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close this bookGATE - 4/96 - Information - the Key to Sustainable Development (GTZ GATE, 1996, 60 p.)
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Tapping renewable resources

A new organisation helps to promote sustainable energy in the Mekong region

by Wattanapong Rakwichian, John O'Donoghue, and Bundit Na-Lamphun

Renewable energy resources are not being made use of sufficiently in the Mekong region. Above all, there is a lack of information and awareness about sustainable energy. However, a recently established organisation has launched highly successful networking activities that even appear to be having an impact beyond the Mekong countries.

Every country along the Mekong River has abundant renewable energy resources. In addition to potentially massive hydropower from the mainstream and its tributaries, both sunshine and biomass are plentiful. Yet most of these countries suffer severe and widespread energy deprivation, particularly if this is measured in terms of available electricity in the countryside. Shortages are particularly grave in Cambodia and Lao People's Democratic Republic, but also exist to lesser degrees in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Thailand and Yunnan, People's Republic of China. Since all the renewables can easily contribute to decentralised energy supply, the best use of available resources is obviously not being made.

As the newly established "Council on Renewable Energy in the Mekong Region (CORE)" defined at its inaugural meeting in March 1996 at Phitsanulok, Thailand, at least 17 conditions hamper optimum renewable resource use. The most important one is a lack of information and awareness about the viability of sustainable energy, together with a lack of knowledge of the local geographic and socio - economic conditions within which it would work. CORE would help to redress these issues through networking, thus contributing to the region's sustainable development. But within just six months of its establishment it has found an eager audience that extends beyond the original five Mekong countries. India, Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and even Australia now want to cooperate to promote sustainable energy.

There is a sense in which sub-optimal use of renewable resources is a relatively recent phenomenon. Although alternative technology enthusiasts have been trumpeting both the need and the possibility to switch to renewable energies for several decades, the fact remains that most of the technologies have only recently matured or are still maturing. Initial costs, system delivery, after-sales-services and operation often still pose problems.

Still a fringe issue

Yet it is also true that Appropriate Technology still means "fringe" to many people, perhaps especially policy makers, so that the old paradigms of centralised, state-controlled energy delivery systems persist even as demand for and the ability to supply decentralised privatised energy services in Southeast Asia expands. And while it may be overly pessimistic to say that supplies of fossil fuels are decreasing, at least in any real world economic sense, it is also true that they must be finite, that they often contribute to pollution, and that the delivery systems that they have fostered cannot provide affordable energy to dispersed populations. There are thus now very powerful reasons why a fresh look at sustainable energy is needed.

The new approach began back in 1994 when the GTZ in Germany and the Department of Technical and Economic Cooperation (DTEC) in Thailand sponsored a seminar in Chiang Mai on the State of the Art and Prospects for Photovoltaic Systems in Thailand and Neighbouring Countries. That meeting brought together nine sustainable energy organisations from Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, SR Vietnam and Thailand who agreed to maintain contact. The nine organisations are as follows:

- Ministry of Mines, Energy and Industries, Department of Energy, Royal Kingdom of Cambodia;

- Yunnan Semiconductor Factory, Kunming;

- Institute of Science and Technical Information of Yunnan (ISTIY), both of the People's Republic of China;

- Science, Technology and Environment Organization (STENO), Lao People's Democratic Republic;

- Ministry of Industries, Institute of Energy, Hanoi;

- Vietnam National Centre for Science and Technology, SOLARLAB, both of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam;

- Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment, Department of Energy Development and Promotion (DEDP, Bangkok);

- Solar Energy Research and Training Centre (SERT), Naresuan University, Phitsanulok, RISE-AT, Chiang Mai, all in Thailand.

But sustainable energy is such an important aspect of the region's development that it soon became clear that the core group should do more than just maintain contact. Thus, after informal discussions between the partners, plus trips between February and May 1995 to all five countries by SERT and RISE-AT staff to collect baseline data, they met again in late March 1996 at Naresuan University. It was there, working from the baseline data and additional country reports prepared by the partners, that about 17 problems affecting the promotion of sustainable energy systems were identified and CORE was inaugurated.

The Council's first chairman is Mr. Pho Muangnalad, Director of Cabinet, Science, Technology and Environment Organization of Lao PDR. The Secretariat is at SERT. The problems identified by the inaugural meeting are listed below:

1. A lack of promotion and awareness on the range of sustainable energy technologies that are already available in a proven and cost-effective form. The unaware majority varies from grass-rootusers to active policy/decision makers in all countries.

2. A lack of practical day-today information that can be directly put to use by the endusers of sustainable energy systems, particularly in local languages.

3. Lack of literature (brochures & advertisements) to promote existing and proven technology in the market place to attract user/consumer attention.

4. There is concern from countries located downstream on the Mekong River that any attempts to build large hydro - power stations on the upper stream of the river will have adverse ecological effects on fish and agricultural practices.

5. Some of the countries do not have data on typical climatic conditions and existing characteristics, which are necessary perquisites for the application of wind and solar energy.

6. Lack of information available on the existing situation within some countries or target areas that would view or identify social, economic and technical issues of the enduser; such as "Needs Identification for Rural Development».

7. Some countries do not have sufficient resources of sustainable energy expertise within their daily working environments as a point of reference to advise on a multitude of everyday problems.

8. Sustainable energy is still being perceived as expensive (more so in some countries than others), however attractive financing mechanisms do hardly exist.

9. Users lack access to attractive finance within local and isolated areas, particularly where people are poor. There seem to be no specific energy related loans available from the local/national banks or from agricultural financing institutions.

10. Lack of strategic dissemination approaches (including financing mechanisms) for indigenous in-country purposes to create consumer demand for sustainable energy technology.

11. Lack of uniformity in the technical skills of tradesmen, craftsman for installation and maintenance.

12. No common technical or quality control standards of the existing technologies that are already in the market place (as to identify prototype designs for justifying consumers).

13. Insufficient policy support by therespective governments to view the role of sustainable energy in a more social and economic light for rural development (particularly where in some countries 80% of the rural population are without electricity). Policy makers still tend to view sustainable energy systems in a micro-economic scale, instead of conceiving them on macro-economic terms for the country as a whole.

14. Lack of in-depth macro economic analysis comparing centralised conventional power plants with decentralised renewable systems.

15. Limited networking between focal points and with other local organisations within their local working environments to commonly promote sustainable energy use for rural social and economic development as a whole.

16. There is no multi-lateral co-operation between any of the countries in the Mekong region to share and develop sustainable energy use.

17. Very little exchange of short/long term plans across the borders of neighbouring countries to inform of efforts to develop sustainable energy through national projects and programmes.

Growing demand for decentralised energy

The list on its own makes a strongcase for an organisation such as CORE. In many cases, individual countries do not have the necessary data or background information to promote sustainable energy on their own, but a regional network could quickly assemble and disseminate it. However, when the list is related to actual conditions in the five participating countries, the rationale for CORE becomes even stronger. Against such a background, it could clearly play a vital role in helping member countries meet a rapidly growing demand for decentralised, affordable environmentally-friendly energy.

Cambodia, for example, still carries the scars of war. Thus, although it has an immense hydropower potential of some 15,000 MW, only 1 MW is utilised, a figure which represents 5 percent of total national installed capacity of 20 MW. Most of this is produced by small, old, expensive, heavily polluting diesel generators whereas solar energy - thermal heating and drying, and photovoltaic (PV) - wind, mini-hydro and biofuel technologies are scarcely known.

One exception is big-gas, which is used to a certain extent, but even here, system efficiency varies greatly. In a recent development, the Department of Energy Development and Promotion (DEDP) in Thailand installed under a technical cooperation project a 3 KW photovoltaic battery charging station with 80 batteries in Cambodia. Tragically, not only are such benign forms of energy very little used, but the country lacks much of the capacity to introduce them. It has virtually no background data, textbook information, technical skills or awareness, and lacks both the funds and the trained cadres to produce these things.

A "sustainable energy ladder" in the region

The Lao PDR is better situated in that some 16 % of households have electricity, and the country does have a cadre of professional bureaucrats, teachers and technicians as well as a more robust economy. However, only two percent of the rural population have access to electricity, several of the country's 17 provinces not being connected to a central grid. Moreover, although it exports hydropower to Thailand, the Lao PDR has only a small number of mini-hydro installations, and most of the other renewables are only now being investigated. Thus although it has much greater indigenous capacity than Cambodia, in practice it is at much the same level of sustainable energy use.

SR Vietnam is perhaps the next country up the region's sustainable energy "ladder". Some 20 percent of its villages are connected to a public grid, it already has some 600 PV installations, mainly in the mountainous border areas, and has active PV development programmes in co-operation with France and the USA (Solar Electric Lighting Fund, SELF). Yetsome 70 percent of the rural population still rely on kerosene for lighting, and many "electrified" homes must use expensive batteries that, recharged from a diesel generator, are sufficient for only a 20 watt bulb and a TV set. And although solar thermal, solar drying, biogas and mini-hydro potentials are good, none of these technologies are in fact really widely used.

Thailand too has until comparatively recently largely ignored sustainable energy. Thus although most of the country is now electrified, some 3,000 villages still lack connections to a public grid. And although it now installed, some 2 MW of PV systems mainly for telecommunications, lighting, and solar pumping, plus 50,000 m² of solar thermal installations, mini-hydro and solar drying are still not widely used. A nationwide anaerobic fermentation programme for small and large biogas systems (energy recovery from and treatment of agricultural wastes) is supported by the National Energy Policy Office (NEPO) and the Energy Conservation Fund of Thailand. A strong institutional base exists and as constraints to expanded use of conventional sources of energy increase, so greater attention is being paid to renewables. Depending on legislative and administrative changes, sometimes difficult in a changeable political climate, renewables could quickly become more important.

Yunnan is thus at the top of the ladder, producing some 0.5 MW annually of its own PV cells and modules that are used mainly for communications and lighting. It also produces around 100,000 m² of solar thermal collectors a year in 100 factories, solar water heating now being the conventional technology. Biogas is another widely used technology, as is mini-hydro. But as in all other countries in the region, solar drying technology has so far been little developed. And even Yunnan has difficulties, particularly a lack of promotion and awareness of the range of available renewable technologies, mainly because they are still often wrongly assumed to be too expensive. It could also benefit from more regional co-operation.

Since March 1996, SR Vietnam has launched a solar energy commercialisation initiative. Bilateral PV cooperation has begun between Thailand and Cambodia, Thailand and SR Vietnam, Yunnan and SR Vietnam, and Lao PDR and SR Vietnam, this last link being particulary active. Lao PDR-Thailand biogas co-operation has also begun, and Thailand has launched a solar drying technology initiative. The biggest single advance has been a second seminar on solar energy, "Financing and Commercialisation of Solar Energy Activities in Southand East Asia" held at Kunming, Yunnan 26-30 August 1996, supported by Carl Duisberg Gesellschaft (CDG) in Germany.

Some of the main conclusions of the seminar were that there is an enormous solar energy potential in Southeast Asia. The technology is now mature and is well suited to decentralised applications because it is modular. Present cost constraints could be overcome by combining existing bilateral and multilateral financing instruments in order to introduce and disseminate large numbers of solar systems both in the countryside and to industry.

Commercialisation could be promoted if solar system manufacturers and suppliers offered comprehensive energy services in response to well defined consumer needs rather than just selling the technology.

Bright prospects for sustainable energy

But even this vigorous activity is just a beginning. It remains to be seen what administrative and institutional constraints have to be overcome to transform the potential into reality.

However, the Councilis not standings/ill. It will meet again in February 1997 in Vientiane, Lao PDR to discuss ways of increasing its formal presence in the region, and to up-date its work plan. A third regional seminar on solar energy is being planned for Hanoi in late 1997. In another development, the secretariat of CORE has been approached by the National Energy Policy Office (NEPO), Thailand, to organise a high-level seminar in order to discuss existing policies and propose amendments on PV technology and application for the Thai government. At least the prospects for rapid adoption of sustainable energy technologies in the region are bright. It remains to be seen what the actual outcome will be.


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