Khmer Times’ Sok Chan sits down with Dr Narongchai Akrasanee — chairman of the Mekong Institute’s Steering Committee and former Minister of Energy and Minister of Commerce of Thailand — to discuss the challenges to continuous growth in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), and the role of renewable energy, particularly solar power.
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The Mekong Institute — an intergovernmental organisation working in human resource development —organised the Mekong Forum in Khon Kaen, Thailand, last week, an event that focused on boosting competitiveness and connectivity in the GMS
KT: Can you tell us about this year’s edition of the Mekong Forum and what it meant for GMS countries?
Dr Narongchai: This year’s forum built on the idea that innovation and synergistic cooperation are integral mechanisms to initiate a much-needed economic turnaround and drive regional development forward. We would like to set the direction for development in the GMS region. Things are changing rapidly and we need to select the issues that we are going to focus on. The GMS countries must consider what issues are important, how to tackle them, and whether they want to do it together with other countries or independently.
This year, we decided that the disruption caused by rapid technological development is one of the most important issues, and so we decided to make this the focus of the forum. Our success will ultimately depend on what the different countries do after the forum. We are trying to find ways to work with governments to tackle the problem of connectivity and low competitiveness in the region. This is necessary to boost growth and sustainability and enhance competitiveness to get the region to take off.
KT: What’s your view on the role of renewable energy in the region in years to come?
Dr Narongchai: We all would like to expand the region’s adoption of renewable energy. Fortunately, solar energy, for example, has become quite accessible and inexpensive which makes it much more easy to adopt than in the past. We’ve also come a long way in developing other sources of renewable energy.
KT: How is the solar energy sector developing in Asean?
Dr Narongchai: At the moment, the adoption of solar energy is still low, mainly due to two reasons. First, the technology was actually quite expensive four or five years ago, and many countries did not want to subsidy it. In this respect, Thailand led Asean by initiating major subsidies, which allowed the country to be the first in the region to have solar installations for commercial purposes. After this, the cost of solar energy quickly dropped. Now, many countries are following in our footsteps, but it is still not as widespread as in Thailand.
KT: Given that a lot of GMS countries are now building an increasing number of hydropower dams in the Mekong River, do you think that relying on solar energy is sustainable?
Dr Narongchai: Hydropower is the cheapest form of renewable energy for countries that have the right topography, basically mountains and valleys that can store water. Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar are examples of countries with the right conditions for the generation of this type of energy, while Cambodia and Thailand are not so fit as they don’t have as many mountains. So hydropower used to be the number one choice, but now, as the cost of solar is coming down, things are slowly changing.
Take into consideration also that to make hydropower dams efficient, developers have to alter the terrain significantly. Changing the terrain for hydropower projects can result in disasters like what we have just seen in Laos. I brought up these issues during the forum. Particularly, we asked Laos to reexamine some of their hydropower dams. Sometimes, these projects can disturb nature too much and they present a risk. Don’t get my wrong, I’m not against dams, but these type of projects need to be undertaken with a lot of attention to minimise risks.
KT: How do you think the solar energy sector is evolving in Cambodia?
Dr Narongchai: I think Cambodia will soon realize the advantages of solar energy and they will start inviting private companies to invest in solar power. Another advantage of solar energy is that you can localise production. In Thailand, for example, we have a good system that allows anyone to sell energy to the national grid easily.
KT: How does the Mekong Institute plan to boost adoption of renewable energy in the region?
Dr Narongchai: We will continue to educate about renewable energy sources like solar. In Thailand we have successfully commercialized solar power and now we have a lot of private companies with expertise in the sector. I believe this is the way solar energy should be promoted and adopted. Cambodia and Laos haven’t reach this state yet, and their governments need to play a bigger role in promoting this technology.