The Mae Mauk waterfall micro-hydro power plant is located couple of hours drive through the Shaan highlands from Pyin Oo Lwin, the erstwhile summer capital of British Burma. The hydro power plant and the associated electric utility are managed by Lin Yuang Chi Mini-hydro Cooperative which employs 6 people including a manager to manage the technical and business needs of the micro-hydro-electric system and the micro-utility. The cooperative was established after an initial government funded hydro power plant failed in 2012. The micro energy utility has 450 customers spread over 11 villages drawing electricity from an 80kW hydro power plant set up below the Mae Mauk waterfall. Apart from providing electricity to 250 households, the system is also providing electricity to 200 public service institutions, village level enterprises including rural industries and farms. The utility has been in operation for 7 years since 2013 and has now reached a saturation level and is currently not accepting any new customers as the additional demand cannot be met by the current micro-hydro system.
We were part of a group of hydro power enthusiasts visiting the hydro power plant and the electricity cooperative as part of a Board of Advisers meeting of HPNET– the Hydro Empowerment Network, a south-south knowledge exchange platform to advance local micro-hydro practitioners who work directly with village communities. I found a number of features of this micro-hydro power and micro-utility quite interesting and feel these might be relevant to micro-hydro and decentralised energy development in Myanmar and other developing countries with energy access deficits and decentralised renewable energy potential.
Financial feasibility and business opportunities:In the absence of government or international development assistance, the projects are selected on the basis of financial feasibility. The financial feasibility in such cases is primarily determined by the business opportunities to use the generated electricity. In the case of the Mae Mauk waterfall micro-hydro there are telecom towers, fabrication workshops, brick making, coffee, poultry, silviculture etc. which are key in making the investments financially viable. The electricity cooperative does not charge any connection fees for such business opportunities but these opportunities make a major contribution by way of tariff payments to the annual revenue of $30,000 for the Lin Yuang Chi electricity cooperative.
Ownership and Operational model:while the legal form of the electricity utility is a co-operative, it is in effect a public-private partnership as the private sector manufacturer – Sai Htun Hla & Brothers hold 50% of shares in the cooperative with the rest held by the community and users. While the operation and maintenance of the hydro-mechanical and electro-mechanical systems, metering and tariff collection are done by the cooperative staff, Sai Htun Hla & Brothers provide the technical back-up support for repairs and replacements. This Build-Own-Operate (B-O-O) model is an important factor in the impressive operation of the micro-hydro power system and the associated utility over the last 7 years.
Regulatory Framework:in the absence of a national energy regulator or a regulatory framework for electricity and energy, the Lin Yuang Chi electricity cooperative has established local electricity tariffs that are cost-reflective and currently generate annual revenues of $ 30,000 against the expenses of $ about $11,000. Electricity tariffs are tiered with cooperative members paying lower tariffs compared to regular consumers. The regular electricity consumers pay tariffs in the range of $ 0.18-29/kWh and temporary users pay $0.59/kWh. There is also a connection fee of $135-440 to be paid by households depending on the distance of the house from the power house. These tariffs have been accepted by the community and there are no cases of payment defaults and payments have largely been regular, with some instances of delays. It may be possible to bring tariffs down if financing through low-interest loans or investment grants were available.
Simple or Sophisticated Technology?:The technology for the hydro-mechanical and the electro-mechanical equipment is indigenous and has been developed by – Sai Htun Hla & Brothers and implemented in over a hundred such micro-hydro power plants. The system does not use an Electronic Load Control (ELC) but a generator with an Automatic Voltage Regulation (AVR) allowing for reasonable frequency variations and control with manual interventions and a planned upgrade will use a flow-type load governor. The electric cooperative seems to have a strategy to keep the technology manageable and serviceable locally and to continue to provide electricity with slightly lower power quality. Several experts including my colleagues question this approach on technical grounds citing valid reasons but the customers and the electric cooperative seem satisfied with this solution. This seems to be an interesting case of locally developed and manageable technology providing reasonable energy services against the option of more sophisticated technology providing much better and safer energy services but with challenges to technical sustainability and probability of more downtime. With my engineering background, I would have thought technical performance and safety was more important but the customers seem to be happy with the electricity service and seems to pay the tariffs regularly without fail. A case of Appropriate Technology vs Best Available Technology (BAT)?
Social and Environmental Benefits:The Lin Yuang Chi electricity cooperative provides free electricity for all the street lights in the service area in all 11 villages, which has increased safety at night. Most households are using electric cookers which has reduced indoor air pollution particularly for women and children and has also reduced the need for firewood and reduced deforestation. Electricity offered at lower tariff bands to the health centre has resulted in increased access to health services including a marked increase in child births. Also, low-cost electricity to schools and monasteries has helped in formal and religious education of youth in the villages. Irrigation powered by electricity has increased the land area under agriculture enhancing income generation and improving food security. The decisions to offer free or low-cost electricity for public services were taken by the Lin Yuang Chi electricity cooperative members themselves in the absence of government support or policy. Several micro-hydro based rural electrification projects provide similar benefits which are not valued and captured adequately.
I understand from U Sai Htun Hla, the owner of Sai Htun Hla & Brothers and U Zaw Min the owner of Kyaw Soe Win Hydropower, another major manufacturer that there are over 2000 village hydro projects powering rural population in Myanmar. These have been established over the decades when the country had limited access to international technologies or technical expertise. This situation resulted in development of such impressive numbers of village hydro projects through a community driven bottom up process supported by local micro-hydro manufacturer developers on a PPP – BOO model. I have previously not witnessed such indigenous, self-sustaining and bottom-up village electrification solutions at this scale, in countries where I have advised on development of rural electrification programmes. The existence of these successful examples at a significant scale, provides a good platform and a sound basis to develop a rural electrification programme that is sustainable in the long term.
Currently Myanmar is in the process of a large scale-electrification drive through large scale-investments in power generation capacity, electrical grid development and mini-grid based solutions through renewable energy. This is a very welcome initiative which willhelp to provide electricity access to millions who had no modern energy access previously. There is a unique opportunity in Myanmar for the large-scale electrification initiatives to collaborate and partner with the indigenous hydro power developers and communities in Myanmar to achieve village electrification solutions that are sustainable, local and with higher social and environmental benefits.