By Thu Vân
Việt Nam has 20 thermal power plants now and plans to have more than double that by 2050.
Off the cuff, this makes sense. The nation is growing and needs more energy than ever.
However, if we look beyond mere numbers and visualise the social and environmental impacts of 51 coal-powered plants in the country, the rosy picture is blackened considerably, literally and otherwise.
A study published earlier this year by a group of researchers from Havard University and Greenpeace, an international non-governmental environmental organisation based in Amsterdam, cautions that by 2030, Việt Nam and Indonesia will be among the nations worst affected by coal pollution.
If this sounds a bit abstract, consider this estimate: Premature mortality rate due to coal plant emissions will cause 188 excess deaths per million in Việt Nam, with 85 the corresponding figure for Indonesia.
And if this doesn’t give us pause, and 2030 and 2050 seem a bit too distant to worry about, imagine this: waste from coal power plants will pollute our land and water, affect crop production, kill marine life, and affect the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people.
Ah, we cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs, goes the usual response.
So, let us imagine the impact of this breaking of eggs, if not on us, on our children and succeeding generations, based on evidence we already have from all around the world: more respiratory diseases, congestive heart failures, chronic bronchitis, severe asthma attacks, and so on.
Earlier this year, the Cebu leg of a campaign called “The Break Free 2017” commenced with a 60-kilometer “climate walk” tracing the path of existing and proposed coal plants in Cebu province, Philippines.
The groups comprising Break Free 2017 argue that the approval of coal projects disregards the health and livelihood impacts on people, especially in the immediate vicinity of the plants.
Uncomfortably close to home, northern China was covered in thick, toxic smog in January this year. Experts blamed thermal power plants.
The other side of this picture is that China’s economic miracle was powered by cheap coal, which still provides 70 per cent of the country’s energy. But the country is paying a price that we cannot ignore. More imporantly, we cannot afford to repeat this mistake.
Soon after one of the worst episodes of air pollution in the country that affected 460 million people, Beijing closed its last coal power plant in March, switching to natural gas.
However, there is a long way to go as far as the clean-up operation is concerned, and the monetary bill is hefty: US$275 billion (and counting).
While more and more countries are turning their backs on thermal power and opting for more environmentally friendly and sustainable alternatives, why is Việt Nam persisting with it?
The policymakers’ answer is simple: it’s more affordable at a time when money is tight.
With growing demand for energy (10 per cent annually), coal power seems to be the only choice for the country, particularly when it has just pulled away from nuclear power (last year) because of concerns about economic feasibility and safety.
The Government has said that the 6,000MW capacity that was supposed to be provided by nuclear power, will now have to be generated from fossil fuels. The national power masterplan clearly envisages thermal power as the main source of energy.
This means that by 2020 the country will be burning 63 million tonnes of coal, with the number rising to approximately 129 million tonnes when all of the planned 51 plants begin operations.
It is impossible not to be anxious and worried about this when there are places where people have to wear masks whenever they go out, and have to buy clean air packed in cans imported from some European countries.
To emphasise, it is not reassuring that at a time when there is greater global focus on renewable energy and alternatives to conventional power sources, Việt Nam is planning many more coal power plants.
Can we really afford the recently approved Long An Coal Power Plant, just 30km away from crowded HCM City. Do we really have significantly safer ways of producing thermal power?
The time for making choices based on the cheapest monetary option is long over. The leadership has been very vocal that the environment will not be sacrificed for economic growth. This rhetoric has to be backed with very tough choices.
It is worth mentioning here that the tough choices are a little less so, because the cost of wind and solar energy production has fallen considerably.
Making tough choices starts with asking tough questions.
Can we wait until we become "richer" to consider shifting firmly to renewable sources like wind and solar energy? Would we ever become rich in the real sense of the word, if we have to compromise our health to do so?
We do not have to look elsewhere for examples of extreme hardship caused by environmental pollution. The Vedan and Formosa induced disasters are still fresh in our mind.
Việt Nam has committed to an 8 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, saying it can even do better with international support. Can this be done with such a huge reliance on coal power?
While we ask tough questions and consider tough choices, there are some things that we absolutely HAVE to do.
For already existing coal power plants, the Government should apply strict environmental standards and supervise compliance. Investors should apply eco-friendly solutions handling coal ash.
A study by Ohio State University in 2013 found a far cleaner way to use coal energy — a process called chemical looping that has the potential to reduce or eliminate a wide range of pollutants, including carbon dioxide and smog-forming nitrogen oxides. If we have to burn it, we need to burn it wisely.
We should also learn lessons from other countries. Ontario, Canada, has built hundreds of windmills on farmland along the corridor from Windsor to Toronto in a big effort to wean its economy off coal.
Chile, a country that has thought for long that it is energy poor, has "discovered" solar power with a vengeance.
The World Bank has already identified great potential for harnessing wind energy in Việt Nam’s south central regions and Mekong Delta. And experts have found great promise in solar power, too.
Việt Nam needs to incentivise private investors to develop renweable energy.
EurocCham Vice Chairman Tomaso Andreatta once said foreign investors were uncertain about Việt Nam as there was neither a consolidated renewable energy law nor sufficient incentives to encourage investment in this area.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. So, time for another tough question.
Will we find that will? — VNS
PV Power urged to speed up thermal projects
Deputy Prime Minister Trịnh Đình Dũng urged PV Power, a member company of the Việt Nam Oil and Gas Group (PVN), to accelerate the implementation of electricity projects while addressing the firm’s 10th anniversary in Hà Nội on Wednesday.
PV Power produces nearly 7 per cent of the 42,000MW of electricity generated nationwide.
According to the national electricity development plan, power capacity will increase by 1.5 times by 2020 and three times by 2030, with coal and gas-fueled power contributing 60 per cent.
With the current uneven distribution of electricity, the south is forecast to suffer from electricity shortages if thermal power projects are not put into operation as scheduled.
Therefore, the electricity sector and PV Power have an important task, Dũng said.
He recognised the company’s achievements over the past 10 years and asked it to mobilise all financial and human resources to speed up thermal power projects in the north and south.
The Deputy PM asked PV Power to operate power plants in the most efficient ways possible while finalising investment procedures for new projects.
At the same time, the company should continue restructuring and focus on main manufacturing activities, he added.
Director General of the PVN Nguyễn Vũ Trường Sơn pledged to support PV Power to implement electricity projects and carry out existing ones.
In 10 years of existence, PV Power has generated 138 billion kWh of electricity and grossed about VNĐ180 trillion (US$8.4 billion) in revenue, earned pre-tax profits of VNĐ9.63 trillion ($423 million) and contributed VNĐ8.83 trillion ($388 million) to the State budget. — VNS