Green Energy of the Mekong

Years of active participation in hydroelectric development has earned POWERCHINA widespread recognition in Laos

By Lin Zheyuan

“Laos has undergone a rapid development in the energy sector in recent years, which has been a welcome contrast to the situation a decade ago,” said Boubeng, an employee of Electricite du Laos (EDL). “Back then, very few places in my country were well lit at night. A lack of electricity left children in Laos unable to read at night and prevented factories from operating around the clock.”

“Over the past few years, the EDL and Chinese energy firms have been working closely together,” Boubeng continued. “Several hydroelectric stations have been completed, and a transmission network has been built to supply electricity to neighboring countries experiencing power shortages.”

According to Boubeng, the cooperation between Laos and China in hydroelectric plant development has been mutually beneficial. Chinese companies can expand their business to the Lao market, while bringing the country more green energy, which not only satisfies domestic demand for electricity but will also enable Laos to profit from power exporting.

‘Seven Pearls’

A tributary of the Mekong River in Laos, the Nam Ngum originates on the Xieng Khouang Plateau and flows south before joining the main flow near the national capital Vientiane. The Nam Ngum 5 Hydropower Project, built by Power Construction Corporation of China (POWERCHINA), straddles the upper reaches of the Nam Ngum in the dense forest of the northern mountainous regions of Laos. As of February 18, 2021, the plant had been operating safely for 3,000 days and generated more than 3.4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, providing a reliable source of power to fuel the economic development of Laos.

The Nam Ngum 5 Hydropower Project in Laos.

In July 2020, the Nam Ngum 5 Hydropower Project was awarded the National Labor Medal of Laos in recognition of its outstanding contribution to local economic and social progress. Under the commission of then President of Laos Bounnhang Vorachith, Lao Prime Minister at the time, Thongloun Sisoulith, issued a signed award certificate which was presented to POWERCHINA by Minister of Energy and Mines Khammany Inthirath. It was the first Chinese-funded power project in Laos to be so honored.

According to the Asian Development Bank, the Mekong River in Laos enjoys a potential power supply capacity of about 18,000 megawatts. Hydroelectricity has always been a priority area on the country’s economic agenda. Years of active participation in hydropower development have earned POWERCHINA widespread recognition in Laos.

POWERCHINA first entered the Lao market in 1996. So far, the company has invested in a cement plant and eight hydroelectric power plants with a combined installed capacity of 1,392 megawatts. Over the past decades, POWERCHINA has remained committed to supporting sustainable development, adequately fulfilled its social responsibilities, and delivered real benefits to local communities.

“Capable enterprises with a strong sense of responsibility like POWERCHINA are especially welcomed in my country,” said Bounpong, a Lao employee of the Nam Ou Cascade Hydropower Project, another major investment in Laos by POWERCHINA. “Sustainable use of natural resources benefits both the Lao economy and the Lao people.”

The Nam Ou Cascade Hydropower Project was the first overseas BOT (build-operate-transfer) project developed by POWERCHINA to cover an entire river basin. It is part of a national initiative aiming to build Laos into the “battery” of Southeast Asia and an important project to improve people’s livelihood in northern Laos. When fully operational, the project will satisfy 12 percent of domestic demand for electricity and effectively promote upgrading of the power grid throughout the region.

Plant 2 of the Nam Ou Cascade Hydropower Project. (GENG XINGQIANG)

The Nam Ou River is the largest tributary of the Mekong River in northern Laos and runs through an area that has been promoted by the Lao government as a base for hydroelectric development. Development of the whole river basin consists of a reservoir and seven cascade hydropower plants with a total installed capacity of 1,272 megawatts and an average annual output of 5 billion kilowatt-hours. Developed in two phases, Plants 2, 5, and 6 in Phase I began operation in May 2016, and Plants 1, 3, 4, and 7 of Phase II started construction on April 8 the same year. Now, six of the seven cascade plants have a combined installed power generation capacity of 1,062 megawatts. When the entire project is complete this year, seven hydroelectric plants will dot the Nam Ou River like a string of pearls.

Tireless Efforts to Protect the Environment

POWERCHINA has placed a high priority on environmental protection from the beginning of the Nam Ou Cascade Hydropower Project. Its two-phased development plan featuring “one reservoir plus seven hydroelectric plants” helped reduce the submerged area, especially farmland, as much as possible and ensure minimal relocation of residents. The company made great efforts to minimize the impact on the local ecology and practice sustainable utilization of hydroelectricity through full-cycle environmental management and a package of measures for resettlement.

Located in Pak Ou District of Luang Prabang Province, Plant 1 of the Nam Ou Cascade Hydropower Project is only 40 kilometers away from the urban area of the provincial capital. “Famous for its Buddhist temples, the Town of Luang Prabang is an ancient capital of Laos and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so we adopted the highest standards of environmental protection during construction,” said a Chinese project manager. At the construction site of Plant 1, displaced earth was stored in a designated area with embankment. To minimize construction waste, all excavated materials were recycled to build the dam body. “At first, less than 70 percent of the waste generated from sand-gravel aggregate production was recycled, leaving trees on the surrounding mountains covered with a layer of grey dust,” the manager recalled. “POWERCHINA delivered a quick response to the problem and implemented effective measures to reduce dust emissions as much as possible.”

The Nam Ou Cascade Hydropower Project also involved relocation of a population of about 12,600 in 10 districts in Phongsaly and Luang Prabang provinces. Construction of relocation settlements started at the same time as the cascade plants in 2011.

Kids play together after school in Hou Lau New Village, a relocation community near Plant 1 of the Nam Ou Cascade Hydropower Project, on March 27, 2019. (WANG JINGQIANG)
A relocation community built by POWERCHINA along the Nam Ou River. (GENG XINGQIANG)

Today, the resettled villagers live well in their new homes. Hou Lau New Village near Plant 1 of the Nam Ou Cascade Hydropower Project is one relocation site. To help relocated villagers better adapt to the new environment, POWERCHINA invited local construction firms to design and build the village in line with the architectural taste and lifestyle of the locals. A villager named Somboun moved into a two-story home built of reinforced concrete. He operates a shop on the first floor and lives upstairs. “High-quality materials and top local brands were used to build my new house,” said Somboun. “Our village is fully equipped with roads, water and power, and we also have a wharf, clinic, school, and temple. The living standards of this village are comparable to big cities.”

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