Bakun Dam saga enters next chapter

Posted on April 20, 2011. Filed under: Energy |

-The Star-

Should project be viewed as a business deal or part of state development?

THE protracted story of the Bakun Hydroelectric Dam project, instead of ending soon, may be just going into its next chapter.

The latest saga in the tariff pricing disagreement between Sarawak Hidro Sdn Bhd, owner and developer of the dam, and Sarawak Energy Bhd (SEB), the offtaker and state utility board, is entering its fourth scenario.

The first round of talks just after the completion of the dam looked at its possible sale or lease; subsequently, Sarawak expressed its intention to buy over the dam.

News surfaced recently that the sale of Bakun was off and that it would be operated on a joint-venture basis.

The latest is that SEB has proposed to buy a 30% stake in the project.

The power negotiations too have undergone three changes from earlier suggestions of flat to escalating tariffs. Currently, the offer is for a starting tariff of six sen per KwH.

In February this year, SEB had indicated it was willing to pay six sen per kwh but Sarawak Hidro said it needed a flat rate of 9.5 sen per kwh on a 30-year concession.

On an escalating basis, SEB had offered 5.4 sen per kwh at 1.5% per annum (inclusive of a one sen water tariff to the state); Sarawak Hidro had countered with 6.75 sen per kwh, also at 1.5% per annum.

The power purchase agreement (PPA) negotiations went on a rocky path last month with different instructions from the state and federal governments. Early last month, the PPA talks were ordered off by the state and later in the same month, the federal government expressed the desire for the PPA to be concluded as soon as possible.

The question here is whether the Bakun Dam project should be viewed as a purely business deal or part of the socio-economic development of Sarawak?

As a business deal, the Government should make every effort to recover its investments.

If it wants to play its developmental role, it may consider taking a hit and absorbing some losses while helping Sarawak to achieve its industrial goals.

Under the study conducted by PwC, it is believed that the Bakun project is valued at between RM8bil and RM10bil; however, Sarawak’s latest tariff offer of six sen per kwh values it at only RM6bil.

In contrast, coal-fired tariffs cost 28 sen per kwh.

Some ask if giving a hefty discount is justified, as more expensive dams are coming up. They say it is not fair that power from Bakun has to be sold cheaply to subsidise the construction of these additional dams.

Others want to know why the cost of transmission via the new grid system is much higher, at over four sen per kwh compared with the cost of only one sen in the peninsula.

Sarawak has said it needs 6.000MW-7,000MW of power by 2020. Bakun has a capacity for 2,400MW and Murum is able to produce 944MW.

Others still pose questions on why polluting industries should take advantage of the cheap, clean power from Bakun.

These heavy industries located in the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy (SCORE) have rebutted that they use advanced technology that do not pose a threat to the environment.

Scare tactics have been used which speculated on the possibility that the Bakun Dam project could end up being a white elephant if industries were not attracted to soak up the power at competitive rates.

Looking at the power requirements of Peninsular Malaysia beyond 2015, this power from Bakun may be transmitted back to the peninsula. Is it worth it to revive the idea of building the undersea transmission line especially in the wake of the nuclear scare and the limit on Malaysia’s carbon footprint under the now expired Kyoto Protocol?

Already the pressure is on to conclude the tariff negotiations. Sarawak has signed non-binding agreements with four companies to supply power. Their plants are at the preliminary stages of planning and construction.

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