Power shortage a wake up call

Miles Dugmore

Cambodia is primarily reliant on coal and hydro for its power, and as we are aware, the hydro part is being constrained by low water flows in the Mekong. There are more coal-fired plants planned in Sihanouk Province and these will make a valuable addition.

The recent article [April 5 – Turk Power not coming] in Khmer Times should be a wake up call for everyone.

For the latest Cambodian Business news, visit Khmer Times Business

The Cambodian government needs to be more proactive in its forecasts of power production and power demand, and should factor in the inevitable effects of “climate change” [sometimes referred to as “global warming”].

There needs to be more effective government monitoring and planning of the flows of water in the Mekong and how this will impact electrical generation. And here, we must consider the actions of other countries, those that are further upstream in the Mekong. As in the drought of 2015-2017, there were political ramifications associated with the flow in the Mekong as each country from China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam have an effect by how they each release water from their dams on those further downstream, and Cambodia is very downstream. Of course, its not just power generation that is affected, but irrigation. Everything is interconnected.

There needs to be planning and forecasting of the effects of increased industrial and household development, and how this will impact the demand for power. What will be the extra power demand when more apartments and houses are occupied by an increasing population? As the population becomes more prosperous and middle class, they will inevitably consume more energy from all sources including electricity – this will need to be factored into future forecasts.

Once there is a 10-year (or longer) plan of projected power supply and demand, there needs to be a factoring in of unusual circumstances, such as Cambodia is experiencing now, in the form of low flow rates in the Mekong. It may be a realisation that such low flow rates will become common in the future.

The first action to resolving any problem is to define the problem, and the government should not be afraid to make the situation clear. Only then can there be informed debates as to the best way forward. With informed debates and a general consensus, it is possible to move forward with the weight of the people behind the government.

Climate change and its effects will be the biggest issue facing mankind and we cannot discuss the issue of power generation without understanding the sort of world we are moving into. Climate change and power generation are closely linked. The variability of the flow rates of the Mekong has to be linked to climate change and the damming of the river in multiple places. Both these factors are outside the control of the Cambodian government.

The finger has been consistently pointed at carbon dioxide (CO2) as the primary greenhouse gas that is responsible for what is termed climate change. Electrical and heat (for colder countries) are the biggest source of CO2 production. Coal for power generation is generally recognised as the worst offender for CO2 and other dangerous gas emissions to the environment.

Thailand’s predicament

Thailand will face power generation challenges in the near future as it relies on its own domestically-produced natural gas to generate power. While this is a much cleaner and better fuel to use than coal, it is still a CO2 producer and a sad way to use a very valuable resource which could otherwise be put to better use. In 2007, Thailand had 14.75 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves, and by 2018 this was down to 6.83 – you can draw your own conclusions about the rate of drawdown of Thailand’s domestic gas. It would seem that Thailand will have to rely on imported natural gas in the future, and they will have no control over this pricing (or supply) but it would be reasonable to conclude that it will be more expensive than now. Also, a projection for Thailand power consumption in 2037 suggests a large amount of power will be imported from neighbouring countries, so it is not likely that Thailand will be in a position to supply power to Cambodia, and the same will likely apply to Laos and Vietnam as potential power suppliers to Cambodia. It must be questionable as to just which countries Thailand will import their power from, and how these countries will generate their power, and at what cost?

So what about Cambodia?

Cambodia is primarily reliant on coal and hydro for its power, and as we are aware, the hydro part is being constrained by low water flows in the Mekong. There are more coal-fired plants planned in Sihanouk Province and these will make a valuable addition.

Its easy to point the finger at Cambodia and say “you should not be building coal-fired stations – the effects of climate change will mean disaster”. But the reality is, that the amount of CO2 per person (pp) emitted by Khmer is tiny and it is the other industrialised countries who have churned out incredible amounts of CO2 which is how they have gained the lifestyle they enjoy today. As a matter of note, the biggest consumer of oil in the world is the US military but there is no attempt to curtail this.

So, it is hypocritical for the major powers to level any criticism at Cambodia for its use of coal-fired power stations. But that is not to say that Cambodia cannot be smart in its future “energy mix”. Cambodia is a country with a lot of sun, so it is obvious that solar power has a bigger part to play.

In recent years, the cost of production of a kilowatt hour generated by solar power has fallen hugely to a point where it is more than competitive with traditional forms of power generation – except of course it will not produce power at night. Depending on the projected supply and demand, it might be worth considering increasing the mix with more solar power, and maybe a natural gas plant to provide a boost in the evenings when solar is no longer making a contribution. Natural gas plants are relatively inexpensive, and use clean fuel (although they put out CO2) but have the advantage of a quick start up when there is a peak demand.

But maybe Cambodia can steal a lead on its neighbours. You can have “smart” electrical meters that can meter electricity at more than just one rate. So, for example, during the day when there is ample supply of solar power, the consumer is billed at a lower rate but then in the evening the rate is higher, perhaps to pay for the gas of the gas-powered station. Those people on lower incomes can juggle their energy use to take advantage of lower tariffs (such as only turn on your fridge during the day to cool down, and do your washing and cooking that needs power in the daytime), and those who are prepared to pay more, who perhaps work all day, can afford to pay the higher rate in the evening.

Another consideration, and this highlights the point of how everything is connected, is a move to electrically-powered small vehicles in Phnom Penh. There could be charging outlets that have two rates, one for daytime and one for nighttime. The nighttime being a much higher rate. It won’t take much imagination to see that tuktuk type drivers will make sure their batteries are charged before the higher rate comes into effect.

In Manila, the old Jeepneys (diesel-powered ancient truck/taxis) are all being retired by order of their government, and being replaced by quiet comfortable non-polluting electrical small bus/taxis. Should this not be an example that Cambodia could follow?

Many cost/benefits cannot be easily measured but small vehicle engines are often making quite dangerous and health-damaging emissions, that is above the CO2 which in low concentrations have no negative effect on health. Improving the air quality in Phnom Penh and making the city quieter will be a big bonus for tourists. It will also improve the health of children and the quality of life, as a whole.

What has not been discussed is the conservation and more efficient use of power. Often, it can be easier and more cost-effective to use less power than build power stations and fuel them to provide the power that could otherwise be saved. This is a topic of consideration all by itself.

The argument for a massive increase in solar power is strong. How that solar power can be put to good use needs careful and imaginative consideration. There are other alternatives that can be considered on a small-scale for rural communities, such a biogas generators – gas from rooting organic material, human or animal.

What could the spin-offs be for a more imaginative approach? Perhaps Cambodia should be assembling its own solar panels or its own new small electrical vehicle fleet?

There can be no one “magic bullet” that will fix the power demands and issues that Cambodia faces.

The world is facing an extremely uncertain future and just demanding “business as usual”, might not cut it. Cambodia and its neighbouring countries are some of the most at risk from climate change, and that really is the subject of another discussion. Cambodia needs to have foresight, be patient and try its best to adapt to a changing world.

Miles Dugmore, 65, is based in Northland, New Zealand. He sees his involvement in Cambodia as the last big chapter in his life


Related articles