Energy has been in the global spotlight for some time, including in the fast-growing economies of Southeast Asia. While governments and media showcase the steps the region has taken toward greening its energy systems, the recent collapse of a dam in southern Laos brings to light some of the other facets of the energy transitions taking place in this part of the world. In particular, it lays bare the misapprehension of talking about energy transitions as a one-directional, apolitical process, rather than one that will see winners and losers across Southeast Asian countries and populations. The need to understand and steer energy demand is one of the key, and often underexposed, challenges in the region.
“Energy transition” is a buzzword in Southeast Asia. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has written that “rising energy needs and changing supply-demand dynamics are creating tough challenges for Southeast Asia’s policy-makers, but the energy transition is also opening up new affordable policy and technology options.” A recent report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific highlighted “a series of gaps that must be bridged in order to achieve the energy transition.” Despite the hype, referring to the energy transition is flawed and obscures important differences and the political nature of these diverse, and sometimes conflicting, energy transitions.