This November I found myself in Vietnam to travel and visit an old friend who happens to be an environmental engineer working on bio-energy projects in developing countries. While I was in town Emily had plans to attend a conference about Asia’s bio-energy production and I decided to tag along for the ride.
Researchers from most Asian countries working in all parts of the bio-energy field, from research to implementation, and working on all aspects from algae to biochar, attended the 3-day conference held in Hanoi. As someone with a fairly shallow (and a little outdated) knowledge base in bio-energy this was a very interesting event to attend. It really opened my eyes to what the current state of knowledge is regarding biofuels, and how much more aggressively Asian governments are approaching the topic than the US.
The conference was sponsored by 1 Vietnamese and 2 Japanese organizations, and the majority of the presentations focused on projects and research being conducted in the 2 countries, as well as Indonesia, but only because those were the countries with the largest representation in attendance. There were multiple presentations on palm oil, cassava, algae and a few about sustainable assessment tools.
It was especially interesting to hear the Japanese presenters discuss the current process that the country is going through to re-assess their energy profile in the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe. Bioenergy is viewed as a way to help fill out the energy mix in place of nuclear, as well as a way to utilize agricultural lands that would otherwise be completely abandoned due to contamination (apparently some rices that are good for fuel don’t really take up radiation).
On the third day of the conference we went on a little field trip. We drove about 3 hours (80 km) outside of Hanoi to visit a Cassava factory. At this location they were harvesting the cassava root and processing it to separate the starch. The plant was coal powered, and the other participants pretty consistently commented on the massive inefficiencies in the processing. The ethanol processing happens at a different location so unfortunately we didn’t get to see that. Later, when we were looking up the uses of cassava starch, we found out that it is one of the biggest sources of food/nutrients in the developing world. Basically cassava is to the developing world what corn is to America.
After the Cassava plant and lunch we then headed to the first hydro-electric dam in Vietnam, which provides 14% of Vietnam’s electricity, much of which is exported to the south by a new-ish transmission line. While there we got to walk into the dam and see the turbines. While inside Emily and I were talking with a Vietnamese woman, now working as a researcher in Japan, who said that she did not have electricity growing up, and it was not until she went to university that she had electricity. A pretty interesting story that adds perspective.
The big picture take away points for me after attending this conference was that Asia is embracing the many biofuel resources that they have at their disposal, and are clearly committed to finding the most efficient and effective way of doing so. The major themes that were re-emphasized in the final panel discussion were the need for coordination and collaboration within Asia (something that has already started with a project database). There was also a great point about the intersect of emerging economies, sustainable development and rapidly expanding technologies. In this space there is a great need for policy makers to introduce well-crafted policies that have to be dependent on each countries culture, as well as the need to spread this knowledge beyond just the research community and develop good business models and attract foreign investment.
Some extra background:
Like I said before, Emily (my friend) is working in this field, and she gave me some background about Vietnam’s energy sector (for some fun facts and context):
Energy in Vietnam
- Over the past few decades, Vietnam has seen rapid growth in development in all areas. In the last 15 years, economic growth has increased at around 7.5% annually and poverty decreased from 70% to 20%(1). Through its transition to a middle-income country electrification has increased markedly; there was 10% electrification in 1986 which increased to 96% in 2009, and electricity demand is forecast to grow 10% annually through 2030 (2).
- Most of Vietnam’s electricity supply is currently from coal and hydropower, although natural gas also supplies significant amounts. The total energy supply is comprised of: 50% oil, 20% hydropower, 18% coal, and 12% natural gas (3). Vietnam imports about 13 million tonnes of petroleum annually (4).
- The 2007 National Energy Development Strategy (National Energy Strategy for 2020, with Vision Towards 2050) is a key piece of the national policy on energy. It is the sixth power development master plan, each of which plans for 10 year periods.
- Energy developments with neighboring countries are also underway. Laos envisions using hydropower development to becoming a “battery” for southeast Asia and has plans to produce electricity for export to Thailand and Vietnam (5) (A key component of my thesis topic).
Renewable Energy in Vietnam
- Renewable energy is promoted in Vietnam because of rapidly increasing energy demand and because of concerns about climate change: Vietnam is predicted to be one of the countries most negatively impacted by climate change. The low-lying Mekong Delta region, which is the location of most of the country’s agricultural activities, is expected to be most affected.
- Currently, there are some windpower, solar power, biomass power, and biofuels projects, either running or under development, but renewable energy production is still a small part of the national energy portfolio.
- The main barriers to implementing more renewable energy projects are related to costs and financing (6). Additionally, limited technical knowledge and capacity is also a barrier, although not as significant as the financial barriers. Lastly, the policy environment to support renewable energy development has some gaps which prevent development (7) and issues of corruption also have a slowing impact.
Barriers to bioenergy development
- There are a number of barriers bioenergy project developers encounter in Vietnam. These include lack of experience and technologies, lack of policy and regulatory framework related to biomass electricity, lack of reliable data, lack of financial services, high costs associated with conversion and electricity generation, among others (8). The system of land holdings, involving small and scattered parcels also presents a challenge for large scale biofuels development.
- The lack of cassava profitability for Vietnamese smallholders is the major reason why Vietnamese processing plants run at below capacity and the main driver for outsourcing cassava feedstock from Cambodia.