Published at www.Greenempowerment.org [Questions and responses edited for continuity.]
Patrick graduated from Purdue University in 2014 with a degree in Civil Engineering. While studying there, he participated in a team collaboration to develop a locally sourced, locally fabricated micro-hydropower facility in the rural community of Bangang, Cameroon, where he gained his early lessons in micro-hydropower (MH) as a sustainable energy solution for rural communities. He carried these lessons on to his work with Green Empowerment, first as an intern for our partner organization Tonibung in Malaysian Borneo, and more recently as a GE Fellow in Myanmar, where he has spent a year exploring the possibilities for GE collaboration in developing MH facilities for rural villages with no other access to electricity. The opinions he offers are his own, and not necessarily those of Green Empowerment or of the other networks mentioned in this article.
How did you decide to focus your work on Micro Hydro solutions to rural development?
I’ve always been intrigued by small hydropower production—especially with all the new technologies coming out. I love to geek out on solving the engineering problems—and nothing can match the cost per kilowatt of Micro Hydro, if it’s done right.
Fresh out of a one-year internship, you took on a Fellowship assignment as GE’s solo man-on-the-ground to explore MH possibilities in Myanmar. How did that feel, starting out cold and alone, and not knowing the territory?
It felt cold and alone! But I had a good foundation to stand on. Shortly after graduation in 2014, I had worked as a “deck hand” at an HPNet* practice-to-policy event in Myanmar. I photo-documented the event, and was fortunate to meet a number of local MH developers. Volunteering at that conference planted the seeds for my fellowship work this past year. [*HPNet = Hydro EmPowerment Network a community of MH actors whose mission is “Knowledge exchange for Community Micro Hydro in South and Southeast Asia.”]
Two key people paved my way into the MH community in Myanmar. GE’s Asia Regional Director, Gabe Wynn, had already established a solid landing environment for me. And HPNet’s Coordinator Dipti Vaghela guided my path to getting settled here. She also wasn’t shy about telling me the DO’s and DON’Ts about this work.
What sort of DO’s or DON’Ts did she recommend?
My early mentality was: “Find funding! Establish partners! Identify tech transfer opportunities!” But Dipti taught me that it’s not always about planting a flag for the rest of the world to see. Sometimes it’s important to stay behind the scenes.
Together with local developers we wrote a proposal to the biggest players—in the government and various bilateral development partners, for a Development Plan for Micro and Mini Hydropower Implementation of the NEP of Myanmar, using a Public-Private Partnership Approach. It lays a plan for the best chance for the MH sector to become sustainable. She taught me the important nuances of this proposal coming from local developers, not outside agents or NGOs. So the Small Hydro Power Association of Myanmar (SHPAM), a local practitioner’s association, authored the proposal, and we kept largely to the background.
What do you see as the most pressing issue affecting MH development in Myanmar?
Definitely the National Electrification Plan (NEP). It’s an ambitious plan which calls for 99% connection to the national grid by 2030, whereas currently only 30% of households are connected. The 1% not included in the grid-extension area would mostly access electricity through solar home systems, because they are too remote to connect to the grid before 2030, or maybe ever.
The target for sustainable MH mini-grids is primarily the half-million households in the “pre-electrification” zone, where their connection to the grid is 10-15 years out. MH is preferable to solar home systems for several reasons. Locally manufactured and maintained, it creates jobs in the local economy. And unlike solar, it runs both day and night, so it can power both income-producing end-uses like cottage industries, pumps, and rice mills, as well as evening household needs, and socially important facilities like schools and health care centers.
There are many—somewhere around 1,000—MH mini-grids built by private sector actors in Myanmar over the past 30 years, at a time when the former government was not paying much attention to rural electrification. These community-owned mini-grids are facing an uphill battle, because solar home systems can be implemented more quickly and on a larger scale than technologies like MH or biomass gasification, and the anticipated encroachment by the national grid is a disincentive for many MH mini-grid developers to pursue high quality sites, except in the most remote regions of the country. It isn’t clear what the new democratically elected government, led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), will do next. We hope to support our local partners, primarily the Renewable Energy Association Myanmar, make the case for MH mini-grids, and decentralized renewable energy solutions in general, as part of the new government’s energy planning process.
After your year of internship in Borneo, you blogged that “nothing trumps the culture element in community Micro Hydro. It is the single most accurate predictor of project success and failure.” Is that still your main takeaway, after a year in the field in Myanmar?