Can river meet all needs at same time?

Construction News Laos Vietnam
The future site of Laos’ Phou Ngoy Dam is seen in this undated photo.

Can river meet all needs at same time?

Population and economic growth — including the switch to electric vehicles and the rapidly expanding use of digital technology, leads to higher global electricity demand, which is expected to double by 2050, according to In McKinsey’s report “The Global Energy Perspective 2021”.

The Lower Mekong countries (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam) are experiencing a faster increase.

Electricity demand in these four countries is forecast to double by 2040, according to a regional research body, the Economic Research Institute for Asean and East Asia (ERIA), in 2019.

The rise of energy demand will be a challenge not only for policymakers in lower Mekong River countries but on the Mekong River, too, as the mighty river has become a source of the hydro dam energy industry.

Once used for only transportation, fishery and farming purposes, the water from this mighty river, as well as its natural course, has been used to generate hydro energy. Needless to say, the new role of the Mekong River leads to conflicts over natural resources.

A glaring example is the case of Laos’ dam projects. The landlocked country started developing hydropower projects in the the 80s, beginning with the Nam Ngum Dam on the Nam Ngum River — a Mekong tributary. Most of this electricity is exported to generate revenue for economic and social development within Laos.

The Laos government expanded its hydroenergy industry by approving the first Mekong mainstream hydropower project (Xayaburi) in 2011 despite objections from Mekong communities and the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments. This was the first of nine planned dams in Laos on the mainstream of the Mekong River.

With the river being blocked by dams, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) has warned that planned mainstream dams could result in the loss of one million tonnes a year of Mekong fish catches — a major food source. This would damage food security and livelihoods for millions of villagers who depend on the Mekong.

The MRC is an inter-governmental organisation that works directly with the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to jointly manage the shared water resources and the sustainable development of the Mekong.

The MRC also forecasted that the flow of sediment and nutrients to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam would be reduced by nearly 100%, which would seriously impact the Vietnam farm economy that relies on nutrient-rich alluvial sediment carried downstream. The Mekong Delta produces about 50% of Vietnam’s rice and accounts for 30% of the country’s GDP.

Upstream Chinese hydropower projects and existing Mekong tributary projects in Laos have already changed the annual Mekong flood pulse. This has affected the annual expansion of Tonle Sap Lake and drastically reduced the Tonle Sap fish catch in Cambodia. The change in the Mekong water flow has also increased river bank erosion.

Construction of another Mekong mainstream project recently started at Luang Prabang. This dam again courts controversy even more than the Xayaburi project, as it is located near an earthquake zone and may endanger the status of the Unesco World Heritage Site at Luang Prabang.

Hydropower is usually seen as a green, renewable source of electricity with minimal carbon dioxide emissions. Yet opponents also say that the construction of hydro dams also generates emissions.

Additionally, dam opponents claim that greenhouse gas emissions during the construction of large-scale hydro dams such as Xayaburi are estimated to be the equivalent of one year’s operation of a 1,000MW coal-fired power station.

A major climate concern is methane emissions from decaying vegetation and trees when a massive volume of water is being stored in gigantic dam reservoirs.

Meanwhile, most Lower Mekong countries have great potential for solar power. Yet, most of these countries are currently building new coal power stations, despite solar and wind power being recognised as the cheapest and most environmentally friendly way to produce electricity.

Coal and gas provided 60% of the region’s electricity in 2022, and this is expected to remain at over 50% even through 2040. For example, Vietnam’s coast is ideal for wind power, but the transition from fossil fuel to renewables is slow.

Energy authorities in these countries usually blame the difficulty of integrating variable renewable power into the traditional grid as a reason for sticking with fossil fuel energy.

The International Energy Agency reported that more renewables could be integrated into Thailand’s existing grid to provide up to 15% of supply. Grid improvements and better cross-border connections would further increase this percentage.

In 2022, renewable energy only provided 5% of the power supply in Thailand, showing there is ample opportunity to move more quickly on the transition. We encourage a more integrated policy that expands renewable energy sources and does not impact the ecological integrity of the Mekong River with all the benefits it provides to local communities.

If priority is given to Mekong fish and Cambodia/Vietnam rice production, is it feasible to meet the regional electricity demand with renewables alone? Deploying more roof-top solar panels, more floating solar projects, and improved energy storage can all contribute.

Floating solar has many advantages compared to land-based solar. There is no land cost, no villager resettlement, higher energy conversion efficiency and low grid connection costs when located near existing hydropower reservoirs.

Thailand already has one floating solar project in operation (Sirindhorn dam), and there are others in the planning stage. Laos has started construction of a large floating solar project on the Nam Ngum reservoir and approved another one at Nam Theun 2. Floating solar panels also reduce evaporation from reservoirs.

The main disadvantage of solar and wind is variability. This can be minimised by better grid management, improved energy storage technology and cost reductions. These factors could contribute to the use of 60% renewables by 2040 without the use of coal or any more mainstream hydropower projects.

The economic benefits, climate benefits and better health for the region’s citizens provide a compelling incentive for energy planners to accelerate the switch to solar and wind power.

Apisom Intralawan is an interdisciplinary researcher and a lecturer at the School of Management, Mae Fah Luang University, Chiang Rai, Thailand. David Wood, is consultant on commercial biofuel projects, and a lecturer on Business Management at Mae Fah Luang University.