This article describes household energy consumption patterns in two provinces in Cambodia. It is important to emphasize that local environmental and socio-cultural conditions vary considerably between the studied provinces, and that the descriptive results should not be generalized as such to other provinces of Cambodia.
The survey results are compatible with both the energy ladder and stacking models, but do not fit perfectly to either theory. We can note that progress with energy ladders is not linear, but rather it is a complex process, where also regression back to previous steps of the ladder is possible. This finding is also supported by Daioglou et al. (2012) and Adamu et al. (2020) with results showing the fine balance of costs in relation to the selected energy source, and always with a mix of energy sources rather than a complete fuel substitution. Examining how different wealth groups use various energy sources tested the validity of these theories. Although households may have had more modern energy sources they did not abandon the old ones, but rather this resulted in using a broader pool of energy sources, hence supporting the energy stacking model in both urban and rural settings, which was also found by a World Bank study (2018). In addition, determining factors of use of a certain energy source, as found in this study and echoed by other researchers, are the energy costs, availability, and access to funding for modern energy sources, as well as reliability of the energy source (San, Sriv, et al., 2012; San, Spoann, et al., 2012, Phoumin et al. 2019 and 2020, ADB 2018, World Bank, 2018). This manifests evidently in this study whereby in urban areas, households are using more energy sources compared to rural areas, and similarly in higher wealth groups compared to lower wealth groups. The majority of the surveyed respondents, regardless of their income or location, who have switched to use more modern energy sources, also continue to use the more traditional sources. The higher wealth group (especially in urban areas) seem to be able to rely more on the new modern energy sources, while middle and lower wealth groups were continuing to use the traditional ones despite modern energy sources being available. The underlying causes here may be distrust and fear of fluctuating prices, or an unreliable grid connection. The access and availability to modern energy sources can be weaker in rural areas and has to be commonly supplemented by batteries for electricity.
Electricity is used in majority of the studied households (95% of the surveyed households) regardless of the location, wealth or access to electricity grid. It is, however, used mostly for lighting, entertainment, communication and cooling homes with fans, but also somewhat to support income generating activities. The indirect and direct influence on household income and income generating activities is discussed also by Phoumin et al. (2019), showing that electricity significantly influences household income. However as this study found that lower income groups benefit far less (especially in rural areas), if at all, in terms of income generation resulting from access to electricity. This result, however, may be directly linked to the amounts of electricity accessible and affordable due to limiting factors including cost or reliability factors, among others. In our study, income generation activities evidently were of secondary priority only after improved living conditions and entertainment purposes. This is also supported by Bhattacharyya (2012) in their study. The data also reveals the tendency of the higher wealth group to use more grid electricity than other groups. This has been reported also by, e.g. Ekholm et al. (2010) and ADB (2018), and this may increase the opportunities of higher wealth groups to benefit even more from electricity (Phoumin & Kimura, 2019).
Electrification alone can not be the solution to rural energy access problems, as electricity accounts only for a small share of the energy demand of the studied households, which is also stated in Bhattacharyya (2012). Traditional biomass (firewood mainly) remains the main energy source for cooking in the surveyed households, a finding also mentioned in various other studies (e.g. Bhattacharyya, 2012; World Bank, 2018, San San, Sriv, et al., 2012). Clearly, access to traditional cooking fuels such as firewood cannot be ignored, in spite of their related health, social, and environmental problems (e.g. Bhattacharyya, 2012, Phoumin 2019, World Bank, 2018). Electrical stoves, as commonly used in the Global South, are used only by 4% of the survey respondents. This finding is consistent with the World Bank (2018) report. The investment costs of these devices are significant, and if the electricity source is not reliable, the consumer decisions of not opting for electric stoves are understandable. Food preparation is one of the most energy consuming activities in households, and a wholesale transition to electric stoves would mean a large rise in electricity consumption, further causing potential problems with production, especially in off-grid areas. Instead of solely looking at electrification, clean and efficient cooking technologies using even traditional biomass sources deserve attention, at least in the interim, as part of the energy transition debate (see e.g. Bhattacharyya, 2012). Cultural aspects of using firewood or charcoal can also not be dismissed either (see e.g. Kroon et al. 2013).
Gas and charcoal are clearly used more in urban than in rural areas due to better accessibility. Charcoal, compared to firewood, takes less storage and is more efficient and less polluting. Eight percent of the charcoal users produce it themselves, while the rest buy it. This is slightly less than found in a 2013 study where 12% of charcoal was home-made (Lao et. al 2013). Electricity is used more in cities, where 100% of the respondents use it in one way or another, although electricity is also commoly used in rural electrified and even non-electrified areas, despite the high electricity prices. In the latter, households are using mostly batteries, but also local grids and solar panels serve as their source of electricity. These findings are supported in ADB and World Bank studies conducted in 2018. Only firewood and plant residues are a more common energy source in rural than in urban districts. Approximately half of the urban households use firewood, and it is clearly more common in rural areas and in lower wealth groups, where over 90% of respondents are using it as their primary cooking energy. This resonates especially in Pursat with the abundance of forests in closer proximity to the households than in Kampong Cham. Of all surveyed households, however, 73% are collecting firewood and 20% purchased it, which is slightly less than the Lao et al. (2013) study results, with 79% of firewood collected. As stated in the literature, forests and bushes are usually abundant for wood collection in rural areas, whereas modern fuels dominate in urban areas (see e.g. Elias & Victor, 2005; Kroon et al. 2013). Furthermore, the differences between wealth groups are most clearly seen in urban areas, where only 38% of households in the higher wealth group collect firewood.
As this analysis underlines, energy choices are not always straightforward. In Lao et al. (2013) modern fuels are reported as clean, easy, and fast to use. In our study, respondents considered modern fuels to be expensive, and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) dangerous to use. Charcoal was chosen because it was considered to be safe, easy and clean, yet on the contrary, other repsondents considered it to be unsafe, expensive and difficult to burn. Firewood was perceived as being easy to collect, available, cheap, and easy to burn. However, the health impacts and difficulty to collect were considered drawbacks by respondents, a finding also reported by Phoumin and Kimura (2019). Thus, there is no single optimal energy solution, but rather a combination of different energy sources that fit in the specific local context in Cambodia. Furthermore, accessibility does not always equal to affordability. For example, firewood can also be chosen over other energy sources out of habit or cooking preferences (Jagadish & Dwivedi, 2018).
This analysis shows that the use of energy sources and wealth levels are connected and inter-linked in complex ways. With the availability of modern energy sources, differences between wealth groups are evident in all locations, and gas and electricity are more common when households get wealthier. Only charcoal makes a minor exception here, as the middle wealth group uses it slightly more than the higher wealth group. Similarly, firewood and plant residues, which are most common in remote rural areas, are more common when household wealth is lower. Phoumin et al. (2020) argue that access alone does not solve the problems of moving away from biomass, but that it is rather a question of household’s purchasing power (i.e. ability to spend on electricity). Furthermore, joint analysis with both wealth groups and locations shows that among traditional fuels, wealth indeed has an influence only in the urban areas. Heltberg (2005) states that wealth does not have a significant role in fuel switching in rural areas, which is in line with this study’s findings.
In rural areas, poor access to modern energy and the cost of electricity seems to be a significant drag on energy transition. In urban areas, where access to modern energy exists, wealth levels influence remarkably on energy demand. In other words, more wealth also means more use of appliances and more comfort. Phoumin et al. (2020) emphasized that access to electricity, in terms wealth accumulation of households, again places the rural households with limited access and affordability to modern energy in a disproportionally disadvantaged role compared to their urban equivalents.
Our analysis did not evaluate different sources based on their emissions or external impacts, even though that question is critical in Cambodia in the context of high prices, rural energy poverty, and import dependency (Phoumin et al. ). Grid extension is often perceived as a marker for development, yet it may come at a price elsewhere. Realistic projections for future energy demand (including renewable energy support and energy efficiency) are in dire need in Cambodia, as mentioned by e.g. Heng and Boyle (2020). In large parts of the Global South, electricity is produced using natural resources on the periphery, and transmitted to cities for the well-off to benefit. This brings also adverse societal development implications and environmental costs.
Finally, as the study shows, rural households with lower incomes seem to benefit proportionally less than others on modern energy services. Various studies (e.g. World Bank, 2018; Phoumin et al. 2020, ADB 2018) that have been referred to here emphasise the challenges with affordability and access. Poor households cannot afford the high prices or the high upfront costs, even if modern energy options are available. Furthermore, as mentioned by Phoumin et al. 2020 and ADB 2018, Renewable Energy Entrepreneurs (REEs) service providers are not able to efficiently benefit from the energy markets as the consumers’ purchase power is limited. This in turn strengthens the dependency of households on “cheap-but-dirty” fuels and technologies, as put forward by Diaoglou et al. (2012). These issues cannot be overlooked as they determine how modern energy benefits are distributed, and to whom. Although centralized energy systems are economically attractive, local energy systems are important for self-sufficiency, resilience and sustainability. Technological (inter-sectoral) diversity has been highlighted as a key feature of sustainable transitions towards less polluting technologies, e.g. by Aldieri et al. (2020). Also the concept of Integrated Community Energy Systems (ICESs) would be a very helpful approach in organizing local energy systems to integrate distributed energy resources and engage local communities. ICESs represent locally and collectively organized energy systems and combine (1) the concept of sustainable energy communities (Schweizer-Ries, 2008), (2) community energy systems (Walker & Simcock, 2012), (3) community micro-grids (Mendes et al. 2011), and (4) peer-to-peer energy production (Giotitsas et al. 2015). The ICES approach is a relevant approach in rural areas (Koirala et al. 2016), and also in Cambodia. In practice the ICES approach encompasses a wide variety of technologies, organisational arrangements, and potential outcomes, with these desirable outcomes including (1) collective economic returns, (2) reduced fuel poverty, (3) carbon mitigation, (4) greater community cohesion, and (5) an increased knowledge of sustainable energy technologies (Walker & Simcock, 2012).