Achieving energy security without nuclear power

October 18, 2023 | 04:00 pm PT
Nguyen Dang Anh Thi
I was asked by a government official working in the energy sector: "Without nuclear energy, how can Vietnam meet its energy demands?"

He reasoned that our hydropower capacity had reached its limit, coal power causes too much environmental damage, liquefied natural gas is too costly, and that nuclear power is not only costly but also risky, while renewable energy is unstable.

According to the International Energy Association (IEA)'s Net Zero Emission by 2050 Scenario, the goal of reaching net zero emissions by the global energy sector relies almost entirely on renewable energy. For example, by 2030, renewable energy sources need to account for 60% of global energy needs, and 90% by 2050 globally. Among renewable energy sources, the two most prominent are wind and solar energy, which need to accumulatively account for 40% of demand by 2030, and 70% by 2050.

Vietnam's commitment to Net Zero has received support from international communities, including the Just Energy Transition Partnerships (JETP) program, which aims to raise $15.5 billion in the next 3 to 5 years. Within this program, Vietnam aims to have renewable energy sources accounting for 47% of the country's total energy needs by 2030.

The Vietnamese government recently approved its Energy Master Plan 8, which aims for a 37% proportion of renewable energy in the system by 2030, with hydropower accounting for 18% and wind and solar power together accounting for 19%.

The country’s Energy Master Plan 8 leaves open the possibility of achieving the JETP goals of 47%. As hydropower has reached its limit in Vietnam, the country’s renewable energy goals can only be achieved via the development of wind and solar energy.

Vietnam has committed to developing wind and solar energies substantially in the next 7 years, so that these two sources can account for a third of the national energy output. The government has clearly announced its direction for the future.

The remaining question is: how can the government achieve this goal?

Some people consider renewable energy sources to be quite unreliable, which could destabilize the country’s energy grid. "Clouds can block the sun, or the winds may just stop blowing," they often say.

Admittedly, wind and solar energy have both variability and uncertainty, and are generally considered under the term Variable Renewable Energy ("VRE"). Critics’ views are not entirely baseless, but they are far from the full truth.

According to the U.K.’s Department of Energy, VRE sources account for 22.3% of the total energy capacity of the EU, and 20.5% of the whole Europe.

Leading the market globally are Denmark (61%), Uruguay (38%), and Lithuania (36.4%). There are 25 countries with VRE outputs accounting for over 15% of total energy output, and some developing countries like Chile (26.7%) and Morocco (both 16.5%) have achieved results in this regard. The higher the figure is, the more successful the countries are in their green energy transition.

Vietnam has in fact made remarkable progress in green energy transitions, with total VRE output at 12%, on par with the global average. Our nation is ranked 30 globally.

In every power grid, flexibility is needed to ensure constant stability between energy demands and supplies. With the inputs from wind and solar energy sources, maintaining flexibility and stability is vital. The mounting difficulties here show that Vietnam needs more efforts to improve its energy grids to meet future demands.

Traditionally, the balance is adjusted at the supply end, with the energy grid managers increasing temporary energy sources to boost energy supply at peak hours. This method, although it can partially ensure that short-term energy needs are met, is not sustainable in the long-term due to the high costs of operating temporary energy supplies.

Nowadays, the energy sector needs to apply flexibility and stability balancing methods on both ends: supply and demand.

First, regarding the supply of energy, the energy sector needs to select energy technology with high flexibility in operations without incurring significant extra costs. Vietnam has and is approaching energy management this way.

Second, regarding energy demand of energy, the government can apply policies to adjust energy needs at different times of the day to ease pressure during peak hours and help to better maintain the system’s balance. Methods being used include energy demand response management systems, with the support of new smart energy grids. This approach has been suggested by Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade.

Finally, Vietnam’s energy sector needs to apply energy storage systems, such as pumped-storage hydroelectricity or storage batteries to provide quick intervention options to balance energy supply and demand. Excess energy supplies via wind and solar sources during non-peak hours could be stored for future usage.

I propose three policies to improve power system flexibility and ensure better long-term usage of wind and solar energy sources.

First, as coal energy accounts for the largest proportion of national energy outputs at over 39%, the government can attempt to improve flexibility in coal energy production, which would improve the overall energy system’s adaptability. Coal energy factories being able to flexibly increase or decrease production would help facilitate an easier transition to green energy sources. And these providers could easily work together to make up for peak-hour demands according to actual needs.

This is an approach applied by major countries with great energy demands, including the U.S., Japan, Germany, and China. For example, China revamped its coal-energy factories so that they can operate for as short as 1 hour, and at capacities as low as 10% of their total production power.

Nowadays, coal-energy factories in Vietnam operate minimally for 5 to 10 hours at 50% of total capacity, with limits to how low the production power can be reduced. Due to the long operating hours and low flexibility in adjusting production capacity, the green transition from coal energy to renewable energy sources during periods when renewable energy production peak is limited. If coal energy production can become technologically flexible to adjust, VRE sources can account for more in total.

Next, we should aim to improve our estimation of VRE productions and eventually apply a shorter electricity trading timeframe. This is one of the least costly way to improve electric system efficiency, while utilizing operating costs better, improving system stability, minimizing unwanted reduction in production capacity, and better manage renewable energy sources.

Most electricity system in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe have applied a 5-minute frame to measure electricity. Some even apply minute-based measurements or real-time measurements for electricity production and consumption.

As Vietnam is now measuring electricity under the 60-minute framework, we should aim to achieve more detailed measurements of electricity production and consumption, with the foreseeable goals of 15-minute, 10-minute, or 5-minute timeframes.

Applying more advanced and detailed measurements could help policymakers develop a much more updated and sophisticated understanding of what needs to be done in order to improve planning for VRE production. This could help us avoid bad outcomes when "the sun is not shining and the winds are not blowing."

Finally, Vietnam should invest in energy storage.

Research by the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory shows that VRE could account for 25% of national energy production just by improving technical and management solutions. Similarly, IEA has also reported that VRE production could reach 30% with only a minimal increase in production costs just by improving policies, management systems, operations, and planning.

Vietnam, therefore, could theoretically reach its goal of VRE making up 25% of our national energy supply without major energy storage systems. But investing in energy storage might be needed for long-term net-zero commitments.

For pumped-storage hydroelectricity, Vietnam is building the Bac Ai pumped-storage hydroelectricity plant in Ninh Thuan Province, while also planning similar projects in Son La, Lam Dong, Ninh Thuan, and Binh Thuan provinces.

With storage batteries, one silver lining is that the price of batteries is decreasing, and is projected to continue to decline to one third of the current price by 2030, and one half by 2050. Currently, the price of solar energy with storage batteries is around $1,600 per kW, wind energy $2,250 per kW, and offshore wind energy $5,000 per kW, all of which will decline in the future.

The price of renewable energy with storage batteries is still significantly cheaper than nuclear energy (around $8,500 to 14,000 per kW). Renewable energy production costs are projected to decrease in the long run, while the opposite can be said about nuclear energy, the investment costs of which are mounting alongside increasing safety demands.

Vietnam can develop a clean, reliable, safe, and cheap renewable energy system without relying on nuclear energy.

I wish to also emphasize that there is no fool-proof solution for our energy issues. We are simply trying to find the most balanced solutions taking into account all the different factors, including: energy safety, costs, risk management, and environmental impacts. We should aim to provide a feasible solution for the short-term, without making our future generations pay for our benefits.

Vietnam’s energy planning in the next 30 years should focus on renewable energy, specifically, wind and solar energy with sufficient storage systems.

*Nguyen Dang Anh Thi is an expert on energy and environment.

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