‘Long way to go’: A look at Myanmar’s clean energy realities amid ongoing troubles

Heightened instability in Myanmar has landed the country in deeper energy poverty. Clean energy advocates like Zun Moe Thiri are working against difficult realities to push for wider electrification efforts.

Mechanical engineer and scholar Zun Moe Thiri (4th from left) presents a pitch with her teammates from other Southeast Asian countries during the Hitachi Young Leaders Initiative 2022 programme. Image: HYLI

For 26-year-old mechanical engineer and scholar Zun Moe Thiri, one formative experience she had was helping to install solar panels at an underserved orphanage and monastery in a rural village in Myanmar, some four hours outside of the city of Yangon.

Despite its vast hydropower potential, Myanmar suffers from having the lowest electrification rate among Asean countries, with only half of its population connected to the national grid. Even the developed city of Yangon has reached an electrification ratio of just 67 per cent.

This is despite the country’s rich natural waterways, which drain the four main basins of Ayeyarwaddy, Chindwin, Thanlwin, and Sittaung, estimated to have some 100,000 megawatts in untapped hydropower potential.

“Growing up in Myanmar, I’ve seen how energy access can immensely impact people’s quality of life,” Zun told Eco-Business, who also shared about the rolling blackouts Yangon experiences on an erratic basis due to issues in the transmission infrastructure of the country.

This reality further dawned on her during a leadership programme sponsored by Republic Polytechnic, an education institution in Singapore, and Yangon Technological University some years ago that led to the installation of solar panels at a far-flung orphanage in Myanmar’s countryside.

“I vividly remember how the children started jumping up and down and shouting with joy when we turned the switch on for the first time one evening,” the young clean energy advocate shared. “They were so happy that now they could be able to read, study and even walk around the shelter in the evening.”

Growing up in Myanmar, I’ve seen how energy access can immensely impact people’s quality of life.

Zun Moe Thiri, Hitachi Young Leaders’ Initiative alumna

Zun has gone on to pursue Master’s degrees in both renewable energy and energy science at Malaysia’s Universiti Malaya and Japan’s Kyoto University, respectively. In 2022, she was named a delegate to the Hitachi Young Leaders Initiative (HYLI), Hitachi Asia’s flagship youth development programme.

A Global Sustainable Electricity Partnership (GSEP) young ambassador for global electrification, Zun believes that clean energy transition, sustainable electrification, and poverty alleviation intersect and that these points need to be tackled simultaneously and not step by step. She is currently undertaking research in energy economics and policy framework, primarily in the field of solar energy and hydrogen.

In this interview, Zun talks about pursuing engineering in Myanmar, the mentors she is grateful for, and how HYLI has expanded her circles.

Myanmar is known for its hydropower potential. Did this drive your interest in renewable energy? Has growing up in Myanmar made it more accessible or difficult for you to take this path?

I was driven to work in this industry upon realising our country’s untapped renewable energy resources. However, the reality on the ground is what has truly pushed me into this line of work and study. Renewable energy is often viewed as a vehicle that can lift people out of inequality and poverty, but I’ve realised that it cannot solve this problem alone.

I’m currently researching global scenarios in hydrogen, and aim to tackle the hydrogen economy from a supply chain and logistics perspective. There are no such hydrogen facilities in Myanmar. Our country has a long way to go to initiate and enter into the hydrogen economy, and although we have hydropower resources, the technology isn’t that advanced either.

Was it difficult pursuing a stereotypically male-dominated degree like engineering? Since then you’ve accumulated a diverse slate of work experience, from the automotive sector to logistics, among others. How do you feel your previous roles have shaped you into the professional you are now?

Our engineering class at Yangon Technological University was made up 70 per cent of male students, so I am definitely in the minority. I am grateful, however, to the mentors that lifted me up along the way.

One of our instructors closest to my heart was Dr Yin Yin Tun of the engineering department. She was one of the few who never treated me differently even if I was a female student. She was also the one who encouraged me to join Republic Polytechnic’s leadership programme which led to me being involved in an initiative that installed solar panels in different disadvantaged communities outside of Yangon, which sparked my passion for this path.

Unfortunately, Dr Yin Yin Tun passed away a few years ago during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in Yangon. To this day, I’m thankful to her and she continues to inspire me. 

While studying mechanical engineering, I wanted to explore diverse sectors in order for me to find my place and passion. My experience with different companies has given me the chance to acquire more diverse knowledge and build a wider social circle. Through them, I am who I am today.

Tell us about some of the memorable milestones in your HYLI journey. In what ways do you think the HYLI event changed you?

I’m incredibly thankful to the mentors and colleagues I met at HYLI. It was the most intense yet inspiring five days of my life. It was super motivating to discuss and collaborate with a diverse set of young people from across the region who are all passionate about making a difference in their respective communities. 

The HYLI circle has been very warm and welcoming. My fellow participants, our mentors from the programme, and even other HYLI alumni still stay in touch and update each other on our work, and congratulate each other on new milestones.

What do you hope to accomplish in the near future?

I will continue to be an advocate for the just energy transition and its potential role in poverty alleviation. I hope to wrap up my current research project on hydrogen economies. It looks at how we can potentially reduce the cost of production and transportation of hydrogen for the energy sector by the end of this year. I’m already aiming to pursue a doctorate degree and then become a professor or lecturer, with the hope of inspiring the next generation of clean energy advocates.

Established in 1996, HYLI is a regional thought leadership and social responsibility programme organised by Hitachi, with the aim of identifying the future leaders of Asia. Held biannually, the platform allows four selected university students from each participating country a chance to meet and discuss current regional and global issues, as well as exchange views with prominent speakers representing governments, business and academia. Interested participants may look forward to the next edition of HYLI in 2024.

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