Vietnam’s coal-fired power expansion ignites debate

By Kim Anh   November 27, 2018 | 03:21 am PT
Vietnam’s coal-fired power expansion ignites debate
Vinh Tan thermal power center in the south central province of Binh Thuan. Photo courtesy of Lao Dong (Labor) newspaper
While critics highlight environmental and health concerns, officials say it’s inevitable that coal dominates the energy mix.

With the environment increasingly in focus, coal-fired power generation is polarizing opinion in Vietnam.

Nguyen Van Doc, Party chief of Quang Ninh, said at a meeting last month no more cement and coal power stations would be licensed in the northern province.

Quang Ninh accounts for nearly 90 percent of the country’s coal output and has seven coal-fueled power plants, and people living near the plants are suffering from their environmental impacts.

Five months ago, Bac Lieu made headlines when signing a deal with the U.S-backed joint venture Energy Capital Vietnam for building a 3,200MW liquefied natural gas-fired (LNG) power project.

Before the signing, the southern province’s proposal that the 3,600MW Cai Cung coal-fired power plant, set to be built in Bac Lieu, be removed from the country's Power Development Plan received Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s in-principle approval.

Bac Lieu Chairman Duong Thanh Trung said this was a move to protect the environment for aquaculture.

Tran Viet Ngai, chairman of the Vietnam Energy Association, told VnExpress International that much of the equipment and production lines used at coal-fired power plants built by Chinese EPC contractors are imported from China.

They are cheap but perform poorly, leading to unsafe operations, environmental impacts and difficulties in maintenance, he said.

"Lexus and Mercedes cars cost much more than South Korean ones, but the former offer prolonged good performance and extreme longevity. Coal-fired power development is the same. We should attach importance to the long-term efficiency of coal power plants with large investments in advanced equipment."

Coal-generated power should be kept at a maximum of 46 percent of the country’s total power output since the expansion of coal power plants could lead to extreme negative environmental consequences, Ngai added.

Under the revised Power Development Plan VII, power stations in the country are expected to generate a total of 60,000 MW by 2020. Of these, coal-fired stations would make the largest proportion of 42.7 percent, followed by hydropower (30.1 percent), gas-fired plants (14.9 percent) and renewable energy sources (9.9 percent).

By 2030, the total capacity would soar to 129,500 MW, with coal and gas-fired plants accounting for 42.6 percent and 14.7 percent respectively, similar to the figures set for 2020. But the ratio of renewable energy sources is set to double to 21 percent by then.

Many provinces like Quang Ninh are frantically looking for dumping sites for fly ash and slag generated at their coal power stations.

At a November 26 press conference held in connection with the second high-level meeting of the Vietnam Energy Partnership Group (VEPG), Bruno Angelet, the EU ambassador to Vietnam, said that coal-fired power development would not be cheap if subsidies for the construction of the plants and their surrounding infrastructure as well as human health costs are included.

Angelet, also VEPG co-chair, said the country should develop more renewable energy instead of coal-fired power, pointing out that not only rich countries but also developing countries like Bangladesh have managed to expand renewables.

But Vietnamese government officials have insisted that coal power and its high ration in the energy mix is unavoidable.

Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade Dang Hoang An said at the VEPG press briefing that one should not take an extreme attitude toward coal-fueled power.

"If we entirely reject coal-fired power stations, the country’s energy security would be at risk, and that is dangerous.

"Coal-fired plants will have little impact on the environment if they use good technologies. The country needs to develop all kinds of energy sources based on energy demand."

An said his ministry is seeking an optimal energy mix with diverse sources like hydropower, coal, gas, and renewables.

"It is rather difficult to find an optimal energy configuration since some sources which threaten the environment are actually major sources to ensure national energy security."

No electricity system is based entirely on renewable energy, because this source fluctuates with the weather, he said.

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