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Reaching Cambodia’s last mile with inclusive and sustainable energy access

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According to the Electricity Authority of Cambodia, 350 villages remain without power in early 2022. To bring light to the last mile (which refers to the last stage in a process), the government has immediate plans to connect about 170 villages to the national electricity grid over the next five to seven years. UNDP CAMBODIA

Reaching Cambodia’s last mile with inclusive and sustainable energy access

Less than eight years are left to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Noticing much of the world was behind schedule, the world leaders met two years ago at the UN in New York, and called for a “Decade of Action”, pledging to mobilise financing, enhance national implementation and strengthen institutions to achieve the Goals by the target date of 2030.

Access to energy is one of those low-hanging fruits that provides numerous benefits: reducing poverty, expanding opportunities, and improving health, productivity and living standards. This is why SDG7 seeks to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for everyone and everywhere.

Last year, in addressing this Global Goal in specific, more than 130 world leaders, including heads of states and governments, ministers, executive heads of UN entities and international organisations, CEOs and other multi-stakeholder representatives, joined the High-level Dialogue on Energy at the UN General Assembly. At the end of the meeting, the delegates unveiled a global roadmap for accelerating SDG7 action and announced ambitious new targets, along with more than $400 billion in new finance and investments targeted at achieving universal energy access and net-zero emissions.

The roadmap also called for international cooperation to prioritise and mobilise public and private finance to accelerate energy transition. It acknowledged that last-mile connectivity is challenging but achievable through public investments and by repurposing fossil fuel subsidies. It is expected that greater public support would unlock and de-risk private sector investments.

Cambodia knows well the value of energy access and has made significant progress over the past two decades that the World Bank called it one of “the fastest electrifying countries in the world”. To earn this distinction, the Kingdom expanded energy access from 6.6 per cent in the year 2000 to an astonishing 97.5 per cent by the end of 2021.

According to the Electricity Authority of Cambodia, 350 villages remain without power in early 2022. To bring light to the last mile (which refers to the last stage in a process), the government has immediate plans to connect about 170 villages to the national electricity grid over the next five to seven years. But this still leaves 180 off-grid villages, many of which are home to Cambodia’s most vulnerable populations – indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities, women, girls, children, youth, people living with disabilities, older persons, and displaced populations.

Reaching them won’t be easy as these communities are scattered and remote, without road access, and often in floating areas. Moreover, connecting a community to the national grid is usually not enough as electricity access, reliability and affordability remain challenging. Nearly two-thirds of the households connected to the grid experience frequent power shortages. So, in its Rural Electrification Policy, the government called for support to supply electricity to the remaining villages and increase energy reliability for those already connected to the grid.

Key elements that are part of the solution

The UN Development Programme (UNDP) is responding to the call. Its strategic plan 2022-25 includes a bold commitment to support 500 million people globally with access to clean energy by 2025 “leaving no one behind”. More donors and development partners are needed to support this momentum and promote an approach that ensures affordable and reliable energy access: Transfer of new and viable solutions for energy access that meets the diverse needs and power demand.

The Electricity of Cambodia (EDC), through its Rural Electrification Fund, supported solar home systems for electricity access in off-grid communities. UNDP is complementing these efforts through the installation of solar mini-grids that offer a viable solution for expanding power availability and reducing technical challenges of traditional solar home systems with short lifespan of batteries, while meeting varying power demands – electricity for cooking, heating, grinding, et cetera – the mini-grids are also easier to maintain and sustain, thanks to the technology advancements and economies of scale.

Work closely with local NGOs and institutions who are familiar with off-grid communities to help win the trust of communities and understand the socio-economic landscape. Local NGOs and institutions play an important role in the productive applications of energy and livelihoods improvement. UNDP partnered with International Cooperation Cambodia (ICC), a local NGO in Ratanakkiri province, which helped build the trust of communities and expedited project implementation.

Involve the community early on to strengthen their capacity to operate and maintain the off-grid system as it is not easy to access some of these off-grid communities in case of technical problems. Given direct impacts of access to energy on women’s health, wellbeing and opportunities, they are involved in all the steps and in decision-making. Decisions include setting up management mechanism and setting an affordable electricity price, which covers the cost of maintenance and ensures the connection of all the households in a village to the power supply on the principle of inclusion and leave no one behind.

Engage with private sector entities such as Rural Electrification Enterprises (REEs). REEs provide electricity supply to 39 per cent of the households in Cambodia. They have also played an important role in the expansion of electricity distribution networks to remote areas. REEs include electrification of off-grid villages as part of their business model using mini-grids. There is a need to revisit the Rural Electrification Fund for expanding its scope to financing off-grid electrification as it was originally created for increased electrification that has largely been achieved.

Answering the call

The Japanese government has already responded to Cambodia’s request, announcing financial support for a new initiative called Inclusive Renewable Energy Access in Rural Areas, which involves the installation of solar-based mini-grids and training local communities in their maintenance. The project, implemented by UNDP and the Ministry of Mines and Energy, will benefit 1,300 households, enhancing the quality of life of approximately 6,000 persons, with direct access to reliable and affordable clean energy. It also involves expanding current sustainable business models, including mini-grids that are community-owned and operated by the REEs.

A reliable, sustainable, and affordable source of electricity is an enabler for progress and poverty reduction. Energy systems support all sectors from medicine and education to agriculture, manufacture, infrastructure, communications, and technology, among others. Therefore, modern societies depend heavily on reliable and affordable energy services to function smoothly and develop equitably. As such, UNDP stands ready and is committed to expand its efforts and partnerships with national and international development partners to scale up proven models that ensure access to energy for all Cambodians.

Suy Sem is Minister of Mines and Energy. Mikami Masahiro is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Japan to the Kingdom of Cambodia. Alissar Chaker is Resident Representative of UNDP Cambodia.

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