Our intention is to become a self-sustaining energy industry."
FIVE years ago, a 100-person village in Battambang province became a trail-blazing experiment in the use of renewable power in rural Cambodia.
The village, An Long Tmey, located in Chhey Teal commune, received its own ‘gasification’ system, a renewable energy reactor that converts nut husks and wood into green energy.
To operate the system, residents laboured day and night to oversee organic products being turned into gas and pumped through a dynamo to electrify their community. Families also planted crops of high-yield wood to fuel the unit.
By many accounts, the entire community benefited from a stable, long-term power source, which serviced 300 homes in the area.
Now, that system is under threat.
The state-owned Energy Authority Cambodia power line is coming to the village. With cheaper rates – around 900 riels less per kilowatt – and the promise of 24-hour power, it could potentially provide a better deal for the community.
But if the existing renewable system is to survive, the electricity commune must find US$20,000 to upgrade its existing wires to be compatible with the national grid. Only then can it become a licensed body able to provide energy to residents.
With only $9,000 of savings, if the village does not find a donor willing to help, another energy provider, such as Electricite du Cambodge, will be licenced in the area and the experiment will end.
On Monday, the executive committee that operates the system told the Post how the village has benefited from power.
As he sat in front of the gasification unit, which was funded by $110,000 coming from groups including the UN Development Programme, committee member Sam Sophorm told how a stable energy system had changed the economic makeup of the village. Small shops and restaurants can now stay open after dark, he said, which has been a boon for trade. The local clinic can treat patients during the night, and a TV and electric guitar repair shop is flourishing.
He said he believes the project could provide a viable model for other rural villages like An Long Thmey.
“People here are lucky to get offered the line from the government, but in other areas of Cambodia that don’t have electricity, to use gasification must be a good option for them,” he said.
Committee chairman Dong Ly, 52, said he hopes a third party will step in to plug the gap in funds, but added that he realises he cannot fly in the face of development.
“I am in the middle. I am sorry we did not save enough to upgrade, I would like the energy community to continue, but I can’t be the barrier to stop the government’s plans,” he said.
As villagers await a resolution, investors and observers are reflecting on the successes and failures of the experiment and what it means for efforts to bring renewable energy to other villages throughout the Kingdom.
Investors believe that the village’s experience has been instructive with respect to how renewable energy can work within rural communities, but they also recognise its failures.
Over the years, in response to increased demand, the commune began supplementing its renewable energy sources with diesel. Training villagers to run their own power source also provided a unique challenge.
Tony Knowles, director of SME Cambodia, which put forward at least $25,000 towards the village project over past five years, explained: “The idea of an energy cooperative has a lot of appeal, but in retrospect we are talking about taking rice farmers and turning them into managers.
“It’s a complicated process. The problem in a village is that the person you may be dealing with or wanting payment from may be your cousin.”
The experience in An Long Thmey village has prompted a change of path for the firm.
“What we do know now is that we are less enthusiastic about jumping to a cooperative as a first step. We are looking at investing in motivated entrepreneurs, who have more incentive in maintaining customer service, and businesses such as rice mills.”
The importance of setting up viable business models to provide for the Kingdom’s long-term needs has also been emphasised by other companies looking to benefit from Cambodia’s power problems.
According to a report from the Asian Development Bank and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), only 20 percent of households in the Kingdom are electrified, and energy demand is set to grow 3.7 percent per year until 2030.
The government has recently ramped up renewable power operations. In September last year, it slashed trade tariffs for some renewable energy products from 35 percent to 7 percent.
Jan Lan, from the National Bio-digester Programme, an organisation that promotes biofuel cooking stoves and is jointly supported by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said that sustainability was key.
He hopes, in time, that his industry can be funded by carbon trading.
“There is a lot of industry potential here,” he said. “Our intention is to become a self-sustaining energy industry.”