Over half of Cambodia’s electricity is generated in coal power plants, almost all built with Chinese involvement. Coal’s share in the energy mix was set to increase to three-quarters by 2030. Then came President Xi Jinping’s September announcement that China “will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad” and will step up support for green energy. The new stance may help Cambodia transition toward a more reliable and affordable electricity system, at a time when the country needs a green economic boost given Covid-19. It can also help Cambodia retain its largest industry, garments and footwear. Major international brands operating in the country have made requests for a cleaner energy grid.
Cambodia’s power system has proven highly adaptable over the past 20 years. At the turn of the century, only 17% of the population had access to the grid, and the system was three-quarters powered by fuel oil. By 2014, this had switched to nearly two-thirds hydropower, all of it built with Chinese involvement. Seven years later, Cambodia has a remarkably improved electrification rate of 93% and is in the middle of another transition, with over half of its power now coming from fossil fuels. Plans approved after power shortages in 2019 catalysed a return to fossil fuels, which were expected to supply 75% of power by 2030.
That was the plan at least. Now Cambodia may need to adapt again: depending on how Xi’s announcement plays out in practice, planned projects may be at risk. Our analysis shows Cambodia’s coal power capacity is projected to reach 4,675 megawatts (MW) within the next 10 years. Of that, only 675 MW is operational, and over 900 MW is under construction. The remaining 3,100 MW, two-thirds of the planned capacity, may be at risk, including the 2,400 MW which is supposed to be imported from projects planned in neighbouring Laos.