Whenever a plan to build a large coal power plant is announced in Myanmar, people take to the streets. While these protests have been rather successful on a local level, this has not discouraged investors from simply announcing a similar plant in another location.
Myanmar needs more electricity. But there is a risk to take the wrong path – coal – that is polluting and has very high CO2 emissions.
For a long time, the coal power plant in Tigyit (Shan State) was the only one in Myanmar’s 30-years Power Development Plan 2000-2030. However, upon reviewing Myanmar’s energy sector in 2015, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), together with firms from Japan, Thailand and Italy, advocated for coal power as a means to achieve full electrification by 2030. The Italian-Thai Development Company (ITD) and the Toyo-Thai Corporation, a joint venture of ITD and the Japanese Toyo Engineering Corporation, have tried to set up coal power plants throughout Myanmar over the last decade. While none of these plans have materialized yet, the end of the story is still open.
In 2012, the Thilawa Special Economic Zone (SEZ) near Yangon seemed to be an ideal place for a coal power plant. However, Toyo-Thai was not able to acquire the land from the government. Although the idea for a coal power plant seemed to persist, concrete steps were taken in other locations.
In 2010, ITD selected the Dawei SEZ (Thanintharyi Region) as a site for a potential coal power plant. Anticipating high demand in the SEZ, Toyo-Thai raised the plant’s capacity to 4,000 Megawatt (MW). This would have made it the largest coal power plant in Southeast Asia. As Dawei is only a few kilometers away from the Myanmar-Thailand border, the SEZ was expected to heavily trade with Thailand. Also, a lot of the electricity was thought to go directly to Thailand. These two facts prompted a lot of outrage because it was seen as a way for Thailand to benefit from coal power without having to build a plant within its own borders. After people had strongly protested the coal power plant, the Myanmar government and Toyo-Thai gave in to the environmental and social concerns voiced by the residents and suspended the project in 2012.
Some people still promote coal as a path for clean energy and secure jobs. The 2015 Myanmar National Energy Master Plan (see page xi) also regards coal as a rising source of energy until 2030 whereas renewable energies are expected to play a negligible role. But while SEZs, large industrial zones and individual households need reliable power supply, coal power should not be the way to go. Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that the world community must take immediate and decisive action to keep global warming under the crucial 1.5°C threshold. In light of this, Toyo-Thai’s and ITD’s plans for setting up coal power plants in Myanmar would be a huge step backwards. From increased floods, draughts and cyclones to disappearing coral reefs and wildlife species: Myanmar, like any other country, is already experiencing some of the effects of climate change. Building coal power might satisfy short-term energy needs but will cause irreparable damage in the long run.
While industrial nations are responsible for a significant share of global greenhouse gas emissions, this does not stop Myanmar from moving forward on renewable energies on its own. While around 75% of Myanmar’s electricity is already supplied by hydro-energy, especially its southern part also has a strong potential for solar energy. Thus, Myanmar recently joined the International Solar Alliance through which it hopes to further boost its solar capacities. In line with this strategy, Myanmar’s first solar power plant opened in October 2018 in Magwe Region. If run successfully, others are planned to follow in Sagaing, Mandalay and Naypyitaw.
Despite potential for renewable energies, however, coal power remained on the agenda. After the plans in Dawei were scrapped, new plans for a coal power plant surfaced in Ann Dinn (Ye township, Mon State) in 2015. While Toyo-Thai’s local partners claimed the coal power plant was necessary to connect the region to the electrical grid, local residents feared they will have to suffer the ecological consequences. Also, most of the electricity would go to Thailand, rendering the benefits for Myanmar minimal. Once the plans for the coal power plant were made public, people protested in fear of their health, environment and livelihoods. After months of loud protest, it was clear that the power plant could not materialize in Ye either.
The latest attempt to construct a Toyo-Thai coal power plant was recorded in 2017 in Hpa-an (Kayin State). However, not only were the plans for the power plant similar but also the public reaction very much resembled that in Ye and Dawei. Streets were filled with protesters, local organizations formed against the coal power plant and pressured decision makers at Toyo-Thai. Eventually, the Union Minister of Electricity and Energy canceled the plans in mid-2018. While the land titles have not been given back to the residents yet, the Union Government is stopping any further construction.
Even though the plan for Hpa-an is suspended now, ITD and Toyo-Thai seem to relentlessly continue to plan coal power plants. However, Myanmar’s civil society has proven to be equally relentless in thwarting such plans.