Myanmar turns to pop-up power stations

By Jonah Fisher
BBC News, Myanmar

Media caption,
Myanmar pioneers power generation in shipping containers

Nestled on a bed of gravel, an hour's drive from Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar, also known as Burma, is the country's newest power station.

There are no cooling towers or huge turbine halls, just neat lines of white shipping containers.

In all there are 67, each housing a gas generator producing 1.5 megawatts (MW) of electricity.

Together - some are always being maintained or rested - they deliver a steady 83 MW. We're told it's enough for the modest demands of about six million people.

But what makes this power plant a bit different is not just the way it looks, but the speed with which it was assembled.

Commissioning, financing and building a conventional power station takes a long time - at best four or five years.

In December 2013 a rental agreement was signed between the US firm APR Energy and the Burmese government, and just three months later Kyaukse was up and running.

This is what APR Energy has become famous for. It is called "fast track" power, and in the last decade its business has expanded rapidly, and it now runs plants in more than 25 countries around the world.

They are in a mixture of locations. Some are in places recovering from disasters, others where there is simply a need of some quick power to boost a power grid.

Packed on trucks

"Simply put, we import all the equipment, we set it up, we commission it, we get it running, and then our staff operate the power plant through the life of the contract," says Clive Turton, Asia-Pacific managing director of APR Energy.

Image caption,
APR Energy has become famous for its "fast track" power

At the moment the deal with Myanmar is for two years. If and when it comes to an end, the generators will leave the way they came.

They will be packed onto the back of trucks, loaded onto container ships in Yangon, and then returned to one of APR's four depots around the world, ready to be despatched when the next deal is signed.

The gain made in time is offset by some losses in efficiency and economies of scale. Joining together 67 generators cannot be as economical as one modern large gas turbine.

Yet compared to Myanmar's antiquated gas power plants, Kyaukse is still competitive.

"If you wanted to have a 1,000 MW plant then you wouldn't use this equipment," Mr Turton says. "Though these are actually very efficient units, and could stay for longer if needed."

Some 40 staff from APR live on site at Kyaukse, a town best known in Myanmar as the birthplace of the former leader General Than Shwe.

That official connection led to the development of an industrial zone, and APR was given land alongside a glass and cement factory.

Image caption,
Clive Turton says APR staff operate the power plant through the life of the contract

Kyaukse is also conveniently close to the Shwe pipeline, a controversial Chinese project that since the end of 2013 has been delivering natural gas from the western Burmese coast to consumers in southern China.

Almost all of the gas has been pre-sold to the Chinese, but a small amount comes off at Kyaukse and powers the plant through a network of yellow pipes.

Renting power stations like the one at Kyaukse has helped give the Burmese government a little breathing space - but it is a sticking plaster not a permanent solution.

Power problems

Myanmar's power infrastructure is in a dire state. Only a third of the population, overwhelmingly in urban areas, are connected to the grid and most of them have to put up with intermittent electricity supplies.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Myanmar wants to increase the number of people who have access to electricity

At best the national output is 4,000 MW, and that is heavily dependent on hydropower so it is vulnerable to seasonal variations.

With Myanmar's political reforms have come ambitious plans to catch up with its neighbours economically. But that won't happen until there is a cheap and reliable source of electricity.

The government has plans to dramatically scale things up and supply everyone with electricity by 2030. It is an ambitious goal and many would say it is unrealistic - but neighbours Laos and Vietnam have shown that it can be done.

In both countries only about 15% of the population had access to electricity in the mid-1990s, but now more than 80% of Laotians and Vietnamese have their homes or workplaces connected to the grid.

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