By Thu Vân
When Việt Nam’s main legislative body, the National Assembly, decided on Tuesday to cancel plans to build two nuclear power plants, many lauded the “courageous” move.
There is no denying that this decision would have been really tough, after so many years of planning, spending money on feasibility studies, looking for foreign collaboration, and so on.
But there is general agreement that scrapping the plants was a wise move, especially in the context of cheaper, safer renewable energy options including power imports. Besides, the massive investments involved could now be diverted to more urgent infrastructure needs.
Amidst all this back-slapping, however, we cannot shy away from the important question: How will Việt Nam meet its growing demand for electricity in the time to come, without nuclear energy?
The question gains greater urgency, given the waning hydropower potential in the country and the problems that the projects have posed over the past several years.
According to national utility, Electricity of Việt Nam (EVN), annual energy consumption in the country has reached 162 billion kWh and is set to grow by 10 per cent each year.
With hydropower no longer a priority and nuclear power out of the picture, the remaining choices have been laid out on the table: thermal power and renewable energy, like wind and solar power.
According to the National Power Development Masterplan for 2011-20 (with vision until 2030), thermal power will be the main focus of the power sector. By 2020, the country will have 31 thermal power plants producing 49.3 per cent of electricity output, using up 63 millions tonnes of coal.
By 2030, the numbers will grow to 52 plants producing 53.2 per cent of the country’s electricity output, using up 129 million tonnes of coal.
Experts say the focus on coal can prove problematic.
Studies show that thermal power plants are cheap but discharge a large amount of solid waste and gas harmful to the environment. The Ministry of Industry and Trade has reported that the current 20 thermal power plants discharge about 16 million tonnes of ash and cinder a year.
The heavy health costs of coal were also underscored by the release of a study by Harvard University and Greenpeace, indicating that pollution from coal plants in Việt Nam led to 4,300 premature deaths in 2011.
The world has been gradually giving up on thermal power because of its serious consequences. Why is Việt Nam going against the grain here?
Just this May, the World Bank’s Jim Yong Kim said at a conference in Washington D.C that if Việt Nam goes forward with the 40GW of coal, and if the entire region of south and south-east Asia implements the coal-based plans, it would be a “disaster” for the planet.
The Government is not unaware of this. Former Prime Minister Nguyễn Tấn Dũng has spoken of the need to closely and stringently monitor environmental issues, especially related to coal-fired power plants. He has also said that it is necessary to review development plans of all coal-fired power plants and halt any new thermal power project. He said it is time to begin replacing coal with natural gas, and to accelerate investment in renewable energy.
Renewable energy. That’s the buzzword, the watchword, if you will.
Countries the world over are looking to renewable energy. It is an inevitable trend, which will accelerate further.
Previously, cost was cited as a main barrier to switching from fossil-based fuels like oil, coal and gas to renewable sources like solar, wind and geothermal energy. Things have changed now. Plummeting costs for renewable energy technologies are making a global energy transition more possible than ever.
In Australia, a country with the world’s fourth largest coal reserves, producing onshore wind energy proved to be 14 per cent cheaper than new coal and 18 per cent cheaper than new gas in 2013.
Việt Nam can tap into abundant solar energy, with an average 2000-2500 hours of sunshine yearly. Solar energy can provide 3 to 4.5 kWh/m2/day in winter and 4.5 to 6.5 kWh/m2/day in summer, experts estimate.
And according to the Energy evaluation in Asia programme carried out by the World Bank, Việt Nam has great potential in wind energy as well, at an estimated 513.360 MW. The South Central region, Mekong Delta, Central Highlands and islands have the greatest wind energy potential.
And while Yong Kim of World Bank tried to convince the Vietnamese Government that it should not build a network of polluting coal plants across the country, he also said that the bank would devote 28 per cent of its funding to helping developing countries invest in renewable energy.
So it is a matter of how we can utilise all these advantages. Although the potential of renewable energy is high, its exploitation and use has been very limited. The reasons are varied. There are institutional and policy barriers, technological and infrastructural shortcomings, a shortage of human resources and so on.
Several dozen investors have shown interest in developing wind energy here, but only three or four projects have gotten underway.
At the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Marrakech, Morocco, Việt Nam, as a member of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, agreed along with 47 other countries to make its energy production 100 per cent renewable "as rapidly as possible" by between 2030 and 2050 at the latest.
International agencies have committed to supporting and helping developing countries like Việt Nam to turn to renewable energy. The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the KfW Development Bank, Japan Bank for International Co-operation, and many private funds, have promised increased investment in renewable energy projects in Việt Nam.
So the alternative is obvious. The Government has to promote renewable energy, with policies and many other incentives. But tougher than all the power choices; tougher than all the questions about energy production is the one about consumption.
Do we have a choice other than to limit consumption? No. How we make our energy consumption choices, what we prioritise, what we give up – these are the factors that will decide our future, our fate, not just of Việt Nam, but that of the planet. — VNS