Dao Duy Dang remembers the night in 1963 when the lights came on in Uong Bi. "People were so excited," the 70-year-old tea-shop owner says, recalling the cheers that rang through the northern Vietnamese town after one of the country's first coal-fired power plants began operating. "Their whole lives they had wished for electricity." Be careful what you wish for. Soon after the plant opened, Dang's wife developed a cough from the thick black smoke from the power plant that hung over the town. His children had near-constant runny noses and neighbors reported other nagging health problems. When Vietnam's government announced plans to add a second coal-fired generator in 2005, villagers didn't celebrate. "The people cried out," Dang says.
It isn't just the residents of Uong Bi who are caught in this dilemma. Throughout Vietnam — indeed, in most of the developing world — demand for cheap electricity is quickly rising. But as countries turn to abundant coal as the energy source of choice, many worry an environmental catastrophe is in the making. As the rest of the world struggles for solutions to global warming, Vietnam has built eight new coal-fired power plants in the past five years and plans to open at least a dozen more by 2012. Last year, Vietnam got only 19% of its power from coal, relying mostly on hydropower and low-emissions gas-fired generators. By 2020, the government estimates coal will be Vietnam's leading source of energy at 34%.
This trend troubles Jasper Inventor, a climate and energy campaigner for the environmental group Greenpeace. Coal-burning plants generate 36% of the emissions blamed for global warming — far more than those produced by road traffic, which account for 17% of the world's CO2 emissions, according to the International Energy Agency. Inventor worries that by committing to coal, countries such as Vietnam are making a mistake that will be difficult, if not impossible, to undo. "In the longer term, we believe this will be a losing proposition for Vietnam," Inventor says.
But Vietnam's leaders believe they have little choice. To maintain economic growth of around 8% per year, the state power company, Electricity of Vietnam (EVN), needs to double its capacity to an estimated 26,000 megawatts by 2010. Vietnam's hydropower potential is nearly exhausted — the 2,400-megawatt Son La dam now under construction is the last feasible major project, EVN spokesman Nguyen Duc Long says. Prices for natural gas, another fuel source for electrical generators, are up 15-20% over last year, and domestic gas reserves are too small to meet demand. Vietnam is planning nuclear power plants, but the first won't be ready until 2020. Coal, on the other hand, is readily available. The country's northern Red River delta has some 30 billion tons of coal reserves — enough to generate electricity for 100 years. "If we could have the same economic development and still ensure the environment — well, of course we'd all pick that," says Long. "But there's no other way than coal."