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Electricity: the mess now being untangled

Electricity: the mess now being untangled

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

running.

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

day.

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

was guaranteed.

Many wholesalers are military officials and the profits they make are

considerable.

"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

running.

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

provinces.

Sothirak said that electricity was a "natural monopoly" for the government to

retain.

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

efficient.

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