It’s time for Vietnam to get rid of addiction to thermal power

By Nguyen Dang Anh Thi   March 4, 2019 | 11:55 pm PT
Its risk of becoming a "golden dragon that is surrounded by coal ash" is real.
Nguyen Dang Anh Thi

Nguyen Dang Anh Thi

In late 2013, when driving along the central coast, I stopped by a streetside coffee shop for a break.

From where I stopped, I could see steel walls along with chimneys painted in red and white rising up into the sky. It was the Vinh Tan 2 thermal power plant, part of the Vinh Tan power complex that was under construction in Binh Thuan Province in south central Vietnam.

Chatting with me, the vendor seemed to be happy a new plant was going up in her hometown and would bring workers, meaning more customers. She also had high hopes that the plant would create jobs for locals "as they [the authorities] have promised."

After a while, in April 2015, the media reported unprecedented "gatherings" in Binh Thuan by local people to protest against the severe pollution caused by Vinh Tan 2.

They were unhappy with the chimneys that destroyed their skyline and the dust and other toxic substances it discharged from its coal ash dumps polluting the groundwater and the sea and marine resources, their major source of livelihood.

In less than five years since the first generator of Vinh Tan 2 operated, data from the Ministry of Industry and Trade shows, Vinh Tan had generated 4.5 million cubic meters of coal ash.

If the coal ash is put in 40-foot containers with a capacity of 30 tons each 127,000 of them would be needed for all the plant's ash.

A freight train to transport them all would stretch 1,900 kilometers (1,180 miles).

But Vinh Tan is not the only thermal power plant in Vietnam -- there are more than 10 others across the country -- and they are creating mountains of coal ash.

There is a fact that should be noticed around the "gatherings" in Binh Thuan: 2015 was the year when Vietnam turned from being an energy exporter into an importer, with the largest of the imports being coal for thermal power plants.

A history of more than 120 years of coal exports was replaced by a new chapter, one that is getting darker and darker.

In 2018 Vietnam spent over $2 billion to import coal, and in the last 10 years its coal consumption jumped by 350 percent compared to the global average of 26 percent.

But Vietnam's addiction to coal has yet to end, and anything has even gotten worse.

For a while now pollutants emitted by coal-fired power plants have been known to damage the air, water sources, soil, destroying ecosystems and causing diseases. Besides, coal plants projects are considered the main culprit in emitting greenhouse gases, the reason for global warming and climate change.

Jim Yong Kim, former president of the World Bank, said in 2016: "If Vietnam goes forward with 40GW of coal, if the entire region [Asia] implements the coal-based plans right now, I think we are finished. That would spell disaster for us and our planet."

The policy of treating thermal power projects as the pillar of electricity development in Vietnam has been a barrier to attracting investments in clean energy projects.

In Binh Thuan’s Tuy Phong District alone, we could see two opposite scenarios. In its south are wind farms with turbines, warmly welcomed by local people and producing green energy, and in the north is the Vinh Tan Power Center, the headquarter of five thermal power plants under the Vinh Tan umbrella that requires special security protection.

Part of Vinh Tan Power Center. Photo by Vietnam News Agency

Part of Vinh Tan thermal power complex in Binh Thuan Province in south central Vietnam. Photo by Vietnam News Agency

These two stories are enough to spell out an urgent need: The government needs to issue a new power development plan centered around clean energy and create a roadmap to either give up or limit thermal power as much as it can. And the most important question should be: How to ensure national energy security but at the same time create prosperity in which the quality of life of each and every resident is improved?

Until recently the Ministry of Industry and Trade has been exhorting the public not to take an extreme stand against thermal power because of the importance of the nation’s energy security. But public sympathy cannot last forever, and people need to see the nation's new energy strategy before it's too late.

In a report in 2016 Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit – a nonprofit that supports informed debate on energy and climate change issues based in the U.K. -- named China, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam as the "four tigers" that have the world’s four biggest coal power project pipelines and account for 74 percent of the global coal power capacity. There is no pride in being named like that.

Ousmane Dione, the World Bank's country director for Vietnam, once said that when its economy thrives, it is essential that Vietnam "will not want to turn into a golden dragon that is surrounded by coal ash."

*Nguyen Dang Anh Thi is an energy and environment specialist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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