12 Mar Myanmar’s solar opportunity

Written by Marc Jacob Published in Features Read 12796 times

Record flight attempt raises hopes for a solar and superbattery revolution

The Solar Impulse 2 aircraft on a test flight. Photo: Solar Impulse Project
The Solar Impulse 2 aircraft on a test flight. Photo: Solar Impulse Project

Mission impossible. That is what the Swiss inventors and pilots Betrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg heard again and again when they first came up with the audacious idea of a solar-powered aircraft. And that such an aircraft could fly around the world? Preposterous.

On March 10, if all goes well, the Solar Impulse 2 single-seater solar-powered aircraft – with a wingspan of a Boeing 747 – will land at Mandalay International Airport, arriving from India on a round-the-world journey record attempt that began in Abu Dhabi early this month.

The airplane – capable of flying day and night on solar powered batteries – will inspire energy and technology innovations in Myanmar, spreading a pioneering spirit among youth and mobilising enthusiasm for renewable energies, say the pilots, who will take turns to fly the aircraft.

“With the support of the President of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, U Thein Sein, the Government and the people of Myanmar, we are a few short weeks away from a historical moment for the country, the energy industry and innovators across the globe,” said the Swiss ambassador to Myanmar, Christoph Burgener. “An idea born in Switzerland, Solar Impulse seeks original solutions to achieve the impossible, teaching us that working together delivers superior outcomes,” Mr Burgener said. “Similarly, as the Myanmar people come together, a brilliant future will be fostered for the country,” he said.

Message for Myanmar

A lot of hype, hoopla and sterling public relations may surround the world record-breaking event, but the aircraft is real and both its predecessor Solar Impulse 1 and the improved version send a message that alternative energy sources have really arrived – though don’t expect a solar-powered passenger aircraft just yet.

The two pilots bring a message to Myanmar at a crucial time as the country continues to make its transition from a military-run backwater into what many people hope will become a fully democratic country.

The team says Solar Impulse 2’s visit is a significant milestone that will raise awareness about the pressing need for sustainable and innovative energy solutions. During the plane’s stop in Mandalay, about 1,000 university students will meet the pilots and participate in learning sessions in which they will acquire knowledge about renewable energies.

“The co-pilots and founders of Solar Impulse embody a spirit that can inspire present and future generations in Myanmar and around the world to be explorers in their own lives.” said U Linn Myiang, chief operating officer of First Myanmar Investment Company, a co-sponsor of the roundthe-world attempt. “As a country blessed with many natural resources, the cause for renewable energies lies close to home. Much of our country’s success lies in identifying technologies that promote sustainable energy. The Solar Impulse 2 reminds us that such innovation and technology is available with unrelenting persistence and imagination.”

The Swiss pilots, Piccard and Borschberg, both pioneers and innovators, are the driving force behind Solar Impulse and strong believers that an exploring and pioneering spirit can change the world. After 12 years of planning and development, the plane will fly over the Arabian Sea, India, Myanmar, China, the Pacific Ocean, the United States, the Atlantic Ocean, and southern Europe or North Africa, before closing the loop by returning to the point of departure, Abu Dhabi.

More than just breaking a record

The pioneering spirit is not just about the invention of a solar powered aircraft, one that can even fly through the night due to the energy stored in its state-of-the-art batteries. As both pilots say, the aircraft and its journey around the world are designed to inspire people, governments and inventors work towards dumping destructive and polluting fossil fuels and look to cleaner or renewable options including solar, wind, wave and geothermal. Australia, for example, has just connected its first wave-powered station to the national grid.

Myanmar stands on the threshold of change, where it is faced with the challenge dramatically upgrading and expanding its electrical grid to not only reach the 60 percent of the population who are not connected, but also to help power the coming industrial and manufacturing revolution about which the country’s politicians and business people wax lyrical.

Time to go solar?

Whether Myanmar takes the renewable route appears hostage to conventional thinking and inconvenient timing. The Nay Pyi Taw government and its advisors are largely focused on how to quickly turn the lights on across the country. To them, that means Tmeans focusing on hydropower dams and coal and gas-powered stations. Even though building or rehabilitating power plants takes time, this is the conventional approach, and typically it receives encouragement from international funding, including World Bank input.

Solar power, on the other hand, is not viewed in the country as a viable alternative, certainly not on a large scale, despite no shortage of sunshine. Some small-scale solar initiatives are underway in the country to use solar to generate electricity. The Ministry of Electric Power and the Green Earth Power Co Ltd of Thailand signed a deal two years ago to set up a solar power plant capable of generating 50 megawatts in Minbu, in Magway Region. US-based private equity company ACO has signed an agreement to build a solar power plant with generating capacity of 250 MW in Magway Region’s Mingyan district. The project is expected to be completed by 2015-16.

Micro-projects are also underway where homes or offices are fitted with solar panels to power conventional appliances. In additional, some householders in far-flung areas have taken to installing a single solar panel that can power lightbulbs, TVs and possibly refrigerators.

Given the rush to power up Myanmar, conventional energy options – coal, oil, gas and hydropower – are likely to rule, though the inevitable delay in reaching remote parts of the country will mean increasing numbers of people will look to solar power on a domestic or small business level.

Inconvenient timing?

Renewable energy may be the buzz word around the world in the face of the massive pollution that is blamed for climate change and drastically dropping oil prices. And word is out among technology watchers that the world is on the brink of a “clean energy” breakthrough – several, in fact. Apart from an increasing number of breakthroughs in terms of wind, wave and thermal power, solar developments – both in terms of solar panels and batteries – are under the spotlight and attracting increasing media coverage.

Are we on the brink of a new world? Many people, even fanatical advocates of solar power, are unaware quite how close we are to reaching a critical milestone in the industry, says Martin Tillier, writing for Oilprice.com last year. Within a fairly short space of time, solar generated electricity will be fully cost competitive with coal-powered electricity – at least if the governments of the world’s two largest energy consuming nations have their way.

Mr Tillier says both the US and China have goals of reducing the cost of solar generated electricity to that level, and quickly.

Myanmar’s neighbour China is on an urgent quest to develop solar power to replace dirty, suffocating coal, a pollutant responsible for making many Chinese cities almost un-livable, and has been working on it since the early 2000s.

The US Energy Information Administration says coal accounted for 69 percent of China’s energy production as recently as 2011. Cost comparative solar power and a centralised government committed to change will make that number laughable in a few years, says Mr Tillier.

Inventors and manufacturers are on the brink of a major breakthrough with designs for relatively light, durable and competitively priced batteries. As journalist Steve LeVine has written in his new book, “The Powerhouse: Inside the Invention of a Battery to Save the World,” a whole host of scientists in 20 nations around the world are focused on building a battery that “will change the world.”

The invention of a super battery will help “enable solar and wind” and be four to five times better than current batteries, says Mr LeVine. The main players working on the designs are China, Japan, South Korea and US, with Japan and South Korea in front. Oil and automobile companies may still be betting against such a breakthrough but Mr LeVine – having spent two years in the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago following the development with the scientists – believes the energy landscape will be dramatically transformed within a decade. As he told one TV news host, people need to buy his book to find out if there is a “Hollywood ending.”

The Real Iron Man


Elon Musk – the real-life inspiration for the Hollywood movie series “Iron Man” – is betting big that the United States will fall for his Tesla electric cars, quick recharging stations, and his company’s own venture into providing a superbattery for houses and small businesses, recharged by the sun.

One person who appears to be-lieve in Hollywood endings or at least gambling they may work is innovative American entrepreneur Elon Musk. Mr Musk – who started Paypal, Solar City, Tesla electric cars, and a space rocket company and is the real-life model for the Hollywood movie series Iron Man – mentioned seemingly off the cuff recently that his powerhouse lithium-ion battery will power houses within the foreseeable future.

“We are going to unveil the Tesla home battery, the consumer battery that would be for use in people’s houses or businesses fairly soon,” he told Bloomberg News late last month.

Mr Musk predicts that an energy revolution will sweep the US within a decade. He has on occasion put down his hard-earned personal wealth to back up his belief in the power of the sun.

Small scale, people-power initiatives

Whether the arrival of Solar Impulse will help propel Myanmar on a cleaner energy path remains to be seen. Once the media furore is over, the Myanmar authorities are likely to return to the conventional energy paths promoted by fossil fuel companies and international financiers. Solar initiatives – bar simple, single solar panels – tend to be relatively expensive.

But if the breakthroughs predicted as scientists compete to develop cheap solar panels and batteries come to fruition, solar may well grow to become an important part of Myanmar’s energy mix.

As Solar Impulse takes off for the next leg of its round the world journey this week, bound for China, the Myanmar authorities would be wise to take a new look at solar and reach out to the experts – whether in China, Japan, South Korea or the US – for navigation in this brave new world.

Inside the battle for the superbattery

A worldwide race is on to perfect the next engine of economic growth, the advanced lithium-ion battery. It will power the electric car, relieve global warming and catapult the winner into a new era of economic and political mastery. Just who will win?

Mr Steve LeVine was granted unprecedented access to the Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, where a group of scientists is trying to solve this next monumental task of physics. But these scientists – almost all foreign born – are not alone. With so much at stake, researchers in Japan, South Korea, and China are in the same pursuit. The drama intensifies when a Silicon Valley start-up licenses the federal laboratory’s signature invention with the aim of a blockbuster sale to the world’s biggest carmakers.

The book The Powerhouse is a real-time, two-year account of big invention, big commercialisation, and big deception. It exposes the layers of aspiration and disappointment, competition and ambition behind this great turning point in the history of technology.“We are a few years away from state-of-the-art stationary batteries being cheap enough for customers--such as the Myanmar population--to afford,” Mr LeVine told Mizzima Weekly.

“But it is precisely the type of market that batteries combined with solar could have their most profound impact.”

Mr LeVine said a country-size grid is simply not going to be built in Myanmar- it would be truly too expensive.

“Thus, some 70 percent of the population will continue to be without electricity. The answer is to install solar at the village or neighbourhood level, combined with off-the-shelf lithium-ion or even cheap lead-acid batteries. As it did with a solar project for Mandalay in August 2014, the US government could and should facilitate such projects,” he said.

This Article first appeared in the March 5, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.

Mizzima Weekly is available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com  

Last modified on Thursday, 12 March 2015 16:28