China’s coal plant plans provide a chance for Cambodia to go green

China’s plan to stop building coal-fired power plants in other countries is an opportunity for Cambodia to switch to a mix of sustainable options, according to speakers at an online climate conference.Cambodia Climate Change Summit 2021 was organised by Mekong Future Initiative and supported by the Ministry of Environment.

One hot topic was Chinese President Xi Jinping’s comments to the United Nations General Assembly last week.

“China will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad,” he said.

Coal power accounted for nearly half of Cambodia’s electricity last year at almost 4,000 gigawatt hours of power (4 million megawatt hours). A single megawatt (mW) of power from a coal plant creates enough energy for between 400 and 900 average Western-style homes for a year.

Cambodia has three coal power plants, all in Preah Sihanouk province. They generate 740 mW of power. It is building three more, to add another 1,865 mW. One is in Koh Kong province, another in Preah Sihanouk province and a third in Oddar Meanchey province.

The 700 mW Stung Hav project in Preah Sihanouk is half financed by China’s Huadian but is unlikely to be affected by Xi’s announcement because it is already under construction. The same goes for the 265 mW  Oddar Meanchey plant, operated by Cambodia’s Han Seng Coal Mines Co Ltd.

The 700 mW plant in Koh Kong is a project by Cambodia’s Royal Group.  If it has not closed finance, it may be at risk.

EnergyLab Country Director Bridget McIntosh pointed out that this project and the plans to import 2,400 mW of coal power from Laos may not be able to access finance because South Korea, Japan and China have all announced they will not finance new coal projects. It also depends how China defines a “new” project.

“This is a real opportunity for Cambodia to reconsider the coal deals that were signed after the power shortages and the gas deals soon to be signed.  These fossil fuel projects will result in a significant oversupply of power and dependence on imports for 75 percent of power. It is also more expensive,” said McIntosh.

Hydropower producers are keen to step in by claiming waterpower is cleaner than coal.

“Any energy infrastructure project, wherever it is located, should be well planned and developed and operated sustainably,” said a spokesperson for the International Hydropower Association.

“Hydropower is one of the cleanest energy sources around and is an essential alternative to polluting fossil fuels. Fast-growing solar and wind power rely on the flexibility and storage provide by hydropower,” they said.

McIntosh said solar and wind can fill the void if Cambodia is left without new coal power plants.

“Most people think that solar and wind can’t be reliable. But if we consider it as part of the whole system, including the existing hydro and coal, it can be reliable and [have a] lower systems cost,” she said.

“Use the low cost solar and wind and fill the rest from storage and flexible engines, like the 400 mW EDC [Electricite du Cambodge] just installed at Kandal.  Solar isn’t available at night, but Cambodia doesn’t have much demand at night either. Engines would only run 20 to 30 percent of the time. It makes them cheaper from a systems perspective than gas or coal steam turbine plants that are optimised to run all the time.”

The government is still working on its Power Development Plan (PDP)  through to 2040.

“Providing affordable, reliable and sustainable energy is an issue that impacts all Cambodians and our government is currently finalising a new power development plan and its first energy efficient policy,” Environment Minister Say Samal told the summit.

That doesn’t mean ending the use of fossil fuels. In spite of record oil and gas prices and environmental concerns they will remain part of the mixture.