The SDG Centre Youth Perspective section highlights cool, insightful articles written by young people from the Global Shapers Community of the World Economic Forum and the Global Leaders of the United Nations on many different aspects of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Hailing from Thailand, Myanmar and Singapore they offer a glimpse into what life is like for our next generation in these regions and possible solutions to help make sure nobody is left behind.

“ The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow ” – Nelson Mandela

According to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 7, access to modern energy, both electricity and clean cooking solutions, is crucial for reducing poverty and driving sustainable economic development. With this in mind we take a look at the problems still facing Myanmar today and how a more collective approach can help ensure this Asian country can achieve this goal.

What is Myanmar’s current energy access situation? 

As you are taking a walk in downtown Yangon, and the street lights go off, you may be witnessing an oversaturated power grid outage. After a few seconds of darkness, gigantic back-up generators will burst into life in the city’s hotels, shopping malls, diplomatic compounds and popular tourist restaurants. But the vast majority of the population, if they even have access to electricity, must simply wait for the power to return.

Today only 30% of Myanmar’s population has basic electricity access with 38,000 villages having no electricity at all. Energy poverty in rural areas remains a substantial issue for communities that have to rely on costly diesel generators.

Electrification is an urgent requirement, without which whole areas of the country will be severely hampered in their efforts to advance economically. Social progress also depends on electrification, without which health, education, and other essential services inevitably suffer. For cooking, firewood and charcoal are the primary fuels for more than two thirds of households, raising concerns about negative health impacts from indoor pollution.

This represents a substantial threat for the nation’s sustainable development. No power means no light, no refrigerators, no recharging phones and batteries. Small businesses can’t stay open in the evenings, and clinics cannot refrigerate medicines. It is obvious that access to reliable and affordable energy is essential for a country’s development, job creation and shared prosperity goals.

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Is there light at the end of the tunnel? 

In a country projected to become one of the fastest developing economies in the world, with forecasted 8.6% increase of its GDP in 2016, some hopefuls argue the country’s electrification will unfold quickly, as officials in Naypyidaw – Myanmar’s capital – plan to implement a nation-wide grid connection scheme. The Government has developed a National Electrification Plan (NEP) to bring electricity to every community in Myanmar by 2030 – 7.2 million new household and business connections. The plan aims to achieve 50% electricity access by 2020, 75% by 2025, and universal access by 2030 through the extension of the national grid as well as off-grid solar home systems and mini-grids in rural communities.

Despite all of the challenges, Myanmar possesses many of the right ingredients for economic success. It has an abundance of young, cheap labor, immense natural resources, and is viewed by many investors as the last frontier economy in Asia, due to its isolationist posture prior to 2011.

In fact many experts believe the lack of infrastructure also presents an unforeseen blessing: a blank slate for renewable energy. This concept has raised hopes that the country can avoid the environmental devastation that big energy projects have brought to its neighbors China and India. ”A country endowed with natural and energy resources, Myanmar is in an optimal position for green, resilient, and environmentally sustainable development,’’ said a World Economic Forum report, New Energy Architecture: Myanmar.

The country also happens to be located on a unique insolation pattern across Southeast Asia with much excitement and speculation among players looking to invest on the Burmese market. A number of major global utility companies have geared up for several hundred megawatts of PV deployment, awaiting for the government’s regulatory framework to allow their operations. Expectations are quite high, as are the prospects for more investment in renewables. 

PV solar technology becoming more affordable, innovative and flexible also makes it easier to meet localized needs. Small-scale projects can allow sufficient energy output for communities’ particular needs. It can also take advantage of the pre-existing electricity infrastructures and transform it into a cleaner and more affordable energy system.

The role of Public-Private partnerships 

Responsible business and public-private partnerships can translate into a more effective approach to energy poverty. As head of government, State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is likely to accelerate reforms in the country’s energy sector to allow a greater share of renewables. The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other government development partners in Myanmar, are already looking at small-scale wind, hydro or solar electrification projects, so is the private sector, leveraging advantageous energy market prices and continuous innovation.

The people in need of electricity access will benefit from all those favorable trends. But one question remains: how much time will it take?

Starting at the village level 

Taking a different approach to classical business practices, jointly combining their respective strengths in solar technology and community development, a group of Belgian social entrepreneurs and solar engineers, and the Myanmar Red Cross Society partnered on an experimental solar PV electrification initiative in Myanmar’s Dala township in 2015. A centralized solar station, designed to provide electricity for over 150 households, with portable batteries and cables that run housing and street lamps, charge cell phones among other appliances was deployed in a remote off-grid village.  The project’s success was monitored and translated into significant improvements in the village’s livelihood. Reliance on diesel generators decreased and inhabitants were able to reduce their electricity bills by over 50%. Lights were used at night time, during dinner or for reading. It also helped prevent snakebites among various other health injuries. Phone charging enabled them to interact with the outside world.

Following a few months into project implementation, some local industries also active among rural off-grid communities, expressed their interest in integrating identical solar stations into their own business streams. Those included two of Myanmar’s biggest telecom operators, in demand for more sustainable green models of tower operations. Some 10,000 towers and their surrounding communities could benefit from such smart technologies within the next two years. This would not only improve telecom coverage throughout the country, but would give electricity access for people living along the tower infrastructures, schools or clinics, reduce diesel consumption, air and noise pollution. If a majority of telecom towers could be equipped with the same solar system, this would provide an ingenious solution for the enhancement of rural electrification. That is, before a nation-wide electric grid coverage in Myanmar becomes a reality.

Benjamin Galazzo is an entrepreneur with the World Economic Forum Yangon Global Shapers. He is also the Chairman of the Bright Foundation and leads a number of private ventures in Myanmar and across Southeast Asia. 

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