Gasifier Powered Mini-Grid in Myanmar: A Successful Public-Private Partnership driven by Private Investments.

I had heard a lot about the entrepreneurs in Myanmar who develop and operate renewable energy mini-grids from several experts including Dipti Vaghela who coordinates Hydro Empowerment Network (HPNet), that I jumped at the opportunity offered by U Aung Mynt General Secretary of Renewable Energy Association of Myanmar (REAM) to join the REAM team on a visit to the village of Hlaing Phone in the Ayeyarwady delta. The trip to Hlaing Phone in February 2017 wasn’t easy we had to drive 5 hours each way with the final stretch through unpaved roads and the read trip was followed by a 45 min long tail boat ride through the Ayeyarwady. The journey through the rice fields, fish farms, the labyrinth of local waterways and the local rural life was so interesting that we did not realise the time spent on travelling. It also puts into perspective how remote some of Myanmar’s villages and how difficult access is.

Hlaing Phone is an agricultural and fishing village with over 250 households and a market which is being powered by a 250 kW biomass gasifier using risk husk as fuel, since the last two years. The gasifier was indigenously designed and developed by U Soe Tint Aung of Royal Htoo Linn (RHL) who have already installed close to 800 gasifiers all over Myanmar including 145 village electrification systems. These gasifiers also address a major environmental problem as the risk husk from rice mills is often dumped into local rivulets and waterways causing significant damage to the local aquatic ecosystem. Gasifiers using rice husk from mills can convert this agro-residue to energy. While a number of local manufacturers of gasifier exist, many technologies struggle to manage and clean the coal tar from the producer gas resulting in frequent cleaning and replacement of gasifier and engine components and direct discharge to waterways. The gasifier installed, owned and operated by RHL consists of a multi-stage coal-tar cleaning using water sprays and biomass and the water for spray cleaning is also recirculated using a system of 3 settling tanks. The system also provides employment to 5 people from the village who are involved in fuel management, operating the gasifier, managing the electrical network and tariff collection.

The Operators of the Gasifier Powered Mini Grid at Hlaing Phone                                     (Credits: Sustainable Energy Associates)

There is an electricity committee at Hlaing Phone which supports the RHL team in managing the system. Of 250 households in the village 200 are already connected to the electrical mini-grid, with the remaining households continuing to use their solar home systems or unable to afford about $ 30 required for purchasing the meter and carry out internal wiring. A previous gasifier based system is defunct now. The electricity supply is much more reliable currently with the current system without voltage and frequency variations which in the past have resulted in damages to electrical equipment. The electricity consumption is metered and collected on a monthly basis by RHL with an average monthly household level consumption of about 40 Kwh with the major applications being lighting, television and radios, rice cookers. Some households also have refrigerators, air conditioners, washing machines etc. The electric supply is for 17 hrs daily from 6 AM to 11 with an average monthly household expenditure on electricity being $ 18/month. This is primarily because, the local electricity tariff is rather high at $ 0.44/kWh however there was a complete willingness to pay these higher tariffs for electricity which was reliable and of better quality.

Once we left the village hall and the electricity committee, we could see electricity making a significant difference at homes and at the village market place. Shops are able to increase sales of beverages through refrigeration and women owned cloth shops able to make embroidered Longyis using electric sewing machines increasing incomes. Homemakers seemed very happy with the reliable electricity and use electric rice cookers and electric frying pans and reiterated that the higher tariff was not a problem compared to the convenience of electrical appliances. Some households also use refrigerators and washing machines all of which seemed to benefit women significantly. The most significant aspect of the mini-grid was that it was completely financed by the community and the private enterprise, and operated in the absence of government support and regulatory oversight. There were no international collaborators involved and a clear case of a locally developed appropriate technology operating in a decentralised and geographically remote location with private investments and private operation in partnership with a happy and satisfied community. I understand from U Aung Mynt and Dipti that there are 1000s of such local mini-grids all over Myanmar which follows similar financing and business model using hydro and biomass gasification technologies.

Electric Sewing Machines Supporting Women-led Business                                  (Credits: Sustainable Energy Associates)

The following week, I was in Nay Phi Taw, the capital of Myanmar and a very different setting to Hlaing Phone where I had the privilege of listening to several global key experts convened by the World Bank on financing, business, policy, regulatory and technology aspects of mini-grids, discuss global best practices. I was impressed by the level and range of experience in the space and was pleased to understand the commitment and resources being offered by development agencies to help Myanmar achieve universal electrification by 2030. With the right approach and an orderly development, Myanmar should be able to provide reliable and affordable energy to all of its population leveraging the existing technology, finance and business ecosystem which currently exists in the country in the mini-grid space. My thoughts on some of the aspects to consider in a future accelerated electrification drive in Myanmar could be:

  • Existing mini-grids and mini-grid operators as well as the support ecosystem should be leveraged in electrification plans and efforts should build on existing private sector led electrification experience. You have a unique opportunity to have a bottom-up model of rural electrification in Myanmar;
  • While relatively difficult to implement in Myanmar, financing should be based on cost-recovery principles and should incentivise electricity generation business models than subsidise capital expenditure of future mini-grid and off-grid systems. This is important as large offerings of subsidies may encourage traders to benefit more than the private sector, communities and financiers;
  • There is a need for cross-subsidy mechanisms or incentive mechanisms to moderate the high cost of generated electricity in decentralised mini-grids as well as finance the initial cost of initial electricity access. There is scope for energy policy and regulation to play a facilitating role here;
  • There is a need for an independent regulatory agency which will be able to regulate the electricity sector including grid extensions, mini-grids and off-grid electrification with the objectives of affordability, quality and safety. There are a number of sustainable energy regulatory instruments, toolkits and examples to help underline the importance of the role of independent infrastructure regulation in delivering quality and affordable services to consumers;
  • The rural electrification framework could be technology neutral and could allow private sector and public-private partnerships to choose technology options for electrification based on levelised cost of electricity supply. All options including renewables, fossil fuels, hybrid systems and grid extensions should preferably be considered in the technology mix;
  • An integrated approach that covers both thermal and electrical energy where cooking and cooling energy needs in Myanmar are simultaneously addressed by the mini-grid enterprise or distribution operator through electrical appliances or cleaner fuels such as Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) is likely to address rural energy access and indoor air pollution effectively while increasing the viability of the electricity business;
  • A robust framework for quality control and testing should be placed on electricity conversion systems and electrical network equipment to ensure superior technical performance and avoid manufacture, import and use to inferior equipment. Consideration should also be given towards and appliance energy efficiency and labelling scheme that covers key electrical appliances;

I am sure that many of these aspects are already being considered by the Myanmar government and other key stakeholders in planning and implementing rural energy efforts. I hope to remotely follow these developments and to return some day to find more Hlaing Phones where electrification is done on a PPP mode within a progressive policy and regulatory framework.


Kitonyoni Solar Mini-grid

The solar mini-grid at Kitonyoni near Machakos in Makueni County was financed by the UK government and commissioned in 2012 by the Sustainable Energy Research Group at University of Southampton. The Kitonyoni   Solar mini-grid is managed by Makueni County Solar Energy Co-op Society Ltd which is owned and managed by the community. In July 2016, I travelled to Kitonyoni to visit the solar min-grid and meet with the community. While at Kitonyoni, I met with Joseph, Monicah, William and Shadrack from the management Makueni County Solar Energy Co-op Society Ltd and also with Stephen, the manager of the mini-grid and energy service business.

Management of the Solar Electric Cooperative and the system manager Stephen

With the community leaders and the manager of the mini-grid, I visited several businesses and households that were consuming electricity from the cooperative to understand the business model. The solar electric cooperative seems to be professionally managed and financially sustainable. They operate on a for-profit business basis and the financial accounts reveal that the operation is financially sustainable. The electricity cooperative uses a pre-paid card system for electricity sales and payments which seems to be working well. The electricity consumers are more conscious of energy use and payments and the cooperative is also happy with the upfront collections. The number of shops in the Kitonyoni market has significantly increased since the solar mini-grid was commissioned and the value of the land in the area has also almost tripled. However, the tariff charged by the solar electric cooperative is considerably higher than the public electricity utility but the community has been willing to pay a higher tariff due to better availability and reliability.



My partners on the STEPs project, the team at University of Southampton led by Prof Bakr Bahaj had carried out a survey to examine the possibility of integrating thermal energy services into the existing electrical energy service business model. The results showed that 90% of the households in Kitonyoni use firewood for cooking which is available without cost to the community (Bahaj and Kanani, 2016). While the households spends over 5 hours to gather firewood, there is limited interest in switching to cleaner cooking options such as LPG which involve additional financial expenditure. The opportunity to integrate a solar thermal energy service along with the electricity service seems rather limited due to limited scope and demand for commercial fuels. The firewood is available freely in the area and LPG distribution networks are not available in the village.  Therefore currently, there does not seem to be a business case for introduction of an LPG franchise model and integrate the model into the solar electricity business. However some thoughts that I shared with the community were:

Since households and restaurants are cooking in separate rooms than their houses and as there is a preference for community schemes, will a community electric cooking scheme succeed? This may be relevant as on most days the battery bank of the solar mini-grid seems to be fully charged in the early afternoon and this could provide an opportunity for a central cluster of electric induction cookers which people can use to cook on a pay per use basis(similar to battery charging) to the cooperative.

It is possible that people may opt for efficient Cookstoves/Jikos if available on a hire-purchase/PAYG basis and reduce the amount of firewood to be collected resulting in time savings. An efficient Jiko will cost 45 $ which could be offered on a loan basis with daily/weekly/monthly payments to people by the cooperative for 6 months to 1 year tenure. These funds could be revolved over the time period to reach other members.

A differential tariff with a lower tier-tariff for the shops and establishments that use electricity during the day will likely improve the revenue model of the cooperative and can increase the utilisation levels. Such a tariff regime could allow the use of induction electric cookers at households during the day. Such a development could result in increasing sales and revenue and improving the business viability.

Despite the Mini-grid, the major source of cooking fuel is still firewood

Therefore the technology options for thermal energy and cooking in Kitonyoni is electric cooking or efficient Cookstoves with the possible business models of pay-per-use or hire-purchase respectively. A differential tariff with lower off-peak tariff could also allow electric cooking during the day time and improve the business model. These options are not entirely obvious and needs to be investigated and defined. This approach will certainly face stiff competition from free biomass availability and availability of free time for fire-wood collection.


Bahaj AS and Kanani, C, 2016, Thermal Energy Survey and Analysis, Material 10: Energy for Development Villages – Sustainable Thermal Energy Service Partnerships

Remembering Mamunul

The man wore blue hospital cloths and appeared very weak, frail, disoriented and looked very different from the person I had known. This is the last mental image I have of Mamunul Hoque Khan who succumbed to months of struggle with Deep Vein Thrombosis last week. The image was from a Skype call we had on advancing some work I had done in Afghanistan while he was still at a hospital in Singapore. I requested Mamunul repeatedly to take care of his health during this and other Skype exchanges we had subsequently as he seemed impatient to get back to Kabul and resume work.

I first met Mamunul on a bright and sunny Kabul morning at Green Village. We immediately got into the business I was in Kabul for – to develop a rural energy project for UNDP Afghanistan. For the next 5 months we met each other almost on a daily basis as I went about the project development. He was very involved with the work, had a good advice on navigating problem issues and wanted to think big. We would have meetings late in the evenings and on holidays about the project, there will be e-mails from airports and from his home in Dhaka when he was on holidays, which made me often wonder whether he ever did anything other than work.

He was also a valued for the way he related and engaged with his colleagues. He treated them as extended family and I was often part of gatherings where people shared food and conversations in his office. He was very fond of watches and gadgets and would often encourage me to follow his example! I recall that during the periods I struggled to find decent vegetarian food at Green Village, Mamunul asked one of his friends to make Indian vegetarian food and took me over. We often had discussions about aspects other than work at Green Village or during several long trips we took to meetings in Kabul. It was clear in this conversations that he really liked the work he was doing and he had a particular liking for Afghanistan and its people.

I had been in touch with Mamunul and his colleagues regularly over the last few months to advance the implementation of the Afghanistan Sustainable Energy for Rural Development project that I had developed. We were hopeful that the implementation efforts could start this year on a much needed large scale rural energy effort in Afghanistan which would also address thermal energy needs and that Mamunul would also be back in Kabul soon. Against this background, I was shocked to hear last week that Mamunul did not win his battle with his medical condition and passed away in Dhaka. This indeed is a tragic end to someone who held a lot of promise and could have contributed immensely to environmental protection and climate change. It is indeed a major loss to his family and his employer – UNDP. His colleagues feel they have lost a family member and I have lost a good friend and a valued partner.

So rest in peace Mamunul, I hope your contributions to environmental protection and climate change in Afghanistan are not forgotten but intensified. An appropriate tribute to Mamunul would be to build on the contributions he had made to Afghanistan and to take forward the work he has initiated.

The ‘Real 5P Model’ in Cinta Mekar

I first heard about the 5P model or the Pro-Poor-Public-Private-Partnership in 2012 when I was in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho. The UN’s Economic Commission for Africa were scoping for an energy centre to be run by a cooperative as a 5P model. I found the idea of PPPs in rural energy that focused on poverty alleviation quite compelling in the context of the rural energy work I was doing at the time. This approach was reflected in the Lesotho Energy Alternatives Programme (LEAP) that I developed for UNDP and the Sustainable Thermal Energy Partnerships (STEPs) project that Xavier Lemaire of UCL Energy Institute and I developed with during 2012-2013.

Fast forward 2 years and the STEPs project is generously funded by UK Aid and on its way and while responding to the baseline study on the STEPs project, I hear from Hongpeng Liu and Deanna Morris at the Energy Division of UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia-Pacific (UN-ESCAP) about the original 5P model which has been working for over 10 years in Cinta Mekar, Indonesia. With kind support from Tri Mumpuni of People Centred Business and Economic Institute (IBEKA) ( who incidentally is a recipient of Magsaysay award for her work on hydro power for rural electrification), weeks later I find my way to Cinta Mekar, a relatively remote hilly village about 3 hours drive from Jakarta.

The Cooperative at Cinta Mekar – Makar Sari is headed by a diminutive Yuyun Yunegsih, a grandmother of three who has been elected few years ago by the 450 members of the. The cooperative manages the 120 kW hydro power plant which was commissioned in 2003. The investment in the hydro-mechanical and electro-mechanical equipment and the building materials were financed 50:50 by UN-ESCAP and a private company Hidropiranti. The facilitation was by IBEKA and the members of the community and cooperatives contributed labour and local materials for civil construction in a normal PPP mode.

Today after 12 years the hydro power system is still working well and generating and selling electricity to the local utility – PLN at slightly over US cents 4/kWh. 40% of the $650-$1100 monthly revenues go to Hydropiranti and 40% to Mekar Sari cooperative while 20% is set aside for maintenance, repairs and replacement. The Mekar Sari cooperative has done a number of impressive ‘pro-poor’ initiatives over the years with its share of the revenues. It has provided financial assistance to households which could not afford to obtain an electricity connection. The cooperative also provides scholarships to 360 kids from the community, provides a land fund for members who do not have land holdings, provides an allowance for women in the community to cover childbirth related expenses and also pays an allowance to older members in the community. It has plans to construct public toilets, drinking water fountains etc. all of which seems very impressive. This is an impressive ‘pro-poor’ element that I have not seen in energy projects in general. I have seen impressive pro-poor energy initiatives driven by visionary and charismatic individuals but not by organisations for such a long duration and consistent track-record.

While the social development and pro-poor schemes have been very impressive, the business side has been slightly less impressive. The cooperative has not been successful in renegotiating in higher off-take tariffs in the power purchase agreement with PLN which pays almost a three times higher tariff for similar community hydro plants. A major investment in a manufacturing facility to make gluten-free banana flour which would have employed 10 people have not been successful and lies largely unutilised as the supply chain and market prospects were not investigated properly. It’s possible that the cooperative may have benefitted from some hard-nosed business advice. However the initiative can be considered a notable success in establishing a technical and management solution at an institutional level which has worked for over 12 years and has continued to be profitable and having driven social development in the community.

It was interesting to see that almost all the electrified community was using LP Gas or gathering wood from the forests for cooking, thus affirming our view that the thermal energy aspect is often overlooked and left to individual households to solve. What was interesting was also that many households which could afford were using electric rice cookers for cooking the main staple food. A 5P model which combines private sector quality, efficiency and investments with public and community investment and participation, with community organisations managing social benefits and which combines both electricity and gas supply could indeed be a better model economically and socially. The question whether the institutionalised community leadership in Cinta Mekar can be replicated elsewhere remains.

After my visit I asked Yuyun what the cooperatives biggest challenge was and contrary to what I expected it turned out to be the efforts by the local government to take over the cooperative. So while technical, economic and social challenges can be overcome in rural energy services, political challenges often pose a greater risk to sustainability.

Remembering Teresa Marston, May Her Tribe Increase

I first met Teresa probably in 1995 and she had a big smile on her face. That Smile is something I have associated with Teresa for the next 10 years until 2004, during the period when I had the privilege of working with her. I learned yesterday from her family that Therese had passed away peacefully on the 22nd of January and that she was suffering from a neuro-degenerative disease called ALS for the last 3 years. She had faced the disease with an incredible optimism and courage and  passed away gracefully two weeks ago.

I remember Therese as always very kind and would often go out of her way to help people in need. I recall the three dogs  she adopted while living in India and she would always take in the weakest of the dogs. She felt very strongly for the street children begging for money at traffic intersections in Delhi and taught me not to give them money but chocolates, toys old cloths etc. While in Pondicherry, Therese was always at the forefront of any socially oriented initiative that the company IT Power organised. I recall that once, she got a professional troupe from Mumbai to Pondicherry to go around performing at schools in Pondicherry to create awareness on environmental protection.

An incident which I recall during our time at IT Power being is something which defines Therese. We were both interviewing several candidates for an open position. One particular interview wasn’t going well and when we were about to complete the interview the candidate broke down. He said he had appeared for a large number of interviews and has now lost hope of ever finding a job. My instinct was to console and thank him but select another candidate who was the best recruit. Therese however impressed on me that as a company active in sustainable development, we had a responsibility to select and mentor such professionals as well. I reluctantly agreed and for the next several months I thought we had made a mistake. But over a period of time, the employee shed his inhibitions and bloomed. Now he is employed in another reputed company, has started a family and remains a friend. It’s possible that the story might have been different, if not for the role Therese played.

I was in touch with Therese over the past year about a get-together and treatment in India but did not realise that she was unwell. I had suggested few months ago that we meet the next time she would be in India but I now realise with great sadness that there won’t be a next time…

Let’s celebrate the life of Teresa Marston for the kindness and support she has shown to everyone she came across. I’m sure that she has influenced several people like me to be more accommodating and kind. So thank you for the privilege of knowing and working with you Teresa.

Rest In Peace.

A Man and an Island Called Pediatorkope

The man was old and frail but had a commanding presence and a strong voice despite needing a walking stick to move around. I suspect that he was in his late 80s or early 90s but looked a lot younger, was strategic and spoke intelligently His name was Chief Nene Pediatorkope IV – the supreme chief of the island of Pediatorkope in Ghana whom I met last week.

Pediatorkope is an island in the Volta River inhabited by agricultural and riparian fishing communities. After the Akosombo dam was built in 1966, water levels downstream decreased significantly and with it the fish catch also dropped just like the water level. Many of the men left the village moving upstream to continue fishing or migrated to nearby cities find other jobs. There is still limited amounts of agriculture and fishing in the Island but more at a subsistence level. The island now has a government supported school and a health centre but the houses does not have electricity or water supply. Once darkness sets in, the village life literally comes to an end. Some of the wealthier households have either a solar home system or a battery power pack, primarily for lighting, phone charging and for powering radios or televisions. Those with the battery power pack recharge their batteries periodically at the village solar kiosk operated by an NGO – Empower Playgrounds. Income from agriculture and fishing has also dwindled over time due lack of irrigation and absence of a cold storage.

The situation Pediatorkope where absence of energy constrains social and economic development is very similar to the situation in remote communities I have seen. Availability of modern energy allows such villages to irrigate fields which are not cultivated, have cold rooms and freezers to avoid poultry, milk and fish and also find other productive uses for energy. This also allows children to read and study in the evenings and have shops and markets open into late evening. The Chief was very sure that the Pediatorkope island community will grow from strength to strength once there was energy supply.

The village also had some feedback on the way rural energy programmes should be implemented. Rather than government institutions installing solar home systems or street lights which fail in a matter of time, their preference was for the energy to be delivered as a service to them for which they will pay. What the villagers were willing to pay was the avoided cost of what they were already paying for dry cell batteries for torches. They also did not want the community themselves to manage the energy systems as they thought the social compulsions would result in inadequate revenue generation and eventual failure. They wanted the systems to be managed by professional enterprises and that people in Pediatorkope were available to be employed by such companies.

For me it was interesting to hear people preferring paid energy service over hardware donations, like I have heard in the Sunderbans villages in India few years ago. It was also interesting to hear that they also wanted an external enterprise to manage the service arrangements like I have found out in Mokhotlong in Lesotho last year. I can see an increasing desire in remote rural village communities to received energy services than products and pay for these.

Once back in Accra, I spoke to my friend Wisdom who is the Director at the Ministry of Energy about the island and its electricity needs. Wisdom thought that it should be possible to get grid electricity to the village through overhead cables or a mini-grid system to meet the household and productive needs in the village. Either way, I do hope that Pediatorkope will be electrified soon as part of the government’s rural electrification efforts. Next time someone visits Pediatorkope, I hope they will be able to see a more prosperous island, where men stay on in the village, children doing better academically and agriculture and commerce prospering.

The Woman and Child in Bondo and Modern Thermal Energy Access

She was weak and frail, with her baby on her back and a large and unusually long log of wood on her head. You could sense that she was struggling to move under the weight of the log on her head and the baby on her back, but perhaps the promise of the large firewood and promise of less trips to gather wood egged her on. The water channel on her path was shallow but the fall was very steep, probably 40 m or more, she would have crossed the channel quite easily without the load. She jumped across, didn’t make it, slipped but fortunately held on to the brickwork and then pulled herself and her baby out and moved on. I had my heart in my mouth for a few seconds and was greatly relieved that she and her baby was safe. The women with her baby (see picture) could have easily slipped and dropped 40 m down with grave consequences.

This is a scene I witnessed two weeks ago at Bondo in Southern Malawi –one of African countries where over 90% of the population lack energy access. Several millions of women in Sub-saharan Africa and South Asia make such risky trips every day to gather firewood, twigs and shrubs for household thermal energy use, often putting themselves at physical risk. Such trips often expose these women to rough terrain, natural elements and attacks from animals and sometimes fellow humans.  Most of these women then cook food or boil water using inefficient traditional stoves or keep the fire burning through the night to keep themselves warm or keep wild animals away. These traditional thermal energy use results in major indoor air pollution which slowly kills them and their children through lower respiratory diseases. So women are exposed to health risks during the collection and use of traditional biomass for thermal energy.

Against this backdrop, last week, I was pleased to learn from the launch of the decade of SE4All from New York that the first two years of the decade will be dedicated to ‘Energy-Women-Children-Health’ nexus. This is a very welcome development and I applaud the SE4All leadership and partners for the attention to this space. However to be able to effectively address health related challenges of women and children in areas without energy access, electrification alone is not sufficient and providing modern and thermal energy to rural women is central to this issue. Providing modern thermal energy needs to go beyond a product delivery approach which often focuses only on efficient cook-stoves. While energy for cooking is important, hot water for sanitation and space heating are also quite important. While biomass – solid and liquid fuels, electricity and solar thermal could all play a role, Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) can also play a supplementary role. The business of providing thermal energy as a service is likely to a low-return, long-term business and may need to be combined with electricity or agro businesses to increase viability. There are also important roles that public sector, private sector, Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) and the international community should play. Solutions will need to go beyond technology to address, financing, supply chain, institutional arrangements as well as policy and regulations. So all of us need to chip at this problem from all possible angles and the attention and support in this space in the next two years due to SE4All is very welcome.

As for the anonymous woman and her child, Peter Killick of Mulanje Energy Generation Agency, the micro-grid electricity service provider for Bondo who witnessed the scene with me, kindly offered to put a footbridge across the channel. While I am relieved that her future journeys to gather fuel will be safer, I hope to be back in Bondo in the future to see that she has access to cleaner energy technologies and fuel supply at her doorstep.