Environmental Advocates Push for More Renewable Energy in Burma

By Nyein Nyein 14 December 2016

Environmental activists have urged the government to increase its focus on renewable energy and cleaner alternatives to planned coal and hydropower plants objected to by locals.

On Tuesday, over 420 civil society groups and environmental NGOs called for a complete halt to coal power plants and mega hydropower dams located in conflict-torn areas such as Shan, Kachin, Chin, Mon and Karenni states and Tenasserim Division. They emphasized how these projects have long been rejected by affected communities over environmental, social and cultural concerns.

At the Green Energy Forum in Rangoon, they also demanded that the National League for Democracy-led (NLD) government be “transparent about the future of the proposed coal power plants and hydropower dams in Myanmar and quickly inform the public about its energy plans to avoid repeating the mistakes of the last government.”

The organizations urged the government to deliver promises set out in its election manifesto, including an NLD commitment to “generate electricity from existing hydropower projects, tackle pollution and protect the environment.”

An estimated one third of Burma’s 52 million people live off the grid, accessing electricity by creating their own solutions, which include solar panels for household use, and utilizing bioenergy—also known as biomass—for small-scale businesses.

Saw Tha Poe, an advocate working with the Karen Rivers Watch, explained that moving forward with planned coal and hydropower projects in order to generate electricity would be a wrong move.

“Renewable energy like solar power and biomass can be expanded with the help of the technology and it would bring less harm to the people than mega power plant projects,” he said.

The government’s energy plan from 2012-2030 aimed to generate more electricity from coal power plants—up to 30 percent—and solar power—up to five percent—while trying to reduce reliance on hydropower and gas.

The use of renewable energy for self-sufficiency has yet to be systematically surveyed, said U Aung Myint, director of the Renewable Energy Association Myanmar.

“As the public does not approve of the use of coal power and mega hydropower projects, the government must consider alternative energy strategically,” he said, adding that “coal power has both high costs of investment and environmental and social impacts.”

Burma does not yet generate energy from wind, despite having 1,385 miles of coastline (2,228 km) in the country’s south and southwest.

“Wind energy is a high investment scheme too, but it has less environmental impact than coal, so our current policymakers should consider it,” added U Aung Myint.

The government has now halted all planned coal plants, following protests against the construction of coal-fired power plants in local communities.

“Therefore, we have been replacing the gas engines for our energy needs, which adds to our expenses from the national budget,” said U Htein Lwin, the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Electrical Power and Energy.

“As our people object to these coal projects, we cannot reach our set goals for energy each year,” he told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday. “We could not do anything, even at the already-established Tigyit coal plant [in southern Shan State], as the local people objected to re-opening it.” The plant was opened in 2004 and halted in 2014.

The Shan State government allowed a test run of the Tigyit coal plant in September, which brought further demonstrations to the area.

When asked whether the government would resume these projects in 2017, U Htein Lwin said it would “totally depend on the people.”