06/05/2015 04:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Myanmar Crossroads


With embargoes against Myanmar, also known as Burma, recently lifted, oil, gas, and coal industrialists are hungrily looking to the "last unopened Asian market" as a new source of wealth and power. Fossil fuel companies already have big plans to drill for natural gas and build massive new coal plants, both largely for export.

Many of the Burmese people, however, have other ideas.

Wherever coal plants or mines are proposed, communities are challenging them, and nowhere is that more true than in the town of Andin in Ye Township in the Mon State -- 5,000 people joined the latest in a series of protests against a proposed 1,280 megawatt coal plant from the Thailand-based Japanese company Toyo-Thai Corporation PCL. (TTCL).

The TTCL plant is an example of the many problems that developers are keen to overlook as they rush headfirst into Myanmar. The project has massive opposition. A local parliamentarian estimates 90 percent of residents are opposed to the coal plant, and while TTCL promised a one-time payment of USD $1.5 million to locals, villagers estimate they generate USD $5.8 million every year from farming and fishing that would be jeopardized with this dangerous coal project.

Water is at the center of the frequent protests. The plant will draw in 210,000 liters and release what's left, possibly with pollutants and at higher temperatures, potentially devastating the fish population locals depend on. On top of that, the local government has opposed a feasibility study for the project.

In fact, many of Myanmar's proposed coal plants are in conflict zones, which seems surprising until you realize that the companies plan to export much of the power generated. This is particularly troubling when you consider that Myanmar has some of the lowest electrification rates in the world -- but grid connections are expensive and people and companies across the border can pay more. Marubeni has stated that it plans to export 80 percent of power generated from its proposed plant in Myeik to Thailand. Protests against the Marubeni plant led a local company involved in the project to say it will withdraw if there are impacts on the environment.

The impact of all these coal plants is difficult to gauge. Myanmar does not have a formalized project approval process or disclosure of information. In fact, the proposed coal plants are shrouded in secrecy. Villagers opposed to the TTCL plant in Mon say they have received little information or input on the project, and allege affiliated companies have deliberately misled them - claiming to purchase land for a fish and prawn pond when it was really for the coal plant.

The lack of information is also concerning from a technical standpoint. TTCL says it plans to complete the plant in a blistering 4-6 years. This is unheard of for such a large project, not to mention potentially dangerous.

Environmental impact assessments and other studies are not just about protecting local people, they also let builders know if the ground will subside under a project and a host of other potentially critical issues. The rush would almost be laughable, if the potential impacts weren't so serious.

Also bordering on the absurd is the question of where the coal to fuel the TTCL and other proposed projects will even come from. Because Myanmar has limited domestic coal reserves -- and what it does have is poor quality -- most of these plants will rely on imported coal. However, in addition to not having an electricity grid in place to distribute the power once it is generated, the infrastructure to transport coal to the plants also doesn't exist. Moreover, international coal markets are very volatile, which has caused projects relying on imported coal in India to stop being financially viable.

So we are looking at a rushed, poorly researched coal build out with little information disclosed and potentially devastating impacts on local communities, all for power that could largely be exported out of the country. Its a plant the country can't accommodate and that the communities do not want.

The energy needs in Myanmar are very real, but this is clearly not the way. It is critical that the impact of these projects be analyzed, alternatives be considered, and the information be disclosed so local people have a voice in the decisions. This will help to make sure the solutions implemented actually work and deliver on their promises.

With this information, it's clear that other energy options are more appealing. We have the technology to start deploying off-grid and mini-grid solutions today that will generate power where people need it, without waiting for costly grid extensions that may never happen, and without the power being exported abroad while devastating nearby communities. Additionally, unlike fossil fuel projects with their ongoing fuel costs, sunlight and wind are free.

Myanmar is at crossroads, and it is imperative decisions made now are informed and transparent to ensure it is the people, not just the fossil fuel companies, that benefit.