Monday, July 24, 2017

Rays of hope

Energy in Myanmar is often talked about in terms of billions of dollars, but some of the most exciting projects are happening on a smaller scale, where lives are changed in person one by one. While the government works to expand the national grid – a massive undertaking, particularly in remote areas – some smaller companies are instead focusing on what they call “microgrids”. By hooking up their houses or villages to sustainable sources of energy generated right in their own backyards, people can enjoy the benefits of electricity immediately, without having to wait for the infrastructure of the national grid to reach them.

Indigo Energy is a recent startup bent on bringing low-cost electricity to homes in the delta, one solar panel at a time. Photo: SuppliedIndigo Energy is a recent startup bent on bringing low-cost electricity to homes in the delta, one solar panel at a time. Photo: Supplied

Of course, these microgrids need to be self-sustaining. That’s where eco-friendly solutions from organisations like Indigo Energy come into play.

Indigo Energy is a sustainable energy company started in September 2012 by young entrepreneur, engineer and managing director, Allen Himes. It’s a small organisation – just five foreign and local employees, plus an intern – but together the team members are using their skills to bring electricity to residents in the Ayeyarwady delta. Thanks to their projects, those who would otherwise rely on batteries or firewood are able to use solar power instead, freeing up their time, money and effort for other priorities.

Originally from rural Mississippi, Himes – a trained electrical engineer – was living in Hong Kong when he decided to move to Myanmar.

“Everyone said it’s exciting and new,” he said, remembering his decision to come. “I was reading about Myanmar in the newspaper, and I was like, ‘I’ll go check it out and see what’s happening.’”

Assessing the country's energy shortfall, Himes originally intended to set up multi-megawatt-producing wind power projects to generate electricity. In a country where hydropower and solid fuel generate most of the electricity, and where international money is pouring into lucrative oil and natural gas projects, sustainable resources like wind power are somewhat overlooked, and require relatively unfamiliar technologies for locals.

But while the skill set was there, he said, securing the funding proved impossible, especially for such a small start-up company.

“Wind power for a solo entrepreneur is much more expensive than what we are doing right now. When I came here, I didn't really understand that.”

He says no matter how good your ideas or intentions are, it’s the financial factor that sometimes determines your way forward.

"I think I found my way to starting my business when I was reading a book about John D Rockefeller,” Himes said. He explained how the famous American oil baron of the late 1800s always bought stock in his own companies, even when others wouldn’t. “That's the way I look at it. I think if I'm really confident, I should put in my own money.”

It was convincing others that proved to be the problem.

“When you go visit the government, and you say, ‘Hey, I want to do a big project,’ the first thing they ask you is, ‘How much money do you have and where does it come from?’ Being an entrepreneur, the point is that you can't really develop a project for nothing if you didn't bring any investors.”

Himes hasn’t ruled out wind power entirely – “if I had the right partner then I would definitely be open to it” – but in the short term he's concentrating on a more affordable option: solar panels.

Solar seems a natural fit for Myanmar. It brings power access to those not on the grid and homes can be hooked up quickly.

Indigo has so far installed two solar projects, both in villages in the Ayeyarwady delta. The low-cost agreements allow residents to light their homes and charge their phones cheaply, saving them time and effort as well as money that would otherwise be spent on batteries or solid fuel sources – a model Indigo hopes to spread.

“We want to work in the Ayeyarwaddy because we have pretty good relationships so far. We are also interested in Yangon Region, because it's pretty close, and probably upper Myanmar and going to the dry zone area.”

Is Indigo committing solely to solar? “Not at the moment, but I would like to develop hydroelectric energy," Himes said, "because hydro has a couple of issues. One is that in the summer the water goes off, especially in the dry zones. Also we need enough water in the first place, and many many places don't have water. This is the problem we are having and we need elevation to do that.”

Listing rocky Chin State as a possibile site for future work, he said the future for sustainable energy remains an uphill struggle.

“It is definitely possible to develop sustainable energy in Myanmar, but it's definitely not going to be easy.

“What we find with the government is that they are quite enthusiastic about the world of electrification, but they don't really know how to help.”

Data sometimes takes six months to obtain, and that slows progress. There are also technical problems to solve. The team recently made a trip back to the delta to fix one of its projects, which was only producing two-to-three hours’ worth of electricity, instead of the expected five.

Still, villagers are enjoying the new energy source, Himes said. And with Indigo looking to expand to other areas, the future seems bright for all concerned.