Electricity Still a Luxury In Cambodia Beyond Major Cities

It may not be obvious in Phnom Penh, ablaze with light in the evening, but nationwide, only 20 percent of the population has access to electricity. And for people in rural areas, it comes at a very high price.

“It shocks me every month,” said Sok Soeun, 45, a market vendor and father of four in Neak Loeung town, on the border of Svay Rieng and Prey Veng provinces. Sok Soeun pays around $0.55 per kilowatt hour—three times the highest rate paid by Cambo­dians living in the capital. Kim Savuth, who owns a rice-milling factory in Prey Veng, said he runs his business from his own generator in order to avoid backbreaking bills from Electri­cite Du Cambodge.

Cambodia does not currently have the infrastructure to make enough electricity to fuel the galloping demand, which has been rising 15 to 20 percent per year, according to the Ministry of In­dustry Mines and Energy. The country’s domestic electricity supply is a patchy network of public and private providers, and prices vary by location.

The Electricity Authority of Cambodia sets prices for EdC, the state-run electricity company, to sell power. EdC then sells electricity to customers in Phnom Penh and 11 provincial capitals at differing prices depending on the amount of electricity EdC is able to generate in each locale.

In Phnom Penh, electricity costs up to $0.18 per kilowatt hour, while in the provinces, it averages around $0.30, said Ith Praing, secretary of state at the Ministry of Industry Mines and Energy.

Private firms charge even more than state utilitiess. Lim Bunthan, director of Electricity of Battambang, a subsidiary of EdC, said that in some districts outside Battambang town, residents pay private companies between $0.75 and $1.25 per kilowatt-hour. Electricity of Battambang charges $0.28 per kilowatt-hour in Battambang town, and up to $1.25 in remote areas of the province, he said.

But even at the high rates charged by private companies, one firm owner said profits aren’t rolling in due to the high price of gasoline. Nao Sokha, who owns a private company providing diesel-fueled electricity to 2,000 households in Neak Loeung, said that if he dropped his prices below $0.55 per kilowatt-hour, he would go out of business. “I have to feed my family and staff,” he said.

Lim Bunthan said Electricity of Battambang, which also uses diesel-run generators, turned an annual profit of $200,000 to $250,000 from 2001 through 2003, but lost $350,000 in 2006, largely because of the rising cost of crude oil. He is now waiting for an electricity hook-up to Thailand, which he hopes will arrive by March or April.“When electricity is cheap, Battambang will gain more investment,” he said.

At about $0.16 per kilowatt-hour, prices in Svay Rieng province—parts of which are connected to Vietnam’s electricity grid—are the lowest in the nation, Ith Praing said.

The government’s immediate plan is to link Ratanakkiri province with Vietnam’s grid, Stung Treng province with Laos, and Banteay Meanchey, Battambang and Siem Reap provinces with Thailand within the next two years, he said. The result will be lower prices—about $0.20 to $0.30 per kilowatt-hour in these areas.

But fixing the overall power shortage will require new hydroelectric dams and renewable energy as well as an expanded grid—none of which will be cheap, Ith Praing said. Getting electricity to 70 percent of Cambodian households by 2030 will require over $40 billion, he said.

That money will come from a combination of loans, grants, private investment and the country’s much anticipated oil revenue, he added.

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