Miller Sees Grain of Hope for Renewable Energy

When most people think of renewable energy sources, rice husks rarely come to mind. Yet they are exactly what Angkor Kasekam Roongroeung, a local rice-milling firm, is hoping will cut its electricity costs in half.

In an effort to spread biomass energy technology to Asean countries, the Cogen 3 program, an economic cooperation stemming from an agreement between the European Commission and Asean, selected 24 projects to demonstrate advanced energy cogeneration technology. Angkor Kasekam Roongroeung, also known as Angkor Rice, was the only Cambodian firm selected for the program.

The idea at Angkor Rice’s mill­ing factory is to burn rice husks to produce steam that a power plant could convert into electricity. The desired result would be much cheap­er, environmentally sound energy.

“This will save a lot of money for our company,” Chieu Arnusorn, vice president of Angkor Rice, said Tuesday. “It’s very quick and easy and creative.”

In a cogeneration power plant, two forms of energy, such as natural gas, thermal power or agricultural waste, work in conjunction to reduce wastes, Niels Beck-Larsen, a Cogen 3 biomass expert, told government officials and business representatives at the Sun­way Hotel on Tuesday. For instance, a cogeneration power plant could burn rice husks and fuel a gas turbine to produce steam that would power a second turbine.

The result is that energy is produced more efficiently, which reduces the cost of power.

In Thailand and Malaysia, cogeneration power production is subsidized by the government, causing the technology to flourish. Thailand alone has approved 31 cogeneration projects that, once built, should produce 511 megawatts of electricity.

Cogeneration power plants that burn rice husks comprise the majority of cogeneration power plants in Thailand, said Chiean­chuang Kalayanamitr, a Thai investor who owns a hotel in Siem Reap. Thailand so far has 12 rice husk power plants that generate a combined 246 megawatts.

The Angkor Rice project should produce a 1.5 megawatt power plant, which is more than enough power for the rice milling factory and may service some surrounding properties. At this point, experts said, it’s best for the country to start small cogeneration power plants at rice milling factories, where rice husks are plentiful.

Biomass energy production is part of the government’s rural electrification program, said Hing Kunthap, country coordinator for Cogen 3. But the government has not offered to subsidize the technology, primarily because it does not have the funds to do so.

“Compared to a country that does subsidize cogeneration, the technology will take longer to be implemented,” Beck-Larsen said. “But it could work here because they are substituting the high price of diesel fuel.”

Energy costs are about five times higher in Cambodia than in Thailand, Chieanchuang Kalayanamitr told the seminar. Therefore, he said, cogeneration power plants in Cambodia would be lucrative for investors because they could sell energy at a high price.

Though Chieanchuang Kalayanamitr is interested in investing in power plants here, few others are. Cogen 3 officials said they have had a “very difficult” time finding investors for the Angkor Rice project.

One of the biggest problems, they said, is getting a local bank to provide financing. Most banks want to charge high interest rates—from 14 percent to 20 percent—and have the loan paid back quickly.

Cogen 3 is now looking for a bank in Thailand to finance the multimillion-dollar project, said Vazzan Tirangkura, a consulting engineer with the cooperation. Even with the high interest rates, he said, the project would still be profitable.

Chieanchuang Kalayanamitr said foreign investors are afraid their investments will not be protected. Since January’s anti-Thai riots, Thai investors are reluctant to invest here.

“The Thai people do not approve” of how the government handled the riots, he said.

Agri-business and energy are the only sectors worth investing in here, Chieanchuang Kalayanamitr said. But, he said, he would invest in the proposed Koh Kong export processing zone because it receives its energy from Thailand.

Still, Winston McColgan, charge d’affaires of the European Commission, said he expected the Angkor Rice project to be implemented by the end of 2004.

Rice husks comprise about 25 percent of rice paddy, said Chieu Adisorn, managing director of Angkor Rice.

“The good thing is that our company has enough husks,” he said.

Now it just needs enough capital.


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