June 25, 2018
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Utopian dream?

  • Category: Ed/Op

(Editorial) - Myanmar is missing out on an opportunity and is falling into the trap of most countries around the world that aggressively pursue industrial and economic growth. The country faces the most serious energy shortfall in Asia but looks set to go for the easiest options, namely oil, gas, coal and hydropower, while all but ignoring the glint of possibility that they could leap-frog to renewable energy options, such as solar, wind and wave power. A column published by Reuters recently argued that such a jump is possible and should be encouraged. The irony is that some Myanmar villages – which have never been on the electrical grid – might prove to be more visionary than the country’s old-school industrial planners who still live in the 20th century.

China and the EU have cottoned on late to renewable energy options, and even the oilproducing nations of the Middle East are seeking to catch up with cleaner energy options. China is, in effect, killing its citizens in its drive for massive economic growth due to major air and water pollution. The United States still lives in the past and is seeking to exploit harder-toextract natural gas and tar sands, endangering their citizens and the environment, rather than throwing sufficient government weight behind renewable options, largely due to the vicelike grip American fossil fuel companies have on those in the halls of power.

Any Utopian dream for a clean energy option for Myanmar, however, is tempered by the hard reality of lack of vision and the financial incentives on offer through extracting local oil and gas, and the slightly cleaner but problematic hydropower. Environmentalists typically hammer on about switching economies to “clean” options such as solar and wind, without mentioning the costs and inevitable carbon footprint involved in the construction and maintenance stages. Any economist worth his or her salt will tell you that the cheap fuel options on Myanmar’s doorstep make investment in industrial-scale solar and wind options a questionable move. China’s entry into large-scale production of solar energy options may help bring the price down, but it would need a Myanmar visionary with his hands on the levers of power, plus sizeable foreign investment, to turn such an such an idea into an industrial-scale energy option for this emerging economy. If this was Bhutan, a small country with a small population, or a small Middle Eastern state, such a program might work. But with the Naypyitaw government and local business people stuck in the old-fashioned mindset, and with foreign fossil fuel investors banging on the door with lucrative offers, any green dream may simply remain on the drawing board.

If Myanmar was not in such a frantic rush for any energy option to alleviate the power cuts and provide power to the factories and planned special economic zones, a more measured plan would involve a sizeable mix of renewable energy options, backed by foreign investment, coupled with the dirty oil, gas, coal and hydropower on the country’s doorstep. This would require a Myanmar visionary and major foreign investment for a scheme that would be slow
to provide a return on investment. And there would be a long line of critics, tied to the fossil fuel industry, eager to argue why this would not work. But one day in the future, when other countries have transitioned to cleaner energy options, there will be those in Myanmar who will ask – why did we not have the vision and guts to push this through.

This editorial first appeared in the August 15 edition of M-ZINE+.

M-ZINE+ is a business weekly available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com

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