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In this very fast-changing region, few countries are changing faster than Laos. With economic growth of around 8%, the country is awakening and Vientiane is bustling with new developments, new trucks, and an even brighter outlook. Laos is finally catching up with its neighbours, and though this will take time, the pace and direction is undeniably clear and strong.
However, beneath this strong economic growth is a challenging story. Numerous rivers are being dammed for power production as Laos pursues its vision to become the “Battery of Asia”, and about 90% of this power is for export to Thailand and Vietnam.
Obviously Laos is not the only country growing in this region, and the demand for electricity is understandably strong. But the “Land of a Million Elephants” is becoming the “Land of 50 Dams” and that affects us all. This is because the dams are on the tributaries and water catchments of the great Mekong River. Indeed, according to the Mekong River Commission, nearly one-third of Thailand is actually in the Mekong River basin. The current dams in the Mekong basin produce around 1,600 megawatts yet the potential is estimated at 30,000 MW. And with around 60 million people depending on the Mekong for food, water, and transport the number of people directly linked to the river is huge _ approximately the same as the population of Thailand itself. And these dams will have an uncertain impact on this important inland fishery.
Electricity is vital for economic growth and it is vitally important for countries to have very reliable sources of high-quality power to drive their economies forward. But not all electricity has to be used in an inefficient way, and by getting serious about energy efficiency, the demand growth can be reduced. And this will mean that fewer dams are needed on the precious Mekong and its basin. Countries such as Thailand and Vietnam getting more strict about energy efficiency will better preserve the region’s key river.
But for Laos alone, the energy efficiency gains are still potentially huge. Clean and intelligent use of energy efficiency measures would mean that less power is needed. Then either more power could be available to speed up the rate of rural electrification, or more power could be exported. And this power exported could help pay for the many schools, hospitals and clinics needed in Laos and help lift it even more quickly out of Least Developed Country (LDC) status.
Companies in Laos also stand to benefit hugely from energy efficiency measures, which typically pay for themselves in three to five years. However, Sunlabob Renewable Energy, with its innovative and comprehensive efficiency services together with other such companies in this sector, has found far fewer market opportunities in Laos than expected.
It is easy to change a building, and relatively easy to change a river basin, but incredibly hard to change mindsets built up over many decades. But until we all take hold of realising that energy efficiency is at the heart of preserving the region’s main river, our beautiful environment and the hopes of our children, then the predictable damage will be done.
Economic growth is essential for Southeast Asia, with our fast-growing populations deserving to have strong economies to build their own futures. But it is not inevitable that growth must take place in a way that damages our environment unnecessarily.
Stringent energy efficiency measures are economically efficient and help drive that vital growth. But for country like Laos, energy efficiency could mean more schools, hospitals and clinics. It means taking hold of the lessons other countries previously learned, and not repeating their mistakes.
If we want to get serious about building the right future for the Mekong basin, we have to seriously change our mindset to be more serious about energy efficiency. And nowhere is that more needed than within Laos itself. Though electricity in Laos is cheap it is never free, and the cost of the decisions we fail to make now should not be paid for by future generations.
Edward Allen is a technical programme coordinator at the Lao Institute for Renewable Energy and the technical adviser to Sunlabob Renewal Energy. He holds a BA in Geography from Oxford University, and an MSc and Diploma of Agriculture from Imperial College London (Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development). For more on renewable energy issues, see www.sunlabob.com