Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Cambodia’s Perennial Power Woes

A new hydro-power plant is being built in Stung Treng province. The Phom Penh Post reported about this a week or so back. For that purpose a new road to Rattanakiri is also being built, which is terrific, as all people who have ever traveled the old road. Although the old road had gotten better over time but the rainy season was still the pits.

The government claimed that the power generated there will first of all benefit the local population, whereas a consultant countered quickly that the owners will sell their power to Vietnam and a mere 1% or so will be available for the local population. The reason: lack of a power grid.

Traveling that route quite frequently I know there are power lines in place but probably not enough to carry 4 MW cross-country. I am wondering, however, how the power will be delivered to Vietnam since this follows exactly the same route (Ban Long and then on to Vietnam). This really got me scratching my head.

And the irony of it all would be, if the consultant is correct, that Cambodia buys a substantial part of its power from Vietnam, not only in the South-eastern region but in the Northeast as well. So on the one hand we buy from Vietnam, but on the other, we sell some back instead of meeting our own needs first? Profit-mamimizing should definitely have a limit there and the government should use its otherwise formidable authority to ensure a sufficient power supply to its own population.

One thing is clear though, Cambodia to a large part is still not electrified and in dire need of more and a better power supply. During the hot season in March, April, and May, and it is still going on, parts Phnom Penh are periodically shut off; sometimes starting right after 8 am until 11 am, and then again from around 1 or 2 pm to 4 or 5 pm. Besides being a nuisance to all residents, businesses suffer the most, at least the smaller ones that don’t have their own generator. And what about those business people that run their business from home – like me, for instance?

The cause for all these power outages is the explosion of power consumption in and around Phnom Penh. Just look at Phnom Penh Thmey, my place of residence in PP. What was barren land is now dotted with new houses, small factories, and some larger new gated communities. So it comes as no surprise that with all those a/c units, TVs, fridges, and computers, power consumption is up exponentially. Sadly, as always, the bureaucracy has not foreseen this; obviously forgetting that power is one of the main components of a functioning infrastructure. Issuing building permits is only a tiny step in a community’s development, right?

Even Sihanoukville fares better. My house there is around 20 km away from the city but our power supply is pretty consistent. My backup generator is sitting idle in its little shed most of the time. I can’t research all the reasons behind this disparity between PP and SHV, I simply don’t have the time these days, but even the most ignorant planner knows that without electrification development will stall. I am sure Vietnam and Thailand can sell a lot more than what they are supplying now. A couple of years ago the situation was not a bad as it is now; or is it that my memory doesn’t serve me right?