Burma to experience week without power as junta fails to mitigate upstream shock

Burma to experience week without power as junta fails to mitigate upstream shock

Burma’s return to the dark ages took an all too familiar step forward after the military’s Ministry of Electricity and Energy (MoEE) announced on Sunday that the country faces week-long nationwide power cuts. Outages are slated to occur between March 12 and March 18, with most regions likely to experience total blackouts for at least 24 hours.

Power outages have become commonplace across Burma’s major urban areas since last February’s coup, yet Sunday’s announcement is the first time that the military has warned the entire country to anticipate comprehensive electricity cuts.

The junta’s ministry said that next week’s blackouts had been necessitated by an anticipated decrease in national power supply caused whilst the Shwe offshore gas project — operated by the military through a production sharing contract with South Korean firm POSCO — integrates pipelines connecting newly developed blocks to its upstream operations.

Tellingly, the national grid, now operated by the junta, is once again proving unable to ride supply-side shocks. With no reserve power available, any disruptions in upstream energy production are now directly felt by Burma’s citizens.

A significant portion of the energy produced by the Shwe offshore fields in the Andaman Sea is exported to the Chinese market via pipelines running to Yunnan province.

Gas and coal fired thermal power plants currently constitute the main drivers of Burma’s national energy grid, producing 1,500.3 MW of power, according to the ministry. Hydropower and solar plants provide 667.8 MW, whilst diesel stations constitute 8.9 MW to Burma’s energy mix. Such figures barely match national daily consumption, which the ministry quotes at 2,600 MW.

Burma’s peak power generation stands at 4,200 megawatts, but rising LNG prices and a January attack by PDF groups on the Biluchaung hydropower plant have reduced total power generation capacity by 970 MW — meaning output no longer meets demand, the junta said.  

“Offshore companies are still producing gas at quantities contracted with the government, but the ministry is now unable to convert gas to electricity as its power plants are outdated and cannot be repaired with inputs from overseas due to sanctions. Also, the CDM has meant that they no longer have the skilled staff and experts needed,” he said. 

An officer at an offshore gas project, who spoke to DVB under the guarantee of anonymity, told DVB that upstream suppliers had continued to meet production targets, but that the key problem was that the MoEE no longer had the infrastructure or capacity to generate sufficient electricity for the public. 

Instead of generating power, the MoEE is simply releasing excess stocks of gas into the atmosphere, he added. 

“The problems of Burma’s power supply always used to increase every year in the summer season as the country doesn’t have enough gas for the national electricity grid. With the NLD government, the problem was better controlled, meaning that, for the first time, the public was less affected. Now, with the military council, the problem is out of control as they lack the staff and face sanctions and inflation,” he said. 

Myanma Alin, a military publication, yesterday printed an editorial suggesting the junta has set a goal of guaranteeing that all of Burma’s homes have sufficient access to electricity by 2030, a claim met with skepticism by those with experience of living under past military governments where day-long power cuts were not unusual for the majority of Burma’s citizens. 

Wealthier urbanites, often those with links to the junta, bypassed the country’s national grid — to this day built on neglect and corruption — by purchasing expensive diesel-fuelled backup generators for compounds.

Now, however, rising fuel prices — the retail price of petrol has tripled since the coup — are hitting the pockets of those reliant on generators to run their homes and businesses. 

Just one year into the military’s latest attempt to govern Burma, costly and unstable energy supplies are not only affecting the livelihoods of normal Burmese citizens, they are ramping up the costs of business, forcing many to the wall.