Alternative energy futures

November 24, 2021

Where will the power come from to feed Myanmar's energy demand? Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash.

Myanmar is home to some of the last free-flowing rivers in Asia, including the Ayeyarwaddy and the Salween Rivers. Long-standing plans for large hydropower dams, if carried out, will incur considerable costs to the environment and livelihoods.

Dams would trap the rich sediment that is normally carried downstream by the river currents. This sediment enriches riverbank agriculture and builds up the deltas that help protect low-lying areas from cyclones and storm surges. Dams also fragment fisheries habitat, acting as a barrier to fish migration and spawning and thus reducing fish catches.

In 2016, China cancelled plans to dam the Nu River upstream of the Salween. But in Myanmar, the government is still reportedly working with foreign hydropower developers to add up to 40 GW of new hydropower.

This paper on 'Joint strategic energy and river basin planning to reduce dam impacts on rivers in Myanmar,' published in May 2021 in Environmental Research Letters, compares the impacts and economic costs of business-as-usual (BAU) energy plans in Myanmar with an alternative approach of introducing wind and solar power into the energy mix.

Researcher Rafael Schmitt and colleagues used a combination of energy systems modeling and strategic hydropower planning to account for the costs under different scenarios. They found that a mix of wind, solar and small-scale hydropower would cost much less than the proposed large hydropower projects—around US$8.4 billion, rather than US$11.7 billion for large hydropower. Such a mix of renewables and small hydro would include dam sites strategically selected for least environmental impact, and would still enable Myanmar to meet realistic expectations of energy demand.

This energy mix would help Myanmar contribute to international climate targets for low-carbon development, support local people’s livelihoods, and avoid the environmental harms caused by large dams. It would also help overcome the frequent dry-season blackouts in Myanmar, as solar energy would peak during this season, compensating for reduced hydropower capacity when river levels fall.

Due to travel restrictions in post-coup Myanmar, the researchers used freely available geospatial and economic data in their comparison of alternative energy futures. The method they have developed is useful for resolving conflicts between renewable energy and dam impacts on rivers, and can be applied in other data-scarce settings with a large hydropower potential.

Schmitt and colleagues propose that Myanmar could even become an exporter of low-carbon energy in Southeast Asia without sacrificing some of Asia’s last free-flowing rivers.

Source: Schmitt, R. J., Kittner, N., Kondolf, G. M., & Kammen, D. M. (2021). Joint strategic energy and river basin planning to reduce dam impacts on rivers in Myanmar. Environmental Research Letters, 16(5), 054054

Wind turbines in the US. Photo: American Public Power Association

Top photo: Shampoo Island (Gaungse Kyun Island) at Salween River (Thanlyin River) near Hpa-An, Mon State, Myanmar

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