Energy officials will seek to better connect ASEAN members’ electricity grids into a regional energy network over the next five years to better utilise the countries’ respective strengths and weaknesses in power generation, it was announced at a meeting of the bloc in Myanmar’s capital Nay Pyi Taw.

“We will sell extra electricity by linking the neighbouring countries. We will buy [electricity] if we need it,” U Htein Lwin, permanent secretary for the Ministry of Electricity and Energy, told The Myanmar Times following the 34th ASEAN Energy Senior Officials Meeting last week.

“Therefore, we are now drawing up plans for [transnational] electricity lines. We also plan to buy from China and are also discussing buying from Laos. We are also conducting physical studies. If it is convenient, we’ll arrange for interconnection,” he added.

The aim is to promote energy efficiency and redistribution of electricity from countries in the region that generate a surplus to those – like Myanmar – that have unmet energy needs, U Htein Lwin said.

“The main point of this project is to see energy used sufficiently in all ASEAN countries; energy means oil and gas, and electricity,” he said.

The first step in ASEAN energy cooperation will see Laos sell electricity to Malaysia, via its southern neighbour Thailand. Officials have set a 2016-20 window for the first phase, with a second stage to follow, bringing Singapore into the multilateral transmission grid.

The goal is to build on already existing bilateral electricity-sharing arrangements within the regional bloc, according to Datuk Loo Took Gee, the Malaysian Ministry of Energy, Green Technology and Water’s secretary general.

“For example, Thailand has energy needs. They buy electricity by linking up with Laos. Malaysia also sells its extra energy from Sarawak to Kalimantan in Indonesia … There are many energy-trading cases by connecting islands like Sumatra to peninsular Malaysia,” he told The Myanmar Times at a press conference, through an interpreter.

According to Myanmar’s 2014 census, electrification in the country remains low, with less than 33 percent of households using electricity as their primary source of lighting. A slew of proposed hydropower dams would significantly expand Myanmar’s power generation capacity, but activists in recent years have complained that in several cases the power generated is slated for export, namely to Thailand and China.