A Vietnamese couple hawks coal bricks in downtown Hanoi in a file photo. Vietnam plans to expand its use of coal for its fast rising energy needs. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam
A Vietnamese couple hawks coal bricks in downtown Hanoi in a file photo. Vietnam plans to expand its use of coal for its fast rising energy needs. Photo: AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

With an expected boost from regional suppliers of coal and equipment, Vietnam plans to rely more heavily on coal-fired power plants by 2030. Unless it can be mitigated, this is not only bad news for a Southeast Asian nation already suffering from severe air pollution but also for international efforts to battle climate change.

Vietnam’s current energy plan calls for more than 50% of its electricity production to come from coal by 2030, as compared with roughly a third in 2015. But Vietnam has likewise pledged to reduce greenhouse emissions by 25% over the same period, a pledge that some experts say will be difficult to achieve.

As a rapidly industrializing nation, Vietnam needs more electricity for both industries and homes.In order to reach its goal for 2030, Vietnam will not only build more coal-fired power plants but also is likely to import more of the fuel. Chinese companies appear ready to supply Vietnam with both coal and equipment, even as China closes some of its own coal-fired plants at home.

Australia and Indonesia can also supply more coal. And while coal is abundant in Vietnam, imported coal is now cheaper than what’s available on the domestic Vietnamese market.

At the same time, for those concerned about air pollution, Vietnam has made initial moves at a high level to encourage the use of solar power. The costs for both solar and wind power have dropped, and Western nations are prepared to provide aid and technical support for the necessary installation.

If Vietnam follows up with a detailed policy on solar and wind power, it might then be able to trim back its plans to sharply increase its use of coal.

A wind power column in Phu Quy Island, southern Vietnam. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Only a few years ago, Vietnamese officials held out great hope for nuclear power plants which were to be built by the Russian state company Rosatom. But Hanoi apparently decided that the costs were too high.

According to VnExpress, an online newspaper run by FTP Corp, “the renewable energy sector remains immature and nuclear power seems out of reach.”

Vietnam’s hydropower has now reached its maximum capacity with no room for growth, the Vietnamese online newspaper reported. This has led Vietnam to rely on coal-fired power as the “mainstay” to keep up with growing demand, it said.

Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Trinh Dinh Dung was quoted saying that “thermal energy, especially coal-fired and gas-fired power will remain our main source of electricity until 2030 and possibly even longer.”

Nguyen Tai Anh, the deputy director of Electricity of Vietnam (EVN), the state power company, said in the same report that coal-fired plants’ emissions will be “minimized by the application of modern technology.”

EVN, however, could be part of the problem.

A tangle of electrical power lines in Hanoi. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

David Brown, a former US diplomat and Vietnam expert who has written extensively for the environmental website Mongabay, says that EVN has been at least until recently “bloated and inefficient, wedded to old methods, and overly fond of yesterday’s technology.”

Long after Vietnam introduced economic reforms in other sectors years ago, Brown says, Soviet-style planning survived at EVN and to a considerable extent also at the coal and minerals monopoly Vinacomin and the oil and gas monopoly PetroVietnam.

These powerful state energy companies, Brown notes, have alliances and close relations with leading Communist Party officials. With many details of Vietnam’s energy policy yet to be settled, some aspects of the policy’s implementation might be subject to their influence, especially if they feel that their interests are threatened

This raises questions about how the notoriously inefficient EVN would handle an expansion of Vietnam’s electricity grid and transmission lines as it moves to accommodate increased power demands.

On the positive side, Duong Quang Thanh, the new chairman of EVN, at least recognizes past problems and new challenges facing the energy group and is speaking out about them publicly.

According to the website DealStreetAsia, the group’s failings have included unprofessional customer service, a failure to balance its books despite huge government financial support, and making up for losses by increasing electricity rates instead of improving efficiency.

Power lines droop in Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnam’s national electricity monopoly has hiked electricity rates rather than improve efficiency. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

EVN itself has reported that its productivity was only a tenth of Singapore’s electricity industry, three quarters of Malaysia’s, and less than 50% of Thailand’s.

DealStreetAsia said that Duong Quang Thanh is predicting that he can boost Vietnam’s productivity to the point where it will reach Malaysia’s level by 2020.

But three Vietnamese experts noted in a scientific journal earlier this year that until now Vietnam has failed on a wide scale to enforce environmental protection laws.

A Harvard University and Greenpeace study concluded that pollution from coal had led to some 4,300 premature deaths in Vietnam in 2011.

In April 2015, pollution from the Vinh Tan-2 power station located on the south-central coast of Vietnam caused thousands of protesting local residents to block a national highway. The police cracked down and sent seven of the protesters to prison.

Despite government directives to EVN to curb the pollution from coal dust afflicting villagers living near the power plant, the problem has persisted.

A coal mine in Hon Gai, Vietnam. Photo: AFP Forum/ Jean-François Mutzig

In the latest development, Radio Free Asia reported on August 9 that Vietnam had cancelled a controversial plan to dump some one million cubic meters of a mix of sediment, silt, and sand from the power plant into the sea.

The plan had met with strong opposition from local residents, fishermen, and aquaculture farmers, who argued that the waste would destroy coral reefs and fishery grounds.

The troubled US$1.5 billion Vinh Tan-2 plant was built under a contract with the Shanghai Electric Group as part of a complex made up of four separate plants.

On a seemingly positive note, the capital city of Hanoi has produced a plan to curb another source of air pollution—an estimated five million motorbikes spewing so much gas into the air that breathing can often be difficult.

According to the Vietnamese nongovernmental organization GreenID, which promotes the development of renewable energy, Hanoi suffers for much of the year from excessive levels of PM2.5, fine particles in the air that can damage the heart and lungs.

Motorcyclists wear masks because of air pollution in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Under the new plan, city residents would gradually switch to public transportation, with a ban on motorbikes going into effect by 2030.

But Hanoi residents interviewed by foreign journalists express doubt that the city can put into place a public transport system that would allow the projected switch away from motorbikes.

Some complain that the plan would be unfair to the majority who can’t afford to buy automobiles. Currently, Hanoi has limited bus transportation and no underground system, while fewer than 10% of residents use buses.

Vietnam certainly has one thing going for it: While the Vietnamese media are regulated and censored, they sometimes push the envelope. They may fail to tell the full story, especially when corruption involving officials might be an issue.

But when environmental issues affecting human lives arise, such as air or water pollution, they are often the first to point to the trouble spots and culprits.

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