The bare statistics alone show the scale of Cambodia's energy problem: 85 percent
of rural households have no access to electricity, while those lucky enough to have
a power supply pay two or three times more than people in Thailand or Vietnam.
Teams prepare to install solar power equipment in rural schools and health centers.
The key reason for such dismal figures is Cambodia's lack of a national grid, which
forces homes and businesses in rural areas to rely on erratic local suppliers or
their own expensive diesel generators.
"Medium-sized rice millers in rural areas spend at least $80-100 a day to power
their mills, which is very expensive," says Rin Seyha, business development
services manager at Enterprise Development Cambodia (EDC).
Reducing these costs has long exercised the likes of Rin Seyha. One proposal was
to build power transmission lines between Phnom Penh and the western provinces, linked
to Thailand and Vietnam.
Both neighbors have larger and more efficient energy generation systems, but the
plan keeps stalling. The current projected date is 2005, but could again be pushed
Which is why advocates of renewable energy initiatives say they may have the answer
to the country's power problems. The government has some ambitious plans to use solar
power, wind power, hydroelectricity and biomass technologies, despite their current
"Our goal is that every school and house in rural areas will be powered by solar
energy in ten years time," says Dr Sat Samy, director of energy technique at
the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy (MIME). "My dream is that the world
will see Cambodia as a great example of renewable energy."
Dr Samy says that public services have been the first to benefit from the government's
solar implementation plan. Twenty schools and ten training centers in rural areas
have been fitted with solar energy systems this year, and in the past three years
around 50 health centers have started using solar energy.
But it is expensive: it costs around $350 to provide a single house with the solar
panels and other equipment needed to power a black-and-white television and one light
bulb. That is considerably more than the annual income of the average rural household.
For solar energy to take hold funds will be required from the international community.
Some money has started to come in. The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB),
and the Japanese government recently committed funds to help Cambodia with its renewable
The World Bank project will establish a Rural Electrification Fund, which will assess
different renewable energy projects and give money to those deemed suitable. The
result should be lower electricity costs for rural households.
Another tranche of money came from the Japanese New Energy and Industrial Technology
Development Organization. It gave $8 million for two projects: the first is in Kampong
Cham and will use solar and hydro-electric power to provide electricity for 2,000
The second project uses solar power and biomass technology, with cow manure the principal
fuel. That should generate energy for the cattle farm and 300 families in the surrounding
"I am very excited," says Dr Samy. "We now have lots of donors. The
ADB has agreed to cooperate and to give funds for feasibility studies and we are
also now in the second stage of the World Bank project."
Cost is only one obstacle to the goal of clean energy for all. Dr Samy says that
unfamiliarity with new technologies will hold Cambodia back.
"It is difficult because we cannot get everyone together to educate them about
renewable energy," he says.
The EDC's Seyha agrees and cites a lack of knowledge within local banks as a major
barrier to setting up renewable energy projects.
"No bank is willing to invest money in a technology that remains unproven in
Cambodia," he says, adding that local businesses are also under-informed about
related enviro-friendly technologies.
"People in developing countries are not familiar with [enviro-friendly energy]
and it is difficult for them to jump into new technologies," he explains. "They
do not have the start-up costs and are wary. They would rather rely on old energy
But the biggest obstacle in the way of renewable energy is high start-up costs for
large-scale industry, which put factories and rice mills at a significant disadvantage.
Dr Samy says that a factory in Phnom Penh that wanted to install solar energy would
not see the benefits for at least ten years.
Tin Ponlok, national coordinator for a climate change project at the Ministry of
Environment, feels that without continued funding solar energy will not be a viable
"Solar energy cannot survive because it is too expensive. It cannot continue
commercially," he says.
Ponlok believes that the only way a developing nation like Cambodia can help combat
climate change is by working with developed countries to help them meet their commitments
to reduce CO2 emissions by 5 percent in ten years time, a condition of the Kyoto
A recent joint initiative between the European Commission (EC) and ASEAN is looking
at helping Cambodia achieve this. The result is COGEN 3, an initiative to promote
cogeneration, a method to produce both heat and electricity from a single fuel source.
The technology, which is being used in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, can reduce
CO2 emissions by up to 50 percent.
Cogeneration plants can use almost anything as fuel, including coal, gas, petroleum,
and agricultural by-products such as rice husks, palm oil or even animal waste.
One rice mill in Thailand uses rice husks to fuel the generator and then sells the
ashes to Europe as fertilizer.
"A lot of biomass is produced by the agriculture industry in Cambodia,"
says Mila Jude, a country coordinator with COGEN 3. "Cogeneration uses waste
products to solve environmental problems while at the same time acting as a fuel
to generate heat and electricity."
She says that the ash generated can then be sold, which further reduces the cost
of running a cogeneration system.
Teams prepare to install solar power equipment in rural schools and health centers.
The scheme helps both developed and developing countries alike. Kyoto allows developed
nations to invest in 'clean' energy in developing countries such as Cambodia. The
subsequent reduction in emissions from the local factory goes toward meeting the
target for the developed country.
Although EDC's Rin Seyha supports the principle, he is skeptical about the potential
"Only about ten people are aware of [cogeneration] technology," he says.
"In order for cogeneration to be successful in Cambodia, there needs to be more
workshops and more demonstrations, not just seminars.
"Only the large scale mills are possibly able to implement cogeneration technology,
and only about 5 percent of them could have the money to implement such a project."
The start-up costs for a cogeneration plant are significant: it can cost a rice mill
between $1-3 million. The EC and ASEAN are offering to pay 15 percent of the start-up
costs for a demonstration project, but the remainder would need to be borne by the
rice mill. Advocates of renewable energy complain donors are not giving enough.
"It should be 50 to 70 percent," says Dr Samy. "We think it is still
very low because Cambodia is still very poor."
EDC's Seyha believes cogeneration may offer a long-term solution, provided there
is more funding.
"The World Bank or the ADB should consider investing in cogeneration, so there
is an up-and-running example in Cambodia for possible private sector investors to
see," he says. "If there is a loan to help [the rice mills] and support
from COGEN 3 this would be a start."
While funding continues to be a problem for large-scale projects, smaller schemes
are closer to fruition. Luc Vanheel runs a guest-house in Battambang, and is developing
a windpower project that he hopes to sell to NGOs, businesses and private individuals.
"I am a electronics engineer by trade," says Vanheel, "and I got bored
so I started to look at projects that could help the people here."
Vanheel based his research on a similar project in Mexico, and will implement his
first wind-generated electricity system in the next few months.
Although there are companies which sell windpower generators to homes and businesses,
Vanheel says his system will be far cheaper because the machines will be locally
made, with technicians trained here to maintain them.
Whether any of these new technologies will provide the solution to Cambodia's long
term energy problems remains to be seen, but Dr Samy believes that the long-term
goal should focus on helping the environment by providing sustainable, cheap and
clean energy for everyone.
"My main goal is to help the environment," he says. "My country can
help clean the environment, and that will benefit everyone."