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"Electricity is like magic": a Q&A with Shoon So Oo

Shoon So Oo is the energy programme manager at WWF-Myanmar. He’s one of the people behind ‘The Renewable Energy Vision’ – one of the most ambitious programmes of its kind. The Vision aims for 100% renewable energy by 2050 for Myanmar.

Shoon believes it can happen, and he’s convinced that what the energy programme does is as close to magic as you’ll get in the real world.

What are the main goals of the renewable energy programme?

There’s a huge shortage of electricity in our country, so basically what we really want is to have a reliable source of energy. Rather than building dams or power plants, what we need is sustainable power that comes from renewable sources. We are sure that Myanmar can survive because of the blessings we have in terms of our resources. We want the whole country to be electrified with cheap, clean and fast energy.

In 2018 your target was to electrify 1000 rural households with solar energy as part of the Barefoot Project. Did you make it?

We did! We actually electrified 1030 households in 2018, and 16 more women were trained as solar engineers (see video below). Now we are looking for ways to expand. The best part with the Barefoot project is that we place great importance on the social aspect by training women in order to help balance gender equality.

Hypothetically, if the results fall short of the target, what measures do you take?

If the results were to fall short the aim would be to raise more funds to help us meet the target. We would be working with multiple financial institutions to get more investments into the program. But throughout the year we work towards making sure that we meet our targets and so far, we have been successful. We continue to expand even once we have reached our targets of the electrified households and number of women engineers. We want to improve the results as we go ahead, rather than setting up a donor driven subsidy model, we want it to be a finance model.

In setting up the program and the resources necessary, who are the people or organisations you generally interact with, and to what extent do these interactions influence the programme?

The general society, Renewable Energy Association, Spectrum, Climate Justice, various private sector organisations, Myanmar Eco Solutions, Indigo Solar…
As an NGO, we want to set up sustainable development, without damaging the environmental biodiversity. Society wants the public voice to be more incorporated in the planning process and the private sector wants to attain profits in the sustainable sector.

So far, what challenges has the renewable energy programme faced in terms of opposition?

It does face opposition occasionally. Sometimes people think it is crazy or unrealistic that the entire country’s energy requirements can be supplied through renewable sources like air, water and solar. The first challenge we face is to build the capacity to accommodate renewable energy. Second, it is difficult to convince the decision makers that renewable energy is not a burden. Also, since the democracy is very new, the credit schemes and financing schemes are not in place. In order to start up a new project, we always have a credit issue.

These challenges affect your work to quite a huge extent since they influence the very roots of the programme. So, how do you tackle them?

In terms of solving the problems, the only way we can work, is through the private sector and the society. Also, NGOs like us try to generate more support internationally when we don’t receive support locally. Myanmar is one of those countries which is at a crucial stage because we are the third most vulnerable to rising sea levels and climate change in 2017. We are one of the least developed countries and we need help, because of which there are certain financial resources that we can dip into when faced with challenges. We are in the process of convincing the government and that is a process that needs to be covered in all countries, not just Myanmar. The people in the country need a while to get used to the new sources of electricity as they have all grown up watching purely traditional sources being used. This process takes a little time.

So, in order to assist in this development, what steps do you take?

First, we need to convince the concerned authorities about the necessity of the program. After gaining their approval, we provide support and information. However, one of the main things that NGOs are accused of is a Burmese expression that says, “you just came here to talk”. In order not to live up to that infamous opinion we make sure to provide support, both technically and financially, as well as follow up. To achieve this, two measures are being taken at the moment. One advisor is working with the state minister, advising the electricity minister, and the other is working with the national government on how to operate various sources of renewable energy.

What is your drive to do the work that you do today?

I was born and raised in Myanmar, where electricity cuts were too common even before I was born. I was raised in Yangon, and people here frown when there is a power cut.

"Imagining the other 30 million people who have not seen what electricity is, that is what drives me to do what I do today."

How would you describe the work you do?

To me the work I do makes me feel like I work at Hogwarts, because it feels almost like magic. I help people get electricity from the sun, water and air. It is so cool. That, for me, is the fun part of the job.

What has, so far, been your most memorable experience working on this programme?

In 2016 we handed over a detailed report on the state of renewable energy to the de facto president, Aung San Suu Kyi. On a professional level that has been my most memorable experience. The second was when we were working with the women in the village to help them become solar engineers. Those women had never been away from their families before, but at the time we needed to travel to India for them to study. One of the women’s husbands missed her so much that he cried every night, and walked to the top of a mountain where he had reception to call her once a week. It was one of the most beautiful love stories that I had ever heard.

Find out more about our Energy and Climate Programme here, and watch our video below to find out more about Shoon!