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Mekong Nations Eye Hydropower To Drive Energy And Economic Plans

Hydropower is the colossus of the renewable energy world – the single largest clean energy source available today accounting for more than 16% of total global electricity generation worldwide, and 85% of total global renewable electricity.

For many people, hydropower conjures images of major dams straddling wide rivers – the 22,500 megawatt (MW) Three Gorges Dam in China for example, required over 16 million cubic metres of concrete to create a bulwark to hold back a 660-kilometre reservoir. That’s equivalent to a lake spanning from Kuala Lumpur to Phuket.

Three Gorges is the exception however, because hydropower projects range from micro – up to 100 kilowatts (kW), small (10 MW), large (30 MW), and more. And looking to the future, integrated plants, such as an innovative wind-hydro project trialled in Germany, are predicted to become more commonplace in the future.

ASEAN a Hydropower Stronghold Region

In ASEAN, hydropower will play a vital part in generating the additional 354 GW of energy by 2040 (estimated by the International Energy Agency) required to support regional development plans.

With the world’s 12th largest river, the Mekong River, flowing from China into five regional countries: Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, the hydropower opportunity in ASEAN is significant, and Vietnam and Laos have embraced this faster than the other Mekong-linked nations.

Vietnam’s Son La plant is the biggest hydro facility in Southeast Asia today. Located on the Da River, 340 km northwest of Hanoi, the 2,400 MW plant plays a crucial role in meeting Vietnam’s goal of increasing hydro capacity to 21.6 GW in 2020 and to 27.8 GW by 2030. The plant is powered by six GE 400 MW Francis hydro turbine-generator units.

Hydropower is also a mainstay of Laos’ energy mix and the nation has steadily increased production capacity in the past 20 years. In 1993 Laos produced 206 MW of installed hydro capacity – today, installed hydro capacity is almost 4 GW. And with theoretical hydropower potential of 26.5 GW, Laos is set to enjoy hydro-generated benefits in the long-term.

Hydro, and other renewables, are targeted to account for 25% of all energy consumption in the country by 2025 – hydro will also drive economic growth because Laos wants to be one of the region’s major energy exporters. To realize its “battery of Asia” ambitions, the country aims to generate 10,000 MW of hydropower by 2020, with up to 75% of this expected to be exported to regional nations including Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia.

Regional Energy Trading

A framework for energy trading among ASEAN nations was established through the Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Cooperation Program (GMS) launched in 1992. GMS covers regional energy cooperation between Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and the southern part of China. Central to this cooperation is the Mekong River, and the hydropower stations that line its waterways.

Energy trade, and greater cooperation among ASEAN nations is expected to increase as the ASEAN Power Grid, formed by Laos, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, gradually expands involving more nations. By 2025, an International Energy Agency report envisions there will be up to 22, 576 MW of cross-border power exchanges through cross-border interconnections.

Future Hydro Landscape – New Technologies and Skilled Workers

One of the advantages for fast emerging-hydro power nations like Laos is the opportunity to install many of the latest technologies available today.

Examples include the use of drones for dam inspections, ‘sensor fish’ tools that provide data on pressure, acceleration, turbulence, temperature and other forces experienced by fish as they travel through turbines, scanning sonar systems, and digital hydro plants.

GE’s Digital Hydro Plant, which utilizes the company’s Predix-based Digital Power Plant solution, can provide a host of benefits including up to 10% reduced maintenance costs, 1% increase in plant availability, and up to 3% increased revenue. The video below highlights these gains in more detail.

Finally, in addition to new technologies, upskilling the workforce, and developing the next generation of hydro engineers is equally important in developing countries. This has been the focus of a social responsibility program launched by Electricite du Laos (EDL) and GE to run joint training and research programs to support the long-term development of the nation’s energy sector.

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