W ITHIN three years Phnom Penh will generate more electricity than it needs and
have enough modern lines to carry that power to every house.
That, at least, is the plan. The situation now is vastly different.
The present generators are old and cannot cope with the demand; the power
lines with he demand; theft is rife; and powerful private wholesalers dictate to
a large extent who gets electricity and who doesn't.
"We have a crisis in electricity and energy... it is crisis that takes up
most of my time," Industry, Mines and Energy Minister Pou Sothirak said.
"Phnom Penh is a big mess right now, a spider's web," said Sothirak-the
minister voted the least popular only because of the electricity problem.
There are presently four stations in Phnom Penh producing 20 megawatts of
power. Some of the generators date back to the 1930s.
Khmer technicians do a fine job patching up the machines to keep them
Electricitie du Cambodge ( EDC) sells power for 245 riel a unit to 300 or
more sub-stations dotted around the city. EDC owns about half those
sub-stations; the other half are owned by private wholesalers.
The sub-station owners sell the electricity to home owners.
By law they cannot charge more than 350 riel a unit to locals, and 21 cents a
unit to foreigners.
In practice the wholesale markup, per unit, can be double the legal limit.
Unsuspecting foreigners can pay plenty-one anecdote tell of a single foreigner
happily paying a $500 monthly bill.
Power cuts occur when lines break or when EDC runs out of money to buy oil
for the generators.
However, the most common cause of blackout is when the demand for power
exceeds the 20 megawatt capacity. Phnom Penh uses 60 megawatts or more a
During those times, EDC officers have to visit sub-stations and physically
switch off supplies to various neighborhoods.
However, many sub-station wholesalers are rich, powerful and armed. Also,
some of their customers are similarly well connected-24-hour electricity for
them is the norm, not the exception.
Many times, industry sources say, it is impossible-and dangerous-to try and
tell those "VIP" wholesalers to turn off their power.
The losers in the supply and demand game are those living in poor
neighborhoods, some of whom have not had power for years,"One wholesaler (in a
poor area) hadn't paid for one year," said one industry source. "But it wasn't
possible for another wholesaler to take his place because all the power lines
been pulled down and sold.
Another source said that if a homeowner was lucky enough to be "hanging" from
the same line as one of Phnom Penh's "priority users" then 24-hour electricity
Many wholesalers are military officials and the profits they make are
"It is one of the biggest cash cows in Phnom Penh," said one source.
Sources say some wholesalers "have their own way" of dealing with people who
steal electricity from their lines.
One source said EDC "lost" one-third of the power it produced to "technical
and non-technical losses" -non-technical losses meaning theft. The biggest
thieves are said to be wholesalers who turn back their meters.
However, the future is marked for those wholesalers.
Eventually, as new power stations and distribution lines are built, the
wholesale sub-stations will be closed.
EDC will progressively be able to transmit power direct to the homeowner and
it has already told wholesalers they will be closed down.
The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have put aside $55 million in
soft loans to re-wire Phnom Penh over the next three years.
By next month a new five megawatt station will be opened with Japanese aid;
by the end of the year two more stations totaling 28 megawatts, will be
In 1996 the independent Malaysian consortium IPP will have built a
35-megawatt station which EDC will use as its base supply for Phnom Penh. All
other generating stations will be used for "top-up" supply.
By the end of 1996 Phnom Penh will have more electricity than it needs. By
around 1998, there should be enough top quality lines to transmit that power
direct from EDC.
However, there are yet no transit lines to feed that surplus power to other
Sothirak said that electricity was a "natural monopoly" for the government to
He concedes his main worry in the future was ensuring that the building of
new lines keeps pace with the building of extra power stations "otherwise we
will have to pay for the power and not be able to distribute it."
He also said that plans were being made to corporatize EDC to make it more