YANGON — The government has been pushing plans for coal-fired power plants to address Myanmar’s great need for electricity.
Renewable energy expert Hans-Josef Fell talks about how Myanmar can develop its energy plan. Fell is a former parliamentarian in Germany and the current president of the Berlin-based Energy Watch Group.
The Myanmar government has been proposing the use of coal-fired power plants but many people disagree with this option. What do you think?
Hans-Josef Fell: Strategies employing fossil energies like coal will lead to public or private bankruptcy. Look at Germany. Ten years ago, the German utilities invested in new coal power stations. Today, these coal power stations have only income deficits. It is a high burden for the utilities and they are nearly bankrupt because they overlooked how cheap renewable energy had become. Millions of German people invested in renewables, and the coal power stations cannot sell electricity at prices high enough to profit. The same will happen in Myanmar. Solar and wind are cheap and many people will invest. Myanmar should cancel the plans for coal-fired power stations and invest directly into renewables. That will bring employment and development, and fight poverty. This could happen quickly and Myanmar needs more electricity quickly.
Is there a particular renewable energy that is cheap to implement or are you referring to all renewable energy sources across the board?
Solar and wind are now the cheapest sources in the world. Bioenergy and geothermal are not so cheap. Hydropower as a traditional energy is also cheap. So, a mix of renewables – where we combine bioenergy and geothermal as a storable energy along with wind and sun – can extend the use of bioenergy and hydropower. Even with investment into storage systems, hydro pump power, batteries and power; the mix of renewables – because of cheap solar and wind – bring a whole system that is 100 percent renewable and is cheaper than a base-loaded system with coal, nuclear, oil and natural gas. Fossil and nuclear are too expensive.
Are all these renewables practices ‘clean energy?’ How do you define clean energy?
We must look at the details. In many politicians’ papers, we see clean energy defined as nuclear, clean coal, natural gas and more. This is not clean energy. We cannot make coal clean. Coal emits a lot during mining; it pollutes the water. It is impossible to make clean coal and it is too expensive. Even clean coal power stations are not competitive because when you add carbon capture storage – to remove carbon from the chimneys of the coal power station – it is too expensive. It’s double the price. How will it compete with solar and wind? It is impossible; solar and wind are so cheap.
Natural gas pollutes the atmosphere and is not a good option for climate protection. Nuclear energy is not free from carbon or radioactivity. Radioactivity pollutes big areas in Fukushima in Japan, Chernobyl in Ukraine and Russia, and other areas where uranium is mined. Uranium and nuclear power are not clean. Radioactivity is a big threat for the world. Only renewable energies – wind, solar, bioenergy when it is produced sustainably, small hydropower dams, geothermal, wave and tidal energy – are clean.
When Germany began implementing renewable energy projects, did the government offer subsidies?
Today, solar energy is the cheapest option, even for the poorest places in the world. Look at Bangladesh. With microcredit, now two million people have light at night from solar power and batteries. This was impossible with coal or nuclear power. Fifteen years ago, renewable solar was expensive. So, we organized in the German Parliament and passed a law that guaranteed all renewable energy investors a return on their investment. This law led to tremendous growth, innovation, new technologies, mass production and huge factories. Now, 15 years later, it is the cheapest energy. One big nation had to make renewables cheap and then they could spread around the world and aid in climate protection. We are at the point where we can do this all over the world.
What was your impression from the roundtable discussion on energy in Naypyitaw on July 12?
There was not a good acknowledgment in the ministry of the benefits of renewables. They believe it will be expensive, but it isn’t. They think it will lead to blackouts. But it won’t. When we combined technologies in Germany, blackouts decreased with the increase of solar and wind to the grid. Grid operators can manage it, and they do.
But they listened well to new findings around the world. The world is changing. And I think this roundtable had a positive impact. Perhaps in a few months, Myanmar will propose a new energy strategy.
What kind of support will Myanmar need?
Many things are needed. It needs a feed-in tariff law, not a tendering law, for investment in renewable energies. A feed-in tariff law will aid small farms and individuals, as well as big utility companies. In a tendering system, only big finance can partake and we lose the movement in rural areas as far as private investment in renewables.
Education and research are also necessary. Also, Myanmar has a highly subsidized system. A lot of tax money goes to lowering the price of electricity from coal and gas and big dams. This is wrong. That money is needed for education, infrastructure and more. That money shouldn’t subsidize pollution. It should create affordable, renewable energy for the people. Over time, renewables will bring profits and benefits to the public, including a growing economy and employment. Myanmar can fight for prosperity with renewable energies.
Currently, the government’s energy policymakers don’t seem interested in renewables. What is your advice to them?
I believe that the policymakers in Myanmar are not stupid. When they look around, they will see the benefits and that renewables are the cheapest option in China, the US, the EU, and South America. Everywhere is moving toward renewable energy. Myanmar will follow this strategy.