Throughout his promotion of the United Nation’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said several times that “energy is the golden thread that connects economic growth, social equity and environmental sustainability.”
The sentiments of the secretary-general’s declaration are particularly fitting for the development of Myanmar, Asia’s most talked-about, exciting new market. Given its political and economic reforms, this country of more than 60 million people is poised for substantial progress in the coming years – but not without a major increase in its electrification rate.
Today, only one in four people in Myanmar have access to electricity. Of the 40 million people living in rural areas, only one in six have access to electricity.
The low rates of electrification are undeniably linked to the low levels of economic and social welfare in the country. Myanmar has one of the lowest per-capita gross domestic products in Asia at an estimated $855 in 2012, and recent assessments have found that a quarter of the population lives in poverty.
The need for electrification in Myanmar is undeniably imperative. Access to electricity is a fundamental ingredient for social and economic development.
Fortunately, Myanmar is in an opportune position. It is essentially building its electricity infrastructure from the ground up, allowing the government to tap into the lessons learned by other developing countries in similar situations.
Laos, for example, had an electrification rate hovering just above 30 percent in 2000. Today, after little more than a decade, more than 7 in 10 Laotians have access to electricity. This has been achieved through: A) steady development of the country’s vast hydropower resources (which Myanmar also holds) to expand grid-connected power; and B) rural, off-grid renewable energy, particularly with solar home systems (SHS) and village mini-grids.
While on-grid electrification in Myanmar will likely come from its abundance of hydropower and natural gas in the long-term, the case is strong for off-grid renewable energy now, given that two-thirds of the population lives in rural areas. In the hopes that Myanmar integrates decentralized renewable energy into its electrification strategy, the country would be wise to consider the experiences of Laos and other developing countries.
Firstly, the efforts to implement solar PV, micro-hydro and other off-grid, clean energy sources need to be spearheaded jointly by the public and private sectors. Public-private partnerships that tap into the resources of the public sector and maximize the expertise of the business community have proven to be a critical driver of development in Laos and much of the developing world. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, among other key players, have recently announced significant investments in Myanmar (details of The World Bank’s activities here and ADB’s here), which is a step in the right direction.
Perhaps even more importantly, Myanmar has the opportunity to utilize off-grid renewable energy not only as a gateway to better education, healthcare and livelihoods, but also as a source of direct employment in rural communities. Using a community-based approach that provides training and direct income generation for local technicians and a local governance group (what we at Sunlabob call Village Energy Technicians and Village Energy Committees), Myanmar can use micro-entrepreneurship to simultaneously electrify the nation and help lift its people out of poverty. We have seen how this localized, entrepreneurial approach to off-grid electrification has been a factor in the sustainable development of Laos and dozens of other developing countries around the world. Involving local individuals that become loyal and empowered is a key element of implementing rural electrification that is sustainable – economically, socially and environmentally.
As the secretary-general has said, electricity is a prerequisite for growth and development. If Myanmar is going to incorporate this “golden thread” in a timely manner, off-grid renewable energy needs to a part of the plan. While large-scale hydropower and gas resources are developed and grid infrastructure slowly extends throughout the country, more immediate progress can be made. With the right public-private partnerships, proven community-based approaches that leverage clean energy and stimulate entrepreneurship can begin making a difference now.
Andy Schroeter is co-founder and CEO of Sunlabob Renewable Energy, Ltd., a Laos-based social enterprise that specializes in renewable energy and clean water projects in developing regions of the world, including Asia, Africa, India and the Pacific.