Coal, Rivers, Gas and Hot Rocks

By William Boot 5 December 2012

Burma has enough energy potential in its four main rivers to power Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia combined. Instead of struggling with blackouts, candles and noisy diesel generators, the country could be illuminated with mains electricity from end-to-end.

Hydroelectric systems could harness the rivers to provide a power generating capacity of 100,000 megawatts (MW), says the Asian Development Bank (ADB). At present, Burma struggles with around 3,000 MW and three quarters of the country has no access to electricity.

Burma also has huge natural gas resources, an estimated 465 million metric tons of coal and considerable geothermal potential—tapping into the energy in underground hot water reservoirs and hot rocks.

But accessing these rich sources of energy to power the country’s economic revival will require major foreign investment, said a new ADB study called “Energy Sector Initial Assessment.

Despite enormous potential, only 750 MW of river-harnessing electricity generating capacity is in operation in Burma as part of a national total of around 3,000 MW—a mere 10 percent of the capacity in neighboring Thailand.

Perhaps Burma’s least known natural energy resource is geothermal, said the ADB study.

“Geothermal energy is abundant, with considerable potential for commercial development. Ninety-three geothermal locations have been identified throughout the country,” it said.

Some geothermal sites are currently being assessed and tested with the assistance of Japan’s Electric Power Development Company, the US’s Union Oil Company and Caithness Resources.

More than 200 locations for hydrodam projects have been identified but only a few are under construction or being seriously assessed.

Only one-in-four Burmese has access to mains grid power and even the main city of Rangoon often has no more than six hours of electricity per day.

“Clearly, strengthening [Burma’s] energy sector is critical to reducing poverty and enhancing the medium and long-term development prospects of the country,” says the ADB study. “Electrification is an urgent requirement, without which whole areas of the country will be severely hampered in their efforts to advance economically.

“Social progress also depends on electrification, without which health, education and other essential services inevitably suffer.”

The ADB stresses, however, that in spite of this urgency “issues of sustainability and protection of the environment must be considered simultaneously.”

Work on the country’s biggest hydroelectric dam, a 6,000 MW project being built by Chinese companies at Myitsone on the Irrawaddy River, has been suspended because of environmental concerns. Plans by Thai developers for a 4,000 MW coal-fired power plant in southeast Burma adjoining Dawei were canceled by the government, reportedly also on environmental grounds.

“In the short term coal might offer the fastest means of increasing electricity capacity in [Burma] although it is the least clean,” independent regional energy industries analyst Collin Reynolds told The Irrawaddy.

“Without some changes in contracts most of the offshore natural gas being produced or soon to be tapped is scheduled for export. The lead time for new gas field development is several years and building hydroelectric systems of size can be slow.”

The US-based International Rivers says large hydrodams cause major environmental, social and economic damage way beyond their immediate vicinity. The environmental NGO is currently campaigning against a large hydroelectric project at Xayaburi in Laos on the Mekong River on grounds that there have been inadequate environmental assessments.

Objectors say the dam would undermine fishing stocks, food supplies and livelihoods for tens of thousands of people downstream in Cambodia and Vietnam.

International financial supporters of hydrodams in Laos include the ADB. The bank recently reopened an office in Rangoon after an absence of years although it has not yet resumed any lending to Burma pending settlement of outstanding debts.

“Burma’s largely rural population … relies heavily on rivers for their livelihoods and culture, which are now threatened by dam development,” said International Rivers. “Burma’s laws allow for no public participation in decision-making and effectively offer no access to justice.

“If built, dams on the ecologically rich Salween River, for example, will fragment the longest free-flowing river in mainland Southeast Asia. The Myitsone Dam in Kachin State will flood areas of pristine rainforest,” the NGO said.

But clearly some action is needed to power Burma’s regeneration. The country’s current per capita consumption is not only the lowest among the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member, but also the lowest in Asia along with Nepal, according to the ADB.

“[Burma] is an extreme example of energy poverty,” said the bank.

One possibility is to build mini hydroelectric systems on smaller rivers, said the ADB, which could provide electricity to local communities especially in northern areas of the country.

However, it is not only more electricity that Burma needs to fuel an economic revival. The country’s power distribution network, limited as it is mostly to a corridor between Rangoon and Mandalay, is in urgent need of repair and refurbishment, the ADB study said.

It recommends the construction of a new 500 kilovolts power transmission line on the corridor, along with an “integrated, comprehensive plan for hydropower development and the rehabilitation and upgrading of coal and gas-fired generation plants, refineries and natural gas pipelines.

“Development has been hampered by limited capital, a lack of qualified personnel, poor legal and regulatory frameworks, and a lack of coordination and planning among seven energy-related ministries,” it said.

Rangoon alone needs an estimated US $237 million for infrastructure refurbishment and expansion work for the 2013-2016 period. Yet it remains unclear where the capital for these major works will come from.