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National Power Plan Outdated: Report

The nation’s power development plan, which calls for expanding large-scale hydroelectric dams and coal-fired plants, is outdated, expensive and risky, an umbrella group of non-governmental organizations says in a new report.

In its “Powering 21st Century Cambodia,” the NGO Forum instead advocates for decentralized electricity generation, rather than the large projects that can damage the environment and even increase poverty.

The 141-page report, written in English, advocates smaller power generation that creates local employment, encourages investment in rural businesses and can boost farmers’ incomes.

Smaller plans can include biomass gasifiers, gas-fired combined cycle plants, micro-hydro plants and solar power. These are built to smaller scale and where power is needed, according to the report.

“To support that large hydro [dam], the government is borrowing a lot of money in order to pay for the longest transmission line,” Grainne Ryder, the report’s author, who spent a year on its research, told VOA Khmer by phone from Canada. “The environmental damage is the most serious, and that is going to be the decline of Cambodia’s fisheries.”

“I don’t think the Cambodian government has even begun to realize the seriousness of those effects,” she continued. “So it could be quite a disaster for Cambodia.”

Ryder’s report notes that Cambodia has a chance to bypass the technologies of the previous century and to build its economy on the idea of decentralized technologies. It also notes that the “window” is closing, as Cambodia seeks more large-scale projects.

Electricity is costly in Cambodia, because power production currently depends on imported fuel. Meanwhile, only 18 percent of the population has access to grid-based electricity.

In an effort to do better, the government has proposed importing electricity from neighboring countries while building up hydro-dams and coal plants.

Since 2006, the Ministry of Mines and Energy and the Ministry of Economy and Finance have approved five hyrdo-power projects, with 14 more under consideration, along with three other large-scale projects.

Dams would be built on the Mekong River at Kratie province, as well as on rivers in the provinces of Stung Treng, Ratanakkiri and Koh Kong, with investment coming from China, Russia, South Korea and Vietnam.

These projects are outdated, the report claims, because rural Cambodians need only a few hours of power each day, in demand far less than the large projects will produce. And while some countries have taken steps to avoid such projects, Cambodia has not.

Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the report was important and its findings noted, but that currently hydro-dam projects were a solution to an urgent problem.

“This is information that we have to pay attention to,” he said of the report. “But it is important to use [hydro-dams] to generate electricity, because we need electricity to develop an industrialized economy, as well of for people’s livelihoods.”

The report points out, however, that decentralized electrical power can cost less and be more easily financed, without the need for government guarantees and other subsidies.

And the government can promote it.

The report recommends, among others, removing import duties on technology and equipment for decentralized power projects (the government taxes solar power equipment 7 percent at present); introducing financing to help households, businesses and communities finance industrial-scale power generation projects over five- to 10-year periods; and opening the market to such projects by encouraging leading technologies.

Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of the NGO Forum, said the group was ready to follow the report with further advice to government agencies, “to introduce to them more choices that can produce cheap electricity and not impact the environment.”