Coal-based power plants: Viet Nam’s unsolved problem

A look at the county’s persistently popular but problematic power source.

Emissions from Uong Bi Thermal Power Plant released to the atmosphere. Photo by FES/Tran Ngoc Thuy.

The article is a joint contribution by students of journalism in Viet Nam who from 29-30 March attended a field trip to the Uong Bi coal-fired power plant in north-eastern Viet Nam, as participants of a project on environmental journalism by FES Viet Nam and Viet Nam’s Academy of Journalism and Communication. The project supports young and aspiring journalists to get immersed in the contemporary challenges of Viet Nam’s energy sector.

Cheap and abundant, coal is the world’s leading source of energy to produce electricity. To meet rapidly rising power demand, coal-powered generation has always been regarded as the most cost-effective option for Vietnam. Some countries have decided to move away from coal, but in Viet Nam the expansion of coal power plants is still going ahead.

The Uong Bi Thermal Power Plant, located in the north-eastern province of Quang Ninh, is one of the largest and oldest in the country.

Besides the emissions from the Uong Bi plant, there are also hundreds of energy-intensive industrial companies located in the province’s 6,000 square kilometres, increasing the nationwide air quality index to an alarming level, of 101-200 PM2.5 | 24.4 µg/m³, according to US AQI. 

Threats from the Uong Bi Thermal Power Plant

Uong Bi power station is one of seven coal plants in Quang Ninh. With a capacity of 630 megawatts, it burns 7,500 tonnes of coal every day, producing over 1000 tonnes of waste.

The first issue is how to deal with slag, the by-product left over after the coal is burned. A small-capacity power station like Uong Bi can produce above 1,000 tonnes of waste per day, including slug and ash. Moreover, coal ash contains heavy metals including lead, mercury and arsenic, affecting the livelihoods and health of the people, not only immediately around the plant but also in a radius of 100 kilometres. It has been known that these heavy metals, if contacted can lead to the damage of the human’s lung, skin and even death.

  • Crushed slag of Uong Bi Thermal Power Plant. Photo by FES/Tran Ngoc Thuy Duong.

In addition, the dust, smoke, sulphur and nitrogen oxides (SOx and NOx) from power plants are also of significant concern. These emissions can harm the environment and ecosystems of the province and neighbouring areas.

Uong Bi Thermal Power Plant is 45 kilometres away from Ha Long, a World Natural Heritage site recognized by the UNESCO nearly 20 years ago. The plant is also 135 kilometres away from the capital Hanoi.

Many people, especially the local residents, are aware that these industrial centres should be removed to keep the environment safe. But in practice, the removal of such thermal power stations is hardly possible.

Uong Bi power station has created jobs for over 800 workers. Removing the station might affect the lives of nearly 1,000 people. The same applies to thousands of coal miners with respect to the seven other thermal power plants located in the province. In this regard, it is clear that thermal power continues to play a major role, not only in the electricity industry but also in job security.  

Lessons from Germany

The electricity industry plays an important role in Germany’s rapid economic growth, and electricity has become an important factor in maintaining the wealth of the German people.

Germany, one of the world’s biggest coal consumers, has said it will shut down all 84 of its coal-fired power plants over the next 19 years and will invest more than 25 billions of euros in renewable energy, in order to meet its international commitments in the collective fight against climate change. Scientists believe that the decision to break with coal-fired power can help Germany achieve its goal of reducing 55 per cent of CO2 emissions by 2030, and 80 per cent by 2050, compared to 1990. Germany’s government remains optimistic that it can reduce emissions to zero and do no harm to the global climate. Currently, Germany is responsible for 2 per cent of global carbon emissions, which is slightly more than Iran. Meanwhile, China discharges 24 per cent, while the US is responsible for 13 per cent of carbon emissions worldwide.

In theory, Viet Nam is facing the same issues Germany and European countries faced a few decades ago. Vietnamese people in general and Quang Ninh residents in particular have a large question to answer: What to preserve: the fossil fuel industry, or the Ha Long Bay site of natural beauty, which attracts thousands of visitors every year and creates thousands of tourism jobs?

  • Uong Bi power station’s major operation room—the cleanest hall of the Thermal Plant. Photo by FES/Tran Ngoc Thuy Duong.

However, there has been a variety of debates about clean energy for 50-60 years, but it has mostly stayed on a theoretical level. More recently, many projects have been completed on wind power in the south and some islands of the country. Some residents also use solar energy, but they only focus on bathing water, because solar energy is expensive. The biggest drawback is that the investment in green energies (for instance wind energy) is still quite high.

Coal is a non-renewable energy and is estimated to run out in approximately 200 years. So far, Viet Nam must import coal, and the amount of imported coal and its price are constantly increasing. This is harming the national economy as well as the global environment. The currently most critical issue is to develop renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar  and hydro, as well as consumption economy measures.

Considering the recently increasing air pollution (link) in urban areas and expected power shortages by 2020, it is essential to implement new technologies to keep emissions from coal-fired power to a minimum. Viet Nam is expected to largely shift to renewable energy, as the tropical climate provides an advantage for turning to solar and wind powers. Nevertheless, a quick closure of coal power systems nationwide remains a challenge. 


The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. For more information on the FES climate project in Asia, visit the FES Vietnam website and follow their daily updates on the Facebook fan page.

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