As Cambodia continues to maintain a high economic growth rate the country finds itself struggling to meet its electricity needs, despite potentially vast natural resources like wind, water and oil. Ith Praing, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy for 24 years, speaks with Post reporters Kay Kimsong and Brendan Brady about Cambodia’s energy situation and what the future holds.
Ith Praing, secretary of state at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, says Cambodia might be self-sufficient in electricity production by 2017, when the government hopes the country will be able to produce 3,000 megawatts – equal to estimated consumption.
How is Cambodia developing its power capacity?
First of all let’s talk about electricity. We have no national grid yet ... Cambodia currently has 24 isolated systems. There is no interconnection between the load centers.... Provinces are isolated and have their own generation and distribution networks. The first large-scale hydropower plant under development is the Kamchay hydro project (in Kampot province) which we expect to be completed by 2010 with a capacity of 193 megawatts. Hydropower potential can be used at full capacity only during the 6-7 months of the rainy season. In the dry season, the capacity is reduced to only one-third. That’s why we’re not only developing hydropower sources, but we’re also diversifying the power supply. For example, we have coal-fired power plants. Currently all coal is imported from Indonesia or Australia, but we are exploring for coal mines in Cambodia and we expect to find some indigenous coal.
What is the advantage of interconnection?
One system means one price. When you have a national grid, the price for electricity is the same along the entire grid. Now Banteay Meanchey is priced differently from Battambang, which is different from Phnom Penh. For example, when the southern section of the national grid is complete in 2010, from Vietnam to Takeo through to Phnom Penh, the price of electricity along that line will be one price, the same price as Phnom Penh. [Interconnection] is more reliable and provides more security. You don’t need to generate power in every province.
Do you expect the price of electricity will go down once there’s a national grid?
Yes. Now the price is based on the price of electricity [generated using fuel such as gasoline or diesel]. But we are developing cheaper sources [and connecting them] to the national grid. By 2010 the price should change a little bit. By 2011 there should be a remarkable reduction in price when the coal power plant in Sihanoukville is operating.
Will Cambodia is connected to a regional power grid?
We expect to have some regional interconnection in the Greater Mekong Subregion (China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) by 2020 when we develop larger-scale power generation in the northwest, including our hydropower potential. Then we can have interconnection with the regional grid and will be able to export and import at the same time. Currently, we only import from Thailand but later on, when we have an excess of power, we will export to Thailand. The same for Vietnam. It will be a power exchange – we will sell to neighbors in one part of the border and buy across another part of the border. The national grid will be hooked to the regional grid, which will be connected to the Mekong Subregion and ASEAN grids. This is part of the ASEAN policy of power trade.
When do you think Cambodia will be able to meet its own energy needs?
We will be able to produce 2,000-3,000 megawatts by 2017 or 2018 but by that point we estimate demand will be about 3,000 megawatts. When we develop the full potential of the northeastern region, the Mekong basin, then we will have excess electricity.
Where does the money come from to develop the master plan?
All of the development in generation is private sector. Hydro, coal power plants – all private sector. Transmission can be transferred to the private sector, but only through the state-owned utility EDC (Electricite du Cambodge). The operation must remain under license of the state-owned EDC because it’s the backbone of power in the country, of the country’s security.
Why did the government decide not to invest in generation?
No money. Even the World Bank and ADB when I asked in ’97, ’98, when we had the plan to develop the hydro generation, they said no for generation because they considered it profitable infrastructure that only the private sector should participate in. Cambodia has approved several projects that have been criticized for their impact on the environment and surrounding communities. Some claim that a coal power plant or hydro dam can harm the environment, but before developing and signing a contract we carefully perform an environmental impact assessment [which is] complete and comprehensive. The benefit [that will accrue] to the country from such project is more than the loss of some hectares of the forest.
Is Cambodia pursuing alternative energies? In the frenzy over Cambodia’s oil industry, are other energy sectors being ignored?
We have done studies for wind power but we weren’t able to identify areas with enough potential. To use wind power, six meters per second is the minimum speed required. We expected to have good wind in mountain areas and along the coast but our study showed we didn’t have good enough potential to develop wind power. Everywhere we can develop solar power, but the technology is still very costly and is still not reliable. Solar home systems are good, but very expensive. We don’t have any plans to generate nuclear power yet. That is the idea now, but that could change in two or three years. It depends on the situation. Now we are promoting the use of renewable energy for the rural electrification program. We would like to use all of the resources of the country for that, including the entire agricultural west, all of the biomass we can use as this could help to reduce fuel imports. We would like to encourage investment in all new kinds of energy technology.
Do the high costs of electricity in Cambodia hinder foreign investment?
Yes, the price of power is a factor that can have a bad impact on investment. We expect to have lower price electricity by the end of 2010. We know for foreign investors, if the price of electricity was cheaper, there would be more investment.