter of time before microgrids powered by renewable energy takes off in Myanmar.
“The cost of producing 1 unit of power for solar is now matched with that generated from conventional fossils. Renewable infrastructure and technology has developed in such a way where the capital expenditure is on par with fossil power. Myanmar will leapfrog the conventional grid and embrace new technologies. It will come,” he said.