Vietnam’s first clean energy commune created through Local Energy Planning

“We are determined to turn Nam Cuong into the first commune using clean energy in Vietnam,” says Mr. Hoang Ngoc Sang, the chairman of Nam Cuong’s People Committee. Since 2012, this small coastal commune in Tien Hai district, Thai Binh province, Vietnam, has been applying a Local Energy Planning approach.

His words, and the local residents’ work, showcase a new thinking and determination in utilizing sustainable energy for their community.

Nam Cuong commune has 900 households with a total population of more than 3,500 people. The main income of the commune is from agriculture and aquaculture. Like other agricultural communes in Vietnam, Nam Cuong is experiencing serious environmental pollution from livestock wastes and post-cultivation rice husk-burning.

The area also suffers shortages of safe and clean drinking water, and because of its coastal location is often affected by natural disasters such as typhoons, floods and droughts.

On top of this, Nam Cuong regularly experiences electricity blackouts and also has high costs for energy consumption.

Energy is not only electricity

Mr. Sang recounts that in the past everyone in Nam Cuong perceived energy consumption as merely being about access to electricity. Yet energy is much more than electricity alone, as it includes, for example, the consumption of fuel for cooking and transportation.

Furthermore, they also did not see the relationship between energy use and other economic, social and environmental challenges in the village. He and other community members in the commune did not concern themselves with how much energy they consumed and what percentage of their total expenses energy accounted for.

Then came a turning point. So what was the reason behind it?

“It was tough in the beginning trying to comprehend the phrase ‘Energy’,” admits Mr Sang, “but after attending workshops on Local Energy Planning (LEP) [organized by the NGO GreenID], as well as participating in the whole process from planning to implementation, I started to change my own habits in a positive way.”

After learning about and considering the potential benefits of models of sustainable energy use that take advantage of local resources, the chairman incorporated a few techniques into his own family life, including a biogas digester and an improved cook-stove.

A biogas digester treats animal waste from pigs and produces gas for cooking as an alternative to using coal or LPG gas. Regarding the improved cook stove, it replaces the traditional coal or firewood stove that was not fuel efficient and caused indoor pollution with a stove that burns rice husk.

Mr. Sang found that they helped him manage livestock wastes whilst also reducing foul odors. Meanwhile, burning the biofuel generated in place of natural gas also decreased the household energy costs.

Promoting energy awareness

Sang and his colleagues who also joined the trainings started to carry out a communication campaign to raise awareness amongst other local residents. He tried to encourage them to transition to more sustainable energy use models, for example by developing a local policy that offers 1,000,000 VND to any household who would like to operate a biogas digester.

Since then, Nam Cuong has started using a range of sustainable energy models, including: household-level and community level biogas digesters, solar water heating, a drinking water system using solar power, improved cook-stoves, LED light-bulbs, and a compost fertilizer.

Brimming with pride, Sang says “LEP has profoundly changed my life. The benefits that LEP provided changed our commune’s face. Quality of life has improved, environmental issues have been addressed, and the local economy has gradually developed.”

Mr. Sang has shared his experience of the benefits of sustainable-energy models beyond Nam Cuong commune throughout the country through becoming an active member of the Vietnam Sustainable Energy Alliance and (VSEA).1 He would like to attract more people to become involved, particularly in communes that have a lot of sustainable-energy potential but that are yet to take advantage of these developmental, economic and environmental opportunities.

Could national energy planning learn from LEP?

The LEP approach stands in contrast to the current process of national energy planning in Vietnam, which basically is top-down in process, centralized in approach, and has very limited participation of local people especially at the commune level.

As a result, with regard to energy, commune level leaders and community members usually receive plans from the central government without questioning them too much. Unfortunately, this has also pushed on to them undesirable impacts from unsustainable development projects, such as from large hydropower dams and coal fired power plants.

LEP is a process that is different from the traditional centralized energy planning approach. In LEP, local people and the local authorities work together to create a common energy plan that addresses issues related to energy supply and demand in their area.

It is undertaken with support from energy experts familiar with LEP, but central to its design is a participatory, bottom-up and rights-based approach. Through promoting the use of renewable energy and sustainable solutions, LEP takes into full consideration the availability of local resources and their efficient use, as well as impacts on the environment

LEP consists of 9 different steps, in which technical experts from the VSEA act as a facilitator amongst a local energy team, the wider community, and the local authorities. Briefly, the steps are as follows:

  1. The creation of a local energy team (LET), and initial support to build its capacity;
  2. Design of a questionnaire by the VSEA team that is intended to document the demand, supply and current uses of energy in the area, together with the general socio-economic situation;
  3. The LET then conducts the survey data collection in the commune;
  4. The survey is first analyzed by the VSEA energy expert and then shared with the LET and a wider circle of community members for checking and revising;
  5. A workshop is organized by the VSEA team and the LET with community members and the local authorities to identify problems and prepare a set of objectives and plan a strategy forward
  6. A deeper investigation is undertaken by the VSEA team and the LET on potential sustainable energy solutions based on the local resource potential, and an exhibition is organized on different sustainable energy models/technologies within the commune;
  7. A local energy plan is formulated by the LET and community members that details an action plan. The VSEA team helps to prepare a written energy plan based on the design of the LET and community members.
  8. (8) The LET and local authority run a communication campaigns to raise people’s awareness on sustainable energy use, environmental protection, waste management actions proposed in the plan.

(9) Financial resources are mobilized to implement the local energy plan.

From the experience in Vietnam to date, the LEP method has demonstrated multiple economic, social and environmental benefits. It has increased energy efficiency at the community level and also reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

This not only helps community members save on energy costs, but also utilize effectively the local available resources. At the same time, community members have become their own energy planners. Their work could even provide a reliable database for energy planning undertaken at higher levels in the future.

LEP could contribute towards sustainable development in Vietnam and the wider Mekong region. It is the hope of Mr. Sang and the VSEA team that the LEP model that emerged from Nam Cuong commune can be replicated and that even the Vietnamese Government itself could consider applying LEP at different levels as a tool to promote sustainable energy solutions and contribute to the creation of local goals for social economic development.

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