Vietnamese woman’s journey from thermal plant admirer to environment prize winner

By Pham Huong   May 19, 2018 | 07:00 pm PT
She has led the country’s fight against coal and convinced the government to increase the share of renewable energy.

Nguy Thi Khanh has known thermal power since she was a little girl.

Khanh, 42, grew up in Bac Am, a village in the northern Bac Giang Province just seven kilometers (4.6 miles) away from a thermal power plant.

As a kid, Khanh and her friends used to look up with joy at the line of smoke coming out of the plant’s chimney every afternoon they took buffaloes to pasture.

“We were so innocent back then, we were in awe of that chimney without knowing anything about the risks,” she said.

She said she had always been interested in environmental issues and the energy sector as if it’s her destiny.

She studied politics and diplomacy in college to become a diplomat. But after graduation, she worked in community development, water resource conservation and sustainable energy, setting feet in many places across the country.

“When learning about the Kyoto Protocol, I was inspired by my teacher. The more I learned about it, the more I loved it,” Khanh said of the international treaty which extends the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that commits state parties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“That passion has led me to the path of environment protection.”

Nguy Thi Khanh with the Goldman prize, the worlds biggest award honoring grassroots environmental activists.Photo courtesy of GreenID

Nguy Thi Khanh holds the Goldman prize, the world's biggest award honoring grassroots environmental activists. Photo courtesy of GreenID

During the time she worked on a project to protect the source of clean water from negative impacts of a hydropower plant in Quang Nam Province in central Vietnam, Khanh was haunted by the image of poor people in downgraded houses living a precarious life lacking access to clean water.

“Is there any way that I could help these people out of that situation? Is it possible to develop energy projects without leaving such a huge impact on the environment?” she asked herself.

But by then, most hydropower projects the government had planned were already up and running.

And while studying the Power Development Master Plan VII for 2011-2020 with vision until 2030 (PDP 7), Khanh realized that the country was at dawn of a new energy phase: thermal power.

She knew that the sooner she acted, the more damage would be avoided. Along with other experts in the field, Khanh rushed into finding solutions to replace thermal power plants for Vietnam. What she learned from coal and thermal power project surprised her: coal makes up 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, the cause of climate change and major source of air and water pollution.

The fight against thermal power plants

With PDP 7, Vietnam targeted its total coal-run thermal power capacity at 75,000 MW by 2030.

In 2011, Khanh founded Green Innovation and Development Centre (GreenID) to educate communities in rural areas on renewable energy, and convince officials to adjust their policies towards sustainable development.

She reached out to experts and policymakers and worked with them on renewable energy and energy efficiency to reduce dependency on fossil fuels.

She learned everything related to thermal power projects and climate change, and coordinated with her colleagues and relevant authorities to come up with a more sustainable plan.

In 2013, she cooperated with energy experts and conducted a study on the potential of reducing the number of coal-fired power plants by boosting the development of sustainable energy sources.

That study pointed out the high costs of coal-fired power when it is the major source of energy.

As if fate was conspiring with Khanh, at the time the study was being carried out, the public started to discuss the future of Vietnam’s energy sector in light of recent environmental scandals related to coal.

In the end, Khanh’s research was instrumental in prompting the government to revise PDP 7 in March 2016.

The adjusted plan scrapped a significant number of thermal power plants and followed Khanh and GreenID’s recommendations by raising the contribution of clean energy, such as wind and solar power, to 21 percent of total energy source by 2030.

Khanh used her scientific research and worked closely with the authorities to promote long-term, sustainable energy projects and reduce Vietnam’s dependency on coal. Her efforts have contributed to reducing 115 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions in Vietnam every year.

In April this year, Khanh became the first Vietnamese to receive the Goldman prize, world's biggest award honoring grassroots environmental activists.

“I was so honored because I am not only the first Vietnamese but also represent Asians to receive the award. I learned that news at midnight and could not sleep,” she said.

She was one of two Asians to win the prize this year, which was dominated by women.

“Energy is important for economic development, and it also has a huge impact on the environment and the people. But there was very little involvement of the civil society in the government’s energy plans,” said Khanh.

“Particularly women, who are also affected, but were not being heard, as decisions are made by men - it is important to listen to them,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Aside from halting the construction of two hydro-power plants in a national park, she also helped design a gender impact assessment manual for hydro developers, Reuters said.

Given her contributions to the community and environment, Khanh always tries her best to be a family oriented woman.

Looking back at the path she has walked, Khanh said she could not believe what she has accomplished, especially the foundation of GreenID when she was pregnant with her third child.

As a busy woman who often has to travel for work, Khanh admitted that she is lucky to have a thoughtful husband, well-behaved kids and supportive relatives.

She always reminds herself of her responsibilities with her family and her children

“Being a woman means we have to create harmony in family and work,” she said.

go to top