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Toward a Sustainable Renewable Energy Policy in Cambodia

Photo of the Lopburi solar power plant in central Thailand, taken in 2011. Courtesy of the Asian Development Bank’s Flickr account.

This is the fourth and final in our short series featuring voices from emerging experts in Cambodia on the water-energy-food nexus and resource management in the Mekong region.

Although Cambodia and Laos continue to move ahead with hydropower projects in the Mekong, solutions to reduce reliance on large-scale hydropower projects exist! It is increasingly acknowledged that large-scale hydropower projects are unsustainable and harmful to the environment and ecosystems both up and downstream of the reservoir. At the same time, the price of renewable energy technologies are globally falling and provide an alternative power generation source to meet development needs and provide affordable and equitable electricity. Cambodia has high-level commitments to reduce carbon emissions, phase-in renewable energy, and bring electricity access to 90% of households by 2030. Cambodia’s National Strategic Development Plan 2019-2023 and Cambodia’s commitment to INDC lay out an ambitious framework for change. Using solar and potentially wind energy to replace non-sustainable hydropower projects could help Cambodia meet these targets.

As a result of increasing construction and investment in manufacturing, Cambodia’s electricity demand is significantly increasing. Electricity consumption has risen between 18% to 20% annually since 2010. The government predicts that electricity demand will grow annually by 9% between 2015 and 2040. To meet this demand, the government plans to more than double supply between 2020 and 2030.

In order to meet this rapidly rising electricity demand, Cambodia has significantly increased domestic energy generation. To date, this has primarily been through support for large-scale hydropower dam and coal. 2019 electricity generation data from the Electricity Authority of Cambodia shows that hydropower makes up 54.76 percent (1,329 MW), coal provides 27.18 percent (660 MW), fuel oil 11.2 percent (271.98 MW) and renewable energy (mostly solar) provides 6.7 percent (163.77 MW).

The government of Cambodia’s Basic Energy Plan for 2020- 2030 continues to rely on hydropower and coal as the main sources for electricity generation. The Sambor and Stung Treng dams are 2 proposed hydropower projects on the Mekong mainstream in Cambodia. The environmental, economic and social impacts of the Sambor and Stung Treng dams have been assessed by numerous agencies and their construction is opposed by many regional and non-governmental organizations and civil society groups. If built, Sambor will become the most severely impactful dam on the Mekong River mainstream, reducing sediment load and blocking the passage of over 80% of migratory fish from Cambodia and Vietnam. This will reduce fish yield by a third just in Cambodia.[1]

In 2019, Cambodia faced electricity shortages during the dry season (March-May) because of high dependency on hydropower power plants, which produced insufficient electricity due to a drought which meant there was insufficient water to operate the hydropower turbines as planned. This prompted action from the government: in presenting Cambodia’s 2020 energy vision, the director of the Cambodian utilities Electricite du Cambodge (EdC) Keo Rattanak announced that Cambodia will expand its solar energy capacity by 12 per cent by the end of 2020 and to 20 per cent by 2023. He said that solar power would be used to meet increasing electricity demands in the industrial and commercial sectors. He also noted that this would be preferable to mainstream dams: “We believe solar power will provide lower prices [than hydropower]. As EdC’s director, I do not want to see the Mekong River as part of the hydropower generation.”

This new goal is takes advantage of falling costs for solar and wind technology and reflects discussions among CSOs and private sector businesses interested in solar energy investment. The 20 percent solar power target mentioned by the Cambodian EDC senior official are very welcome. Many civil society experts think that energy from solar panels could be the number one generator of electricity in Cambodia. There is strong potential with studies suggesting between 8,100 MW and 11,000 MW (IES and MKE 2016) of peak generation capacity in Cambodia every year. To put this in context, Cambodia’s total generation capacity in 2019 (including both domestic and import sources) is 2,870 MW.

Despite these exciting targets, currently the energy policies limit the adoption of solar energy. The government does allow companies and consumers to connect to the national grid while also using solar energy from a rooftop installed system. However, Electricity Authority of Cambodia regulations say that grid-connected solar power projects are only allowed to generate up to 50% of their total demand (in KW) and must purchase the rest from EDC. In order to promote solar photovoltaic generation investment, the government should consider adjusting the energy policy and regulations to remove obstacles and limitations like these. Making these changes would address concerns over the extra costs imposed on industry that want to use solar among small and medium enterprises.

Cambodia has the potential to promote clean and environmentally-friendly energy and reduce dependence on large-scale hydropower in the Mekong. There are signs the government is considering next steps to do so. The draft Environmental Code outlined plans to pilot a feed-in tariff, offering a fixed price for energy fed into the grid from independent renewable energy producers. However, implementing this will require practical and technical actions in addition to legal changes. Access to project financing and taxation is another area where policy changes could help incentivize solar investment companies.

Energy efficiency is also important as an alternative policy to address electricity demand, which on a business as usual (BAU) path will grow at a rapid rate of at least 9% per year and impose challenges on the overall electricity system. The Basic Energy Plan aims for a 15% reduction in total energy demand by 2030, compared to BAU levels. This is the minimum that should be achieved. The Cambodian Government should take further steps to achieve these reductions.

Ultimately, adopting decentralized electricity generation and shifting towards renewables in the energy mix will ensure continued economic growth and affordable electricity prices while minimizing other risks and costs.

The author visiting the first major 60MW commercial solar farm in Kampong Speu province, Cambodia, on July 29, 2019. Photo courtesy of Soknak Por.

Soknak Por, a Cambodian, has been working with non-governmental organizations for more than ten years. Engaging in NGO sector since 2003, Soknak has worked with various projects in Cambodia in the fields of community development, capacity building, governance and natural resources management. He has formulated and built capacity hundreds of community-based organizations and sub-national government officials. He received master’s degree of Development Studies from University of Cambodia and Bachelor of Education in English Literature from Build Bright University in Cambodia. He has strong interest in working with grassroots community for capacity building and empowering them to protect and manage their own resources toward fair sharing of natural resources and sustainable livelihoods. He is currently working as Project Coordinator for People Protecting Their Ecosystems in The Lower Mekong Project, part of Asia Regional Natural Resource Governance Cluster of Oxfam based in Cambodia.

[1] Dr. Vittoria Elliott and Chheng Phen, Report on Spawning Habitats of Fish in the Mekong and 3S Rivers in Cambodia, Inland Fisheries Research and Development Institute, May 2017.

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Cambodia’s energy conundrum: what are the alternatives to the Sambor Dam?

Photo of construction of the Lower Sesan 2 Dam, taken by Socheata Sim and used courtesy of the Mekong Commons Flickr account under a creative commons license.

This is the second in a short series featuring voices from emerging experts in Cambodia on the water-energy-food nexus and resource management in the Mekong region.

Cambodia’s demand for power is currently growing at 20% a year, and experts estimate that double digit growth will continue for seven more years. While alternatives like solar are increasingly attracting attention, this energy deficit has driven discussion about the proposed Sambor dam on the mainstream of Mekong river in Kratie and other tributaries. Fortunately, EDC general director Keo Rattanak has recently announced that Cambodia will prioritize renewable energy development rather than hydropower, and estimates that it will expand to 12% of the energy mix by 2020 and rise to 20% over the next three years. It now seems like the Sambor Dam and hydropower more broadly are becoming less prioritized because there are other options available that will not have the same impacts and risks.

While the recent drought has caused concerns over hydropower’s reliability and enforced a drive to diversify the energy supply, Sambor has a long history: it was first proposed in the 1950s, but the project has been controversial because of the huge negative impacts on fish population and sediment resource, tourism and people livelihood. As a result, it has changed hands on multiple occasions.

In 2013, the Cambodian government hired the US-based Natural Heritage Institute (NHI) to review options for the project. NHI reviewed ten possible alternative design options, including a no-dam option, and concluded Sambor was among the worst proposed place for hydropower because of its large size and position as the lowermost hydropower dam on Mekong mainstream.

The Cambodian Government had previously hoped that the Sambor Dam could act as a major potential source of hydroelectricity in Cambodia. However, the recent unprecedented drought and drop of capacity factor raise questions in drought years about the benefits of hydropower, and the projected impacts for Cambodia and Vietnam make it important to seriously consider alternatives. The main problems from Sambor are the negative impacts on fish population and the serious implications for food security for the region. Sambor would block fish migration from the Tonle Sap—the largest freshwater fisheries nursery in the world— to spawning grounds in the upper reaches of the Mekong river and its tributaries. The Cambodian Fisheries Administration reports that they will see a 16% to 30% drop in fishery yields if the dam is built; other experts estimate a higher loss because 40% to 70 % of Mekong fish are migratory. NHI estimates a total forecasted loss in fish harvest of between 550,000 to 880,000 tons, or a 26% to 42% decrease in total fish capture. Such a loss would decimate the income of tens thousands of subsistence and commercial fishers.

The proposed dam would also affect the movement of sediment and nutrients that flow downstream and are key inputs for agriculture in the Mekong Delta and floodplain. The NHI study estimates that the dam would capture 95% of the sediment flows to the delta. These effects are so severe because of geology: the flat floodplain on which the dam would be built does not allow for the discharge of sediment. Carl Middleton, former Mekong Program Coordinator at International Rivers, noted that the Cambodian landscape is not build for hydro dams like those of its neighbors to the north because of its flatness.

The dam would also affect national economic development. It is close to tourist attractions, such as the only habitat for the endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin estimated by WWF. It also would require the relocation of about 19,000 people. The Mekong River Commission’s 2010 Strategic Environmental Assessment placed the number of affected villagers’ livelihoods even higher.

Finding and investing in alternatives to Sambor and other hydropower dams is more than possible. The NHI study proposed specific alternatives including a floating solar array on the Lower Se San 2 reservoir. This is being explored as one of the no dam options, and the floating array technology has attracted attention as a way of increasing reservoir efficiency because the floating solar panels deflect heat and reduce evaporation. Cambodian land and weather are high potential for solar energy, with an average of slightly over 5 kWh/m2 per day and technical potential of 8100 MW of installed capacity.

Recently, Singapore-based renewables company Cleantech Solar conducted a trial in Cambodia with a 9.8 MW solar installation that includes 2.8 MW of floating PV. It sells power to Cambodian cement manufacturer Chip Mong Insee Cement Corporation (CMIC). Cleantech Solar said floating solar can cut down the economic losses,  as  water cools down the temperature of panels, boosts its efficiency, and limits long –term degradation from the heat. In addition, solar panels can also reduce water loss through evaporation. Riccardo Puliti, Senior Director for Energy and Extractives at the World Bank, said “floating solar technology has huge advantages for countries where land is at a premium or where electricity grids are weak.”

Cambodia also has potential for wind power: Duguet estimated that Cambodia could generate up to 500MW of wind power. Currently, energy in Cambodia is largely produced from coal-fired plants, hydropower dams, and some pilot solar farms.

The Ministry of Mines and Energy estimates that the country will see a 16.1% increase in the supply of electricity in 2019, reaching a total demand of 2,870 MW. NHI’s analysis of alternatives would seek to maximize power production while minimizing environment impact at the same time. WWF has also highlighted that it is possible to design a power system that is low carbon and low impact which would produce reliable and affordable electricity to meet Cambodia’s power demand. Wind and solar energy were 2/3 of all new global power generation capacity in 2018, partly because greater investment in wind and solar can reduce negative impacts on rivers, environment, fish population and human resolution. Equally important, the costs for wind and solar energy sources have dropped dramatically and are now approaching US$0.05/kWh, a price which is comparable to the low end of fossil fuel cost range and the average costs of hydropower.

The significant negative impacts that could result from dam construction and the severe electricity shortage due to drought in recent years is driving Cambodian policymakers to consider renewable energy alternatives.  Further investment in renewable energies would complement the existing power generation sources in the country and help avoid harm to natural resources, the environment, and Cambodia’s people.

Seanghak Khin works with Caritas Switzerland in Cambodia, where she works on Water Governance and Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH). She was previously the Program Coordinator on Innovation and Research program at Center for Sustainable Water. She holds a master’s degree in Water Engineering and Management in Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), Thailand and a bachelor’s degree in Hydrology and Water Resource Engineering in Institute of Technology of Cambodia (ITC), Cambodia. 

Piseth Kim is the Project Manager at the Community Assessment Capacity Building Lab (CACB) and Project SAART. He was previously the Program Coordinator at Center for Sustainable Water (CSW). Piseth has a water resources and environmental engineering educational background in Cambodia and Indonesia, and has been working in Cambodia water sector since 2015.

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Hydropower in Laos: An Alternative Approach


It’s time to take another look at the future of energy in Southeast Asia.

A report published in September by the Stimson Center, a D.C.-based think tank, challenges prevailing notions about the future of hydropower in the Mekong subregion, an area including Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, and southwestern China.

The report focuses on Laos, which in years past has proclaimed itself the future “Battery of Southeast Asia,” by aggressively developing hydropower dams on the Mekong. Laos has already built 29 large dams along the river’s mainstream and tributaries, with plans for over 100 in total. The land-locked country remains the poorest in Southeast Asia, and has planned to raise cash by exporting electricity to consumers in neighboring countries.

But project developers of these dams – who are typically Thai and Chinese companies – have faced criticism from civil society groups and international observers for the myriad social and environmental consequences brought on by dam construction. The Mekong is home to an estimated 1,000 species of fish, many of which migrate along the river and replenish the region’s fisheries. By changing the hydrology of the river, these dams threaten the biodiversity of the Mekong and the livelihoods of fishermen and farmers throughout the region. In times of drought – as has been experienced this year – the dams can cause regional insecurity by contributing to water scarcity problems downriver.

While dam construction has continued apace despite these dangers, the Stimson report argues that new markets and technologies are creating an opportunity to change course.

Challenges for Lao Hydro

The report highlights new developments that could steer Laos away from further damming on the Mekong. First, following a period of economic and political liberalization, Myanmar is emerging as a competitor for energy infrastructure finance. Myanmar boasts nearly 100 gigawatts of potential hydropower capacity, far exceeding what is possible in Laos. Such a glut of potential projects in the region is likely to siphon away financing that might otherwise go towards hydropower development in Laos.

At the same time, China’s economic slowdown could signal the end for cheap and easy hydropower finance in the region. In previous years, Chinese state planners encouraged outbound investment in strategic sectors such as hydropower projects in Southeast Asia. However, the report notes that government concerns about non-performing loans on the books of Chinese banks seem to have reduced the funding available for some projects in Laos. Rising local awareness about the social and environmental costs of these dams also adds a layer of risk that financiers may find discouraging.

Perhaps most critically, it appears as if planned generation in Southeast Asia is outpacing the region’s appetite for energy. China, once envisioned as a potential market for Laos power, is already experiencing serious overcapacity in its domestic power market. Thailand, while still a major investor in Laos hydro projects, has consistently overestimated its own consumption levels – and has lots of room to cut demand through energy efficiency measures. Both Cambodia and Vietnam have planned to reduce their reliance on imported energy, with the latter investing heavily in coal-fired power plants.

A New Vision for Laos

Taken together, these signals make a compelling case for a new energy strategy in Laos and in the region as a whole.

First, the report suggests that Lao planners should invest in a backbone transmission network to connect its patchwork regional grids. This is a good idea for a variety of reasons. A nationwide transmission system would help open up markets for Lao electricity both domestically and internationally by creating a more flexible grid. It would help planners integrate renewable energy resources like solar and wind. It would also be a great step towards electrifying the remaining 20% of the country still without power.

Secondly, planners should consider ways to diversify the country’s energy mix with wind and solar. With too much reliance on hydro, the region risks facing shortages during drought conditions, which will become increasingly likely due to the effects of climate change.

It also makes good economic sense. Utility-scale solar is now nearly cost-competitive with hydro in Laos. Solar avoids the social and environmental challenges associated with hydro that have led to disruptive public protests and cost overruns, making it a safer bet.

In fact, solar already plays an important role in electrifying Laos’ rural communities. Companies like Sunlabob have pioneered low-cost solar home systems to provide basic electricity services like lighting and device charging to remote communities. A new energy outlook from Lao energy planners would also be a great opportunity to optimize plans to fully electrify the country, whether by grid connection, solar home systems, or village-level microgrids.

Lastly, greater international cooperation in energy planning is needed. The construction of a national power grid will require technical assistance from international experts. The Asian Development Bank is leading this effort, and plans to invest $400 million in a national transmission network by 2020. The US has already begun providing power planning and optimization assistance through the Department of Energy and its national laboratories.

The US is also supporting renewables in Laos. In advance of President Obama’s visit to Laos in September 2016, the US Trade and Development Agency committed to funding a feasibility study for a 20 megawatt solar farm in the country.

China, as a regional power with an abiding interest in Laos’ energy sector, can also benefit from this shift. The world’s largest solar module manufacturers are Chinese, and government support for emerging solar markets is one way to bolster domestic manufacturers while also rebranding China as a responsible stakeholder in the region.

Laos’ energy future is still uncertain. Energy planners remain convinced that prioritizing dam construction is Laos’ ticket to prosperity, despite the risks. But as the challenges for Lao hydro become ever more apparent, a new way forward could be in the making.

Read the Stimson Center’s full report here.

This article was first published here on the Pacific Observer website.

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