(Corrects source of funding for mini-grids in paragraph 31)
By Thin Lei Win
NYAUNG KONE, Myanmar, March 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation)
- F or generations, residents of this farming village in central
Myanmar had a set rhythm to their day - waking up with the
sunrise and going to sleep after dark. Diesel generators and
batteries were for the privileged few, while the candles used by
most were a fire hazard for thatch and bamboo houses.
On a recent, balmy evening, however, the remote village of
Nyaung Kone in Myanmar's central Dry Zone was still abuzz long
after night fell.
Women sifted onions and winnowed peanuts under their stilt
homes. There were queues at snack stalls and children recited
their lessons. One family watched a Korean soap opera on TV.
"I used to spend about 200 kyat ($0.15) every night on
candles for my sons to study, and I was always worried it would
cause a fire. Now I don't spend that anymore and can work late
into the night," said peanut farmer Than Than Sint, 44.
A power inverter blinked nearby on the floor of her
neighbour's home, connected to two solar panels.
Access to electricity from clean sources such as solar and
small-scale hydropower is changing the centuries-old way of life
in thousands of rural communities like this across Myanmar.
But experts say unsupportive policies and a lack of
political will are hampering the development of a commercially
viable market in renewable energy.
More than two-thirds of Myanmar's 51 million people lack
access to reliable, affordable electricity, mostly in rural
Yet successive governments have focused on large-scale
hydropower, gas and coal, which critics say are environmentally
destructive and costly.
Than Than Sint, whose husband left to work in Malaysia nine
years ago, paid 63,000 kyat for her solar system in instalments
over 10 months, under a project led by Pact, an international
nonprofit working with businesses to bring electricity to a
million people in rural Myanmar by 2020.
The solar power lights up her shrine, living room and the
space beneath her house, where she works in the evenings.
Half of Nyaung Kone bought solar systems through Pact's
programme, while 16 more families later purchased them outright
from the same supplier.
The project's second phase, if Pact can find funding, would
develop mini-grids - local power networks that can supply a
village, unconnected to the national grid.
For over half a century, Myanmar's military rulers neglected
their citizens, leaving nearly 40,000 villages without access to
the ageing grid.
But with blackouts plaguing even areas that are
grid-connected in the dry season due to an over-reliance on
hydropower people have taken matters into their own hands.
"With no government support whatsoever, there has risen a
market for household-scale solutions," said Chris Greacen, a
consultant on off-grid electrification who has advised the World
Bank and Germany's development agency GIZ in Myanmar.
According to Myanmar's 2014 census, about 178,000 households
used private water mills as a primary source of lighting, while
945,000 used solar, and 1 million used diesel generators.
Generators are expensive. Pact says one hour of diesel power
in rural Myanmar costs roughly the same as 24 hours of power in
Yangon, the commercial capital. But their prevalence shows
villagers' willingness to pay to get electricity, experts say.
Renewables are greener and cheaper, quicker to set up and
well-positioned for off-grid needs, said Aung Myint, general
secretary of the Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar (REAM).
Yet there is little political will to develop a sustainable
market in renewables, or even consider their potential as the
government favours a centralised system, he said.
Myanmar's Energy Master Plan, drawn up with the Asian
Development Bank (ADB), projects a significant increase in
coal's share of national electricity output by 2030, to almost
30 percent from less than 2 percent in 2015.
Meanwhile, the $5.8-billion National Electrification Plan
(NEP) - which aims to bring power to all of Myanmar by 2030 and
overwhelmingly favours grid extension - is starting with a $400
million loan from the World Bank, which said the money is not
funding coal or hydropower projects.
Industry watchers call the universal access target
ambitious. But Sunil Kumar Khosla, the World Bank's lead energy
specialist, said Vietnam, Laos and Thailand were able to
increase electricity coverage from 30 percent to nearly 100
percent within two decades.
Myanmar's Department of Rural Development, which is
responsible for off-grid electrification, did not respond to
requests for comment on government policy.
UNEVEN PLAYING FIELD
Greacen said renewable energy systems, especially
micro-hydro and mini-grids, are viable options while people wait
to be connected to the main power grid.
In Thailand, a programme for "very small power producers"
allows mini-grids to sell electricity to the national grid at
"That programme has enabled over 3,000 megawatts of
small-scale renewables to come online - that's the same
generating capacity as three large nuclear power plants," said
Yet in Myanmar, basic laws governing off-grid and rural
electrification have not been passed. REAM's Aung Myint said
this regulatory bottleneck makes investors reluctant to step in.
In addition, most of Myanmar's off-grid projects so far have
been heavily subsidised by the government or donors.
For example, nearly 500,000 households will benefit from
solar home systems and mini-grids under the NEP, with subsidies
of up to 90 percent.
"How can you compete with a free or nearly free product?"
asked Evan Scandling, Myanmar managing director of Sunlabob
Renewable Energy Ltd, which recently built 11 solar mini-grids
in remote villages with funding from the Japanese government.
But with thousands of villages unlikely to be connected to
the grid for the foreseeable future, "there's a market
opportunity and a development opportunity", he added.
The main clients for off-grid solutions in Myanmar are the
4.5 million households spending more than $200 million per year
on candles, kerosene, batteries and diesel, according to the
International Finance Corporation, the World Bank's
private-sector arm which is helping foster a commercial market
for solar devices and kits in the country.
Farmer Myint Maung, 58, has heard rumours the main grid
might reach his isolated village of Aung Thar in the Dry Zone
next year - but hook-ups will cost each household 400,000 kyat.
"I'm not sure how I can afford that. I might as well stick
with my solar system," he said.
($1 = 1,365.0000 kyat)
(Reporting By Thin Lei Win, editing by Megan Rowling; Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights,
corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)