Myanmar is one of the least electrified countries in the world. In Southeast Asia, only Cambodia is comparable. In 2019, just 30% of the population is connected to the national grid, and in rural areas this drops to 16%. Average annual per capita electricity consumption is 160kWh: 5% of the world average.
Myanmar gained its independence from the British in 1948, but a prolonged period of mismanagement under the heel of a military dictatorship since the early 1960s has led to little more than one third of the country having access to reliable electricity from the grid, whilst six and a half million households – over 30 million people - remain dependent on a mix of solar home systems, kerosene, firewood and candles.
In 2011, the transition began towards a civil government, and following the elections of 2015 that brought the National League for Democracy to power, the country has opened its borders to investment. The government's National Electrification Plan aims to have the entire country electrified by 2030, and they have secured a $400 million loan from the World Bank towards this end. But with the cost estimated at $30 billion, it is clear that private investment will be needed.
YOMA MICRO POWER'S UNIQUE SOLUTION
Yoma Micro Power (YMP) was founded in 2017, with the aim of bringing small-scale solar power plants to Myanmar. Throughout the country there are 13,000 off-grid telecommunication towers reliant on diesel generation, power which is costly, noisy and prone to wild price fluctuations. YMP's solar plants (with diesel back-up generators) are an appealing alternative: a long-term contract ensures a fixed price, and they eliminate the need to manage delivery of diesel to logistically difficult areas, especially during the rainy season when villages can be cut off for several months at a time. The anchor-load generating revenue that these towers guarantee allows YMP to then extend their mini grid to nearby villages, bringing power to local residents at prices they can afford, whilst remaining financially sustainable. Their ten initial pilot projects locate a solar plant beside a tower, with four of these plants extending their grid to nearby villages.
Around 70% of households in Myanmar operate a solar home system. These systems have brought significant changes to peoples' lives, but are able to power little more than lights and a television, and then for only four or five hours in a day. Having more reliable power for longer, and the possibility to operate larger appliances for crucial needs such as cooking, refrigeration and water pumping, makes YMP an attractive option for the Myanmar people.
There is also an additional incentive. Although the government is extending the national grid, they will only bring it to the outskirts of a village – villagers are expected to finance the construction of the grid within the village themselves. That cost can be anywhere between $300 and $600 per household, several times the monthly income of a typical family, often making connection to the national grid prohibitive, either to the village as a whole, or at least to the poorer households.
To make electricity access more affordable to village households, YMP finances the power plant and grid infrastructure themselves. “We see our mini grids as one day being a bridge to the centralised grid,” says Dustin Zubke, Village Mini Grid Analyst at YMP. When the national grid does ultimately arrive at the village, the villagers can buy the grid off YMP at a depreciated price, by which time YMP should have met their own costs by selling electricity. Not only does this mean villages can have access to reliable electricity now, rather than waiting for a decade, but it means that when the national grid does eventually reach a village, the village will be ready.
The ability to operate reliably in remote locations is crucial to YMP's business model, in particular during the rainy season, when villages can become cut off. The power plants allow them to do this from the generation side, whilst SteamaCo's technology enables this on the distribution side, receiving and sending information remotely through the platform.
“The flexibility that is in the existing SteamaCo monitoring system, and the culture of the company to continually innovate on their product, ensures that SteamaCo will continue to meet the needs of customers like us,” said Zubke. “We are still experimenting and innovating on our business model, so the openness and flexibility to incorporate new features into the SteamaCo product is critical to us.”
Rice cookers are an aspirational appliance in Myanmar, impractical to run on a solar home system, and frequently sought after once a YMP grid is installed. Yet like all inductive heating technology, rice cookers create a challenge in demanding a large amount of power in a short amount of time: the power plant must be able to meet the peak demand when everyone turns on their rice cookers, despite this only happening for an hour or two a day.
SteamaCo and YMP worked together to understand daily routines, and developed a tariff that incentivised households to cook at slightly different times, smoothing peak demand over a period of time without disrupting anyone's habits. “Having more control over how much power from each meter can be used at different points in time allows us to ensure that we can utilise our power plant more effectively,” said Zubke. “Ultimately, that translates into a lower cost for our consumers and higher returns for us.”
Following a second round of fundraising, in which YMP raised $26 million, there are now 250 solar plants scheduled for construction, at least 25 of which will connect to villages. The next scale-up, on course for 2022, aims to power 2000 towers and 250 villages, or over 50,000 households.
YMP are creating local jobs in both the construction and maintenance of their plants, but also through bringing power to villages. Reliable electricity enables jobs in many sectors, including tailoring, weaving, mechanics, milling and agriculture, and allows mills and pumps, which previous ran on diesel generation, to make the switch to solar power.
“Before I worked as a farmer, and that job only provided food and accommodation,” said Mynt Ko from Thet Seint village. “Now that I've start working for Yoma Micro Power, I have a job that is more favourable for my family. Before, we were all depending on village electricity. Now, we have electricity from Yoma Micro Power, and that is why all the roads and the village are full of light.”