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Energy policy needs flexibility

GE Vice Chairman John Rice speaks to The Post last week in Phnom Penh. Post Staff
GE Vice Chairman John Rice speaks to The Post last week in Phnom Penh. Post Staff

Energy policy needs flexibility

Despite Cambodia’s growing power generation, grid access is limited and the country still imports electricity from its neighbours. The Post’s Matthieu de Gaudemar sat down with John Rice, vice chairman of General Electric (GE), during his visit to the World Economic Forum (WEF) regional summit in Phnom Penh, to discuss the future of energy generation in Cambodia.

Is there is a right mix of energy sources that developing countries should strive for?
I’m not sure there is a right energy mix, because the technology keeps evolving and changes over time. What we advocate is to have a set of options and keep all the doors open and be as flexible as possible. Here it is largely coal and hydro. But in the future, if natural gas sources become available, I don’t think the country should rule that out. Although there is not a lot of wind in Cambodia that lends itself to a big wind farm, you never know, as the technology develops, there might be a way to do some wind here too.

How does a country like Cambodia balance an immediate need to produce electricity at low costs with a necessity for more expensive infrastructure that would pay dividends in the long term?
I think in a country where not everybody has access to electricity on a regular basis, you’ve got to solve that problem as quickly as you can. With a country like Cambodia, coal is important today and will continue to be important. It is incumbent upon us to deliver coal technologies that are more efficient and allow coal to be consumed in a more environmentally responsible way.

How important is it to ensure that electricity transmission is efficient?
It is very important because you can’t have a big renewable component if you don’t have a stable grid that can handle some of the intermittencies that come with renewables. Hydro is great during the rainy season and more challenging during the dry season. You need stable grids to be able to handle that energy flow.

What is the future of power generation in Cambodia and the region?
I think that you will see a little more coal, but with advanced technologies, that allow for the right environmental management. Hydro will continue to be part of the picture and I also believe we shouldn’t stop exploring for wind opportunities. And then we have to see about natural gas. If a supply becomes available I think that should be considered because the newest combined cycle gas turbine technology is efficient and responsible from an environmental perspective. I wouldn’t rule that out in the longer term depending on the availability of fuel supply.

Should Cambodia be looking to diversify its energy production?
A diverse portfolio will always be better because you just don’t know where the technology is going to develop the most. I mentioned the progress that has been made in wind power generation, but gas turbines are also becoming much more efficient. You don’t want to look in to any one source, you want to remain flexible and explore as many options as possible.

What is your view of centralised versus decentralised grids?
I think you need both. In the populated areas, you are going to have bigger more centralised power production, so investing in transmission and distribution there is smart and cost-effective. When you talk about running wires to remote villages, it becomes less efficient.

I think the more expedient answer in some cases is to invest in distributed power generation and micro-grids that allow for a combination of villages to be taken care of by a smaller distributed power generating unit.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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