As the hot season scorches Cambodia’s capital, its 1.5 million residents have struggled to stay cool without air conditioning, while business and factory work frequently grinds to a halt as a result of the worst power outages in many years.
For several months now, Phnom Penh has been crippled by cuts that last up to six hours per day in some areas, as authorities struggle to meet high demand driven up a construction boom, while power supply has fallen as a nationwide drought has affected water levels at hydropower installations.
While residents and business owners across the city have complained for weeks, one group of traders has reaped the benefits: generator sellers.
“We sold twice or triple the number” as other years, said Srey Tooch, 39, whose family runs a shop in central Phnom Penh that sells generators. “Since I started this business, I’ve never had a selling experience as this year,” she said.
“We did not plan or know that the business would be at its peak. We did not have generators in stock as the generator business has been very slow in the last 10 to 20 years,” she said, adding that they ran out generators supplies in about two or three weeks.
She said high generators sales had driven up prices and depleted stores across the city and some customers began scouring the internet to order generators online. The shops have been accused by some customers of price gauging, a claim they have denied.
Srey Tooch said, “As a seller, when there is a high demand [and no stock], we would purchase generators from other vendors and sell them with profit of 5 to 10 dollars.”
Demand from households and businesses
She said most of her customers bought small generators to power their home appliances. “The kind of generators that households use for 10 lamps and one or two fans that they really need for [their kids],” she said.
Sok Heng, 22, whose family has long had a generator shop on National Road No. 5 in the city, said his customers included all sorts of businesses too.
“They use them to supply power for guesthouses, restaurants, construction, gas stations, and small and big hotels,” he said, adding that during the worst black outs for about two weeks in March he sold up to seven generators per day compared one in other years.
“I was thrilled that the selling was great. We have not had this much selling before as this year,” he said, explaining that the generators were produced in Japan and are priced from $800, up to several thousand dollars for the most powerful models.
Another seller on National Road No. 5, Tang Nay Hour, said generators used to be primarily sold to farmers who have limited power supply in rural areas, but these days even construction companies involved with Chinese real estate investment were demanding powerful generators to keep work going.
“We have customers from all over Phnom Penh; people who are in construction sector including Chinese and Cambodians,” he said.
Droughts and construction demand
The power shortages seem to have taken the government by surprise and caused plenty of negative news coverage and grumbling on Cambodian social media. Prime Minister Hun Sen said in March the country faced an unprecedented 400 megawatt shortage — or about 15 percent of all current supply.
He blamed a serious drought caused by the El Nino effect in combination with a spike in energy demand from Chinese investment-driven construction boom in the capital and deep-sea port of Sihanoukville.
Hun Sen asked the public and businesses for patience. Electricité du Cambodge officials have indicated that shortages may last until the end of May when monsoon rains should replenish hydropower dams, which provide most of Cambodia’s energy.
Long ravaged by war, Cambodia has struggled to raise energy supply and its rates are among the highest in the region, throwing up a hurdle for investors. The government is building up the national grid in order to import energy from its neighbors and to build large hydropower dams.
The strategy is being criticized by environmentalists who argue that decentralized solutions such as solar energy are rapidly becoming cheaper and have less environmental and social impacts.
‘We lost money but so has everybody’
While the power shortages are a boon for generator sales it has hurt other businesses of all sizes, some of which cannot afford to privately generate electricity.
One owner of a cafe in the capital said the black outs had cost him many customers, and he complained that generators were being overpriced by the sellers and were too expensive for a small business like his.
“There’s no doubt we lost money but so has everybody,” said the man, who asked not be named for fearing of upsetting authorities. “The mornings didn’t hurt too bad, but with the late afternoon [blackouts] we’d lose the after-work crowd. We had one lasting all day too, where I had to go through the fridge and throw away stuff.”
“We were told [cuts] would last until June, but let's wait and see,” he said.