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Vietnam eyes greener power but banks on coal to avert blackouts

HANOI/HOA BINH, Vietnam — Lights are off and air conditioning is down at the headquarters of Vietnam's state-run electricity provider EVN as the country's top power utility tries to "lead by example" to avoid a repeat of last year's crippling blackouts, an official tells visitors.

But many businesses around Vietnam's capital Hanoi appear to be ignoring the call to conserve power, keeping decorative but otherwise purposeless neon lights on the outside of high-rise buildings on all night.

The difficulties in curtailing consumption illustrate the challenges facing Vietnam a year after sudden outages caused losses of hundreds of millions of dollars to multinational manufacturers with investments in the Southeast Asian country.

Vietnam is pursuing a patchwork agenda of energy-saving measures, grid upgrades, regulatory reforms and a massive increase of coal power as it seeks to avert electricity shortfalls, according to government data and interviews with officials and experts.

But Trinh Mai Phuong, EVN's communications director, explains during a media visit that even the biggest infrastructure upgrade underway, a new US$1 billion (S$1.35 billion) transmission line connecting the centre of the country to the highly industrialised north that was hard hit by blackouts last year, may not be enough.

"I would not say it is a game changer," he said of the line that could be completed as early as this month, noting power consumption is expected to hit record highs in the coming weeks as the country braces for more heatwaves.

The soaring power demand is making it increasingly difficult for Vietnam to meet climate change commitments while providing enough power to satisfy large investors such as Samsung Electronics, Foxconn and Canon.