We have all welcomed the recent rain with more excitement than usual. The recent period of prolonged extreme heat scorched the entire Southeast Asia region. Unprecedented high temperatures in Cambodia peaked in some places at close to the 50 degree Celsius range, particularly in urban heat islands that are in direct sun. The culprit’s name: climate change, which means, unfortunately, that those temperatures are more likely to increase in the years to come. So let’s prepare for the next level of heat.

Access to reliable energy (re) is critical during periods of extreme heat as many Cambodians rely on electrically powered air-conditioning and/or electric fans to cool down. Access to water, crucial for coping with high temperatures, also depends on an adequate supply of electricity. Despite huge demand for electricity during the recent extreme heat wave, Cambodia’s electricity grid remained stable with minimal operational disruption and was able to meet the increased energy demand. One of the main reasons for this is Cambodia’s significant investment in renewable energies over the past eight years which has increased the resilience and stability of Cambodia’s electricity system. 

How did Cambodia achieve this? After three decades of war and conflict, Cambodia took the first step of rebuilding and repairing its decimated electricity system. Subsequently, the country took the second big energy step by decreasing its dependence on expensive heavy fuel oil and augmenting its share of renewable energy, in particular hydropower, which now accounts for about 45 per cent of the total electricity produced domestically. Cambodia's energy system is now ready to take the next big step by substantially increasing its share of VRE (Variable Renewable Energy) and further tapping into its free and immense solar energy potential. By doing so, it will enhance the resiliency of its grid to climate change and its capacity to meet greater energy demand in the future.

At first it may seem counterintuitive to stabilise Cambodia’s electricity system by increasing its share of solar and wind, whose availability fluctuates throughout the day and is highly weather dependent. The general perception is that this variability makes VRE an unreliable energy source that could destabilise the electricity system, which is prone to shutdowns and blackouts caused by unforeseen spikes in demand or supply shortages. The good news is that this assumption is no longer true.

Over the last decade, Cambodia’s energy leadership has developed a much stronger understanding of how to control renewable energy variables and how to plan, combine, integrate and operate VRE systems, such that solar energy now accounts for about 6 per cent of Cambodia’s domestic energy production. 

They have learned from other countries such as Australia, which have successfully integrated and scaled-up their VRE systems by integrating them with complementary renewable energy technologies to ensure a reliable and timely supply of electricity, especially during times of peak demand. 

For example, solar and wind, backed up with an energy storage system, can take over when hydro-dam’s capacity defaults. In addition, new technologies, such as Pumped Hydro Electricity Storage (PHES), further diversify renewable energy capabilities, thereby increasing the overall energy system’s resilience and capacity to respond to unforeseen events. 

Cambodia’s energy leadership understand a number of critical points very well. First, that any new investment in fossil fuels will only increase the vulnerability of the energy system. Unpredictable increases in the price of coal, which Cambodia must import, make Cambodia subject to price volatility and a higher kilowatt per hour electricity generation cost compared to renewable energies. The same goes for future investment in gas and LNG. 

In addition, the unpredictability of obtaining the financing to build additional coal generation facilities exacerbates the level of uncertainty. And of course, does it make sense to use coal or gas generated electricity to shield the Cambodian people from extreme heat, when the cause of global warming in the first place is the continued use of fossil fuels?

Minister of Mines and Energy Keo Rottanak put Cambodia on a clean path by deciding to increase Cambodia’s investment in VREs and new hydropower systems and to divest from fossil fuels. His announcement to double the new solar target to 2 GW; build 1GW PHES; bring wind energy online by 2030; and to import additional hydro or wind powered electricity from Laos will all enhance the electricity system’s reliability and its ability to meet the 70 per cent RE target by 2030. 

Cambodia is leading the way among ASEAN countries in its commitment to renewable energy generation. Cambodia’s next big energy step will be to mobilise the necessary financial and technical resources and initiate projects to meet these energy targets and achieve the energy minister’s CARE strategic principles (Clean Affordability Reliability Equity). Finding ways to implement key RE policies, such as rooftop solar and increased energy efficiency, will not only encourage additional clean energy investments, it will also enhance Cambodia’s economic competitiveness. 

Natharoun Ngo Son is the country director of EnergyLab, a not-for-profit organisation which works to support the growth of clean energy. The views expressed are his own.