Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Underpowered energy sector shifts up a gear

Underpowered energy sector shifts up a gear

Underpowered energy sector shifts up a gear

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HENG CHIVOAN

People paddle boats beneath power lines at Boeung Tum Pon lake in Phnom Penh. Cambodia will likely remain without a national grid until 2020 although offshore gas deposits and a series of hydropower projects are set to ramp up the country’s power production in coming years.

After suffering heavy damage during decades of civil strife, Cambodia's power supply facilities have been significantly improved since the war years, with support from international aid and foreign-funded private sector projects.

The country stands on the brink of a power-generation revolution, driven in part by the discovery of potentially vast undersea oil and gas fields and the start of a series of massive hydropower projects that it is hoped will bring electricity to much of the country.

However, until these come online, Cambodia remains largely in the dark and reliant on non-sustainable power sources like wood and charcoal.

Rolling blackouts plague the capital, casting whole neighbourhoods into darkness for hours at a stretch, while vast numbers of people in the countryside resort to car batteries for electricity or pay exorbitant fees for locally produced power.

Cambodia's failures so far at mass power generation - a patchwork of private electricity companies and an under-equipped national electric authority bring continuous power to only 17 percent of the population - have stunted the country's development, while high electricity costs have driven away potential foreign investment.

Cambodian power can cost as much as 2,000 riels more per kilowatt hour (kWh) than in neighboring countries, said Ith Praing, secretary of state with the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy.

"We have no national grid yet," said Praing, adding that a countrywide power system would not likely exist until 2020.

Cambodia currently limps along on 24 fragmented power systems centered around provincial capitals and towns.

"There is no interconnection" between the far-flung power generation stations, Ith Praing told the Post on May 26.

The result is costly electricity.

"The electricity prices in Cambodia are the highest in the region, and some of the highest in the world, due partly to the large use of old small generators, reliance on fully imported diesel fuel, and large losses in low-quality, medium-voltage distribution systems," said the website for RECambodia, a renewable energy body under the authority of the government's Electricity Authority of Cambodia.

Electricity generated by Cambodia's hundreds of private power companies can cost as much as 3,000 riels a kWh, said Chea Sinhel, director of the electricity supply department at the state-run Electricite Du Cambodge (EdC), adding that these service about 100,000 people.

EdC power costs only 300 riels per kWh in the country's urban centers that it services, but the enterprise fails to reach a large number of people and still cannot generate enough power to light up Cambodia's capital, which alone needs 250 megawatts of power.

The EdC's total capacity in Phnom Penh remains only 190 megawatts, forcing it to buy the remainder from two private generation companies at higher prices.

"Electricity still costs a lot," Sinhel said.

In a bid to cut power costs, since 1999 Cambodia has bought electricity from its neighbors Vietnam and Thailand, allowing the EdC to lower costs by as much as 250 riels a kWh, according to the EdC.

The country has also begun to explore alternative energy sources such as biofuels, wind or hydropower.

While experts agree that the country could have limited success employing renewable energy - particularly in small-scale projects benefiting individual rural households or communities - the key to mass power production lies in the eight large dams government officials say can be built.

Since 2006, senior government officials, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, have urged foreign investors, particularly Chinese companies, to back hydropower projects in the Kingdom and further diversify the power supply away from costly gasoline and diesel generation.

The largest project - the Kamchay dam in Kampot province - is already underway and hopes to provide 190 megawatts of electricity by 2010.

Two other large dams in Cambodia's northeast aim to produce a combined total of some 480 megawatts in coming years, according to government officials.

But Cambodia's electricity supply remains so undeveloped that even after the arrival of hydroelectric power and links with the Thai and Vietnamese electrical grids, the government envisages that by 2030 only 70 percent of households in the country will have power.

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