Southeast Renewable Energy Summit – The construction of hydroelectric dams on the Mekong River has pushed the Mekong River and the world’s largest freshwater fishery to dangerous limits. Although an energy revolution that could save it has already begun, development plans are moving forward that will push it to its limits.
In July, the International Energy Agency (IEA) brought together high-level representatives from countries around the world for a virtual Clean Energy Transition Summit. The aim is to ensure that energy investments are aligned with global climate goals in the post-COVID-19 recovery. Going forward, these governments and international organizations will need to ensure that investment in restoration is consistent with protecting rivers like the Mekong.
The Mekong’s incredible fish harvest is declining at an alarming rate. Its delta is rapidly eroding, endangering one of Asia’s most important agricultural regions and the 20 million Vietnamese who live there. A major factor in this downward movement is the series of hydroelectric dams built on rivers and their major tributaries in China and Laos over the past decade. While hydroelectric power typically provides low-carbon energy, these dams divert rivers, block migrating fish, and trap much-needed sediment in the delta. Record low water levels in the Mekong have fueled further debate about China’s hydroelectric dams and how their operation affects river flows.
However, various innovations today have reduced the cost of photovoltaic (PV) and wind power generation and made them an important part of the highly reliable power grid. The renewable energy revolution means that the Mekong countries have a low-cost, low-carbon option for hydropower development.
Laos has already completed two dams on the main stem of the Mekong River and two more are under construction. Earlier this year, it notified the Mekong River Commission (MRC) of its intention to begin construction of a dam just upstream of Luang Prabang, a World Heritage site and the country’s historic royal capital. In May, Laos told the MRC it intended to build another dam over its border with Thailand.
These proposed dams are not designed to meet domestic energy demand. Instead, they are the cornerstone of Laos’ vision to become the “battery of Southeast Asia” by exporting energy to neighboring countries including Vietnam and Thailand.
Dam developers usually have to enter into contracts with power buyers to get the money. The country’s decision to acquire Mekong hydropower is critical to saving the river.
Fortunately, these countries are waking up to the impact of hydropower. A Vietnamese oil company is investing in a proposed dam in Luang Prabang, but Vietnamese media are calling for the company to reconsider its support. In addition, the Vietnamese government has pledged to use its position as the 2020 chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to highlight concerns about upstream hydropower development.
Meanwhile, the State Energy Authority of Thailand (EGAT), which is looking to buy power from Pak Beng, another proposed hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River in Laos, is reviewing Thailand’s future energy options and looking for energy. Delay in signing the purchase contract. For two years. EGAT is currently implementing an ambitious solar energy development programme.
If potential buyers of hydropower in Laos are looking for other options, what are the implications for Laos’ development of relying on hydropower exports as a pillar of growth?
One solution is to strategically replace some of the unrealistic hydropower exports with solar power. A recent study from the University of California, Berkeley shows that solar energy is competitive. In fact, Laos announced a 1200 MW solar project consisting of panels floating on a reservoir.
Beyond energy exports, Laos is well positioned to follow in the footsteps of Costa Rica and Bhutan (countries with small populations and abundant natural resources) to invest in nature-based tourism as a major source of income. The New York Times recently featured Luang Prabang as a top emerging tourist destination. A massive dam upstream would certainly reduce our beautiful city’s ability to do its job.
Laos’ neighbors are already demonstrating how quickly renewable energy potential can be realized. In 2018, Vietnam’s solar power capacity was only 134 MW, but by the end of 2019, it increased 40 times to 5,500 MW.
Investment in solar power generation is also growing rapidly in Cambodia. This is partly a response to devastating power shortages when recent drought reduced hydropower generation, highlighting the benefits of solar power in a changing climate. Solar energy can be developed quickly to meet the energy shortage, but hydroelectric dams on the Mekong River will take years to complete and could reduce energy production during the next drought.
Growing uncertainty about climate change and drought contributed to the Cambodian government’s announcement in March of a 10-year ban on dams in the Mekong Basin. A tender to build and operate a solar power project in Cambodia set a record as the lowest bid for power generation in Southeast Asia.
The ban means Cambodia has suspended plans to build the massive Sambar Dam. The dam is widely considered by scientists to be the Mekong dam with the greatest potential impact on the river’s fisheries and the communities that depend on it.
But political decisions, often driven by special interest groups that take advantage of weak governance, can easily undermine these promising but fragile developments and push the dams forward.
So how can the region be put on a more sustainable path to a low carbon energy and healthy Mekong River?
First, as Thailand has already done, the Mekong countries will update their energy plans, emphasizing the advantages of wind and solar power over hydropower, especially lower costs and potential competition with communities and ecosystems. The temperament is low.
Second, regulatory policies in many countries will need to be updated to reflect the renewable energy revolution. A recent study of the region’s energy system shows that cooperation, transparency and data sharing will lead to greater grid flexibility and a greater share of wind and solar power.
International financial institutions including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank should prioritize these actions. Investments can be channeled into such institutions to help Laos diversify its development vision beyond being a “Southeast Asian battery”. US government programs such as Asia EDGE can leverage favorable conditions for renewable energy and accelerate investment.
To help downstream governments manage the drought, it is imperative that China increase data sharing on river flows and dam performance. In addition, China can draw on its expertise in the financing and delivery of solar energy projects. China is the global leader in both manufacturing and installation. We can facilitate the expansion of solar energy in the Mekong region through investment and bilateral cooperation programs. Beneficiaries of a healthy Mekong River must continue to warn of the effects that have already been achieved and are yet to be avoided.
With such a major crisis at stake, how can Southeast Asia afford not to engage in the renewable energy revolution?
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