A man selling solar panels at his shop in the Kayah State capital of Loikaw on October 13, 2014. (AFP)

Solar provides limited relief amid chronic power cuts

Some households and businesses in Myanmar have turned to solar power to deal with prolonged shortfalls in the national power grid, but the steep cost of imported equipment puts solar out of reach for most.


U Aung Myint Myat used to keep the generator at his home running 15 hours straight on sweltering days, so he could power air conditioners to cool his 80-year-old father and infant child.

“Power outages can last up to 16 hours,” he explained, referring to the gruelling hot season from March to May when demand for electricity peaks, resulting in power cuts that have substantially worsened since the 2021 military coup.

However, his neighbours in Yangon’s North Dagon Township kept complaining about the noise and exhaust fumes from the diesel generator. This prompted him to instal a solar power system in December last year, which has been enough to power three air conditioners, lighting, a water pump, a rice cooker and a refrigerator.

Aung Myint Myat acknowledged he was one of few people who could afford such a system, which cost him K60 million (US$14,000 at the market exchange rate). He added that everyone should have access to electricity and placed the blame for the shortages squarely on the shoulders of the military regime.

“Electricity is essential for humans. We now feel as if we have returned to Than Shwe’s era,” said Aung Myint Myat, referring to the senior general who ran the last military junta, before retiring in 2011. “At that time, power outages were constant.”

“The reality is that Min Aung Hlaing is driving the country backwards,” he said, naming the head of the current junta.

As bad as things are in Yangon, the situation is considerably worse in the central Dry Zone. Ko Naung Yoe, a farmer in Mandalay Region’s Nyaung-U Township, said his village gets only two hours of electricity a day during the hot season.

Naung Yoe told Frontier that the power supply greatly improved under the National League for Democracy government, which ruled from 2016 until it was deposed in the 2021 coup. The use of inverters dwindled and people in his area could use electricity for at least 20 hours a day.

As the national economy grew and new villages got connected to the grid, demand for electricity started to outstrip supply in 2019. A raft of new power plant projects was intended to fill the widening gap, but most of them stalled with the flight of foreign investment after the coup.

According to a World Bank report published in September last year, Myanmar has a power supply shortfall of over 2.5 gigawatts due to stalled power plants as well as low water levels in hydropower dams and shortages of domestically produced natural gas.

The report says the country’s marine gas fields “are projected for production decline and depletion over the coming years, and major multinational companies that were developing new offshore gas fields have left the country”.

For Naung Yoe and his neighbours, the alternatives to the poor grid supply are too costly. “I want to instal solar power in my home, but it would cost at least K12 million,” he said. “I don’t have that much money. The only thing we can do is use candles when we sit down at night.”

Elsewhere in the Dry Zone, in Sagaing Region’s Monywa Township, a project manager at an international NGO said he and his neighbours had been getting about three hours of electricity a day. Luckily, he had the money to buy a K25 million solar system for his home.

A solar panel pictured in the Myeik Archipelago in 2018. (Frontier)

“The system is enough to use [two] air conditioners,” said the project manager, asking not to be named. “If I recharge the battery with solar in the daytime, it can be used for up to eight hours [at night].”

He said that while he is fortunate to have solar panels, the power outages are just another way that the junta is making the people of Myanmar suffer.

“The people are not getting their basic right to electricity, but Min Aung Hlaing is even talking about an electric train project,” he said, referring to the junta leader’s plan, discussed at a cabinet meeting in September 2021, to develop a nationwide network of electric trains.

“The junta’s focus is on a seemingly futuristic project rather than on the daily struggles of citizens,” he said.

Back in Nyaung-U, hotel owners have been weighing the costs and benefits of solar power.

The township – which is home to the ancient ruins of Bagan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site – has suffered from a precipitous decline in tourism since the coup. Desperate for guests, hotels in Bagan have been running generators to shield them from the power cuts, but the rising cost of fuel has pushed at least five of them to use solar panels as a supplement.

However, stubbornly low room occupancy means few can hope to recover the cost of such upgrades. The management at two hotels now using solar power told Frontier that, to remain competitive, they have not raised their room rates.

One of them, the Areindmar Hotel in New Bagan, installed a solar power system in November last year at a cost of K180 million. The system produces about 30 kilowatt hours, enough to supply around-the-clock electricity to 12 rooms. If any of the hotel’s 13 other rooms were occupied at the same time, staff would need to turn on the generators.

A supervisor, who asked not to be named, said it used to cost the hotel up to K300,000 a day to run the generators, even with only a handful of guests, and even the generators couldn’t run at all times. “The cost fluctuated depending on the price of fuel. We don’t have this headache anymore,” he said.

Another Bagan hotelier, who asked that both he and his hotel not be named, said he spent K60 million to instal solar panels but they could only sustain the water pumps and lighting on a 24-hour basis. The panels can also supply air conditioners, but only for four hours a day. He said this meant that, “even if I only have one guest in a room, I need to run the generators.” Running them even on a limited schedule – from 1pm to 5pm and from 7pm to 9am – consumes about 100 litres of fuel a day, costing K300,000. However, the price of a full solar upgrade was prohibitive at K200 million.

“Power outages make it difficult to earn a profit. Hotels with [larger] solar power systems are offering their rooms at the same rates as my hotel, so we have fewer guests. As you know, everyone wants to have electricity,” he told Frontier.

In Yangon, households adopt solar systems mainly to power air conditioners at night, but systems that can cover nightly power outages cost a hefty K20-30 million or more. But even those who can afford them must contend with a limited supply of components. Sellers in Myanmar say the junta is slow to grant permits for panels, batteries and other equipment to be imported from China or Thailand.

“Applying for an import licence is simple, but we get annoyed when we must wait for a long time. Sometimes, I’ve waited two months to get approval,” said a solar importer in Yangon who asked to stay anonymous, adding he wished the regime would relax the process.

The delays come because the junta rations imports in order to conserve its foreign currency reserves, which have dwindled amid the plunge in foreign investment and decline in exports.

In a partial acknowledgement of Myanmar’s power crunch, the regime’s Ministry of Planning and Finance exempted solar components from customs duties in April last year, but the steep slide in the value of the kyat offsets this benefit by making imported items much costlier.

“Even though we aren’t required to pay taxes, the inflation rate makes solar and related components more expensive,” said the solar importer. “That is why most people cannot afford to instal solar power at home.”

This leaves most Myanmar people to endure sleepless nights in the heat and dark, particularly during the hot season. While the power cuts have eased this month with the annual onset of the monsoon, when demand lessens and dams get replenished, the overall supply of electricity is set to plummet further year-by-year.

“My foreign friend asked me if Myanmar people bought home appliances for show because we do not have electricity to use them,” said an accountant in Yangon who asked not to be named. “I had no response for him.”

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