Myanmar has mapped a 15-year power development plan to meet increasing demand, setting its sights on boosting capacity from 4,581 megawatts to over 29,000MW in 2031.
According to Myint Oo, director at the Ministry of Electric Power, the plan will shift Myanmar's focus from hydropower to other energy sources, including coal, natural gas, solar, and wind power. In 2031, Myanmar is set to have 41 power plants. Besides the capacity boost, the authorities are also focusing on reducing transmission and distribution loss on its antiquated national grid.
"We have planned to implement many power projects exploiting available resources in Myanmar to fulfil surging power demand in the near future," the official said.
As of September 2014, from 814 power plants across the country, the total generation capacity was 4,581MW, of which 3,044MW (66.46 per cent) was from hydropower. High reliance on hydropower causes unstable supply, as the reservoirs behind dams shrink during the hot season.
As of September 17, with 33 per cent of the population having access to electricity, the peak load was 2,171MW and per-capita consumption was 232 kilowatt hour.
Myint Oo said that the 15-year plan had five main objectives. First, for energy efficiency, more gas-based power is necessary for a capacity boost in the short term while more hydropower power plants are planned for long-term security. Second, power distribution must cover the entire nation to boost economic development. Third, environmental and social impact assessments are required to minimise the impacts. Fourth, distribution losses must be reduced along with energy conservation. Fifth, renewable energy sources must be included.
According to Myint Oo, besides the huge gap between demand and supply, the ministry has several other challenges to address. Power losses are among them and they require an upgrade of the distribution system. Capacity building is another, as the demand of engineers will rise in line with the emergence of new power plants, which will use more advanced technology.
He said new technology should ensure that coal-fired and gas-fired power plants will reduce environmental, social and health impacts. These plants, with huge capacity, will require short construction periods and be established in areas where power demand is highest.
However, the plan calling for 12 new coal-fired power plants and 20 hydropower plants is causing deep concerns in communities where the power plants will be located. Lack of transparency is being highlighted.
Burma Rivers Network, which comprises 15 civil society groups - including ShanSapawa Environmental Organisation, Karenni Civil Society Network, Mon Youth Progressive Organisation, Love Salween Group and Karen Rivers Watch - raised concerns about all six dam projects on the Thanlwin River - known as the Salween River outside of Myanmar. These projects are Kun Long/Upper Thanlwin, Nong Pa, Mantong and Tasang dams in Shan State, Ywathit dam in Kayah State and Hatgyi dam in Kayin State.
"The six projects proceed in violation of international dam building standards, which should ensure transparency and respect for the rights of affected communities. The dam sites are strictly guarded, and local people have been given no information about the projects. Downstream communities remain unaware about impacts on water flows, fisheries and agriculture, as well the dangers of potential dam breaks," said Saw Tha Phoe, a spokesperson for the network.
He added that local residents in more than 60 villages in Shan state have already lost land as roads are built in preparation for the Kunlong dam.
Salween Watch, a coalition of civil society groups, said earlier this month that the recent escalation of fighting and displacement in Kayin state was linked to the Union army's aim to clear the way for the planned Hut Gyi Dam on the Thanlwin River. It also urged the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) to withdraw its investment in the project.
As a coal-fired power plant is likely to be established in the Dawei Special Economic Zone, local residents are bracing for negative impacts. Recently, they have experienced negative impacts from a coal mine in the region.
"This project will violate human rights and destroy the environment and livelihoods of the people. If such a project will be resumed, both the [Myanmar and Thai] governments will be judged very harshly by history," said Thant Zin, coordinator of the Dawei Development Association.
EcoDev, a non-government organisation which focuses on environmental issues in the country, has been adamant in its opposition to coal-fired power plants.
"We are against the coal-fired power plants as they will damage the environment a lot. All the land, water, and air near the plants will become polluted. And they will severely harm the health of people and animals living nearby. And the worst thing is that implementation of such plants may lead to political conflict if the local residents do not agree," said Win Myo Thu, chief executive officer of EcoDev.
Village residents are pressing for clear plans; how the projects will be carried out and who will be held accountable for any mishaps. More protests are expected until their questions are answered, the said.