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Towards a Discussion on Renewable Energy Sources and the Nuclear Energy Sector

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Is Truth Born out of Dispute?

The debate has raged across the world over the past few years (and not only in the expert community) as to the priorities for energy development at the national, regional and global levels. Moreover, the West has extended this discussion beyond engineers, economists, energy sector specialists and investors to form an entire expert movement that conveys a particular opinion to the society at large and then influences governmental policies. Developing countries present a somewhat different picture, where governments enjoy greater independence from public opinion in their decision-making, although the discussions are no less heated, nevertheless. These discussions have already created stable stereotypes associated with supporters of a particular mode of energy sector development: support for renewable energy sources (RES) and distributed energy is the province of liberals, while (centrally managed) traditional energy is the pet project of the conservatives[1].

Recently, the debates between supporters and opponents of renewable energy sources in the media and on the internet have reached an unprecedented level against the backdrop of major power supply problems caused by the abnormal cold spells in Europe and the United States. For instance, the Russian media actively criticizes the RES-based energy policies of the European Union and the United States for bringing about dire consequences in terms of energy supply (which is in fact not the case).

Nuclear energy is another butt of long-standing criticism. Public opinion in Western Europe demands that politicians abandon nuclear power in favour of renewable energy sources. This pressure has resulted in government and inter-governmental programmes geared primarily towards developing solar and wind power and the use of hydrogen.

Most surprisingly, supporters of both sides frequently miss the essence of the debate: they fail to ask why the authorities sometimes plump for renewable energy sources, while in other cases they choose oil, gas, or nuclear power plants. As a result, we often witness experts complaining about the low share of renewable energy sources in Russia’s energy balance compared to the high rates seen in European countries. Russia is thus seen to be lagging behind, having missed opportunities to develop the renewable energy sector. The problem, however, lies elsewhere: renewable energy sources do indeed make it possible to radically reduce the environmental footprint. However, if the idea behind developing the national energy sector is to solve environmental and climate problems, for example, by achieving carbon-free energy supply by a certain date, as many developed countries, as well as China, have done, then it is necessary to develop renewable energy sources (now, pay attention!) in combination with other low-carbon types of energy: nuclear energy and natural gas. Let us stress once again that this combination does not at all contradict the ideology and essence of “Energy 4.0” or the “energy transition.”

The Energy Sector and Economic Development

Renewable energy sources have proved stable and reliable during the COVID-19 crisis and, as expected, every “respectable” forecast predicts stable growth of varying intensity[2].

Renewable energy sources will cover 80 per cent of the increase in global demand for power in the next decade, and are expected to surpass coal as the principal source of energy by 2025. The highest growth will take place in China, where renewable power generation is predicted to increase by nearly 1500 TWh by 2030, which equals the total power generation of France, Germany and Italy combined.

In the next decade, solar and wind power plants will replace coal as the investment priority in building new power generation facilities. Solar power plants (SPP) will be constructed with greater intensity compared to other generation facilities due to the short construction times, low capital costs and the opportunities they offer to reduce environmental pollution. As the solar energy sector develops, secure supply chains and land for building SPPs will become critical factors. At the same time, direct support from the state will no longer be needed in most cases, although auxiliary support measures for stabilizing financial balances will still play a significant role in accelerating the construction of new capacities and reducing the costs of implementing new solar power projects.

In 2010–2019, the average costs of building solar power plants fell by 80 per cent. Additionally, solar power plants enjoy some form of governmental support in over 130 countries. This support has made cheap financing for solar power possible, which has played an important part in achieving record low prices.

The use of wind power is also expected to grow significantly. The average global cost of generating this kind of power has fallen by approximately 40 per cent over the past decade. Wind power enjoys governmental support in about 130 states, over 70 of which intend to develop shelf projects. Improved technologies and preferential financing terms will make it possible to reduce the costs of offshore wind energy to around USD 50 per megawatt/hour (MWh) in the next five years, which is roughly half the cost of recently constructed wind farms.

The use of nuclear power has continued to grow around the world, thanks to the completion of the first units of the EPR and AP1000 in China in 2018. The first unit of the Hualong-1 reactor is slated to be put into operation by the end of 2020.

Nuclear energy accounted for approximately 10 per cent of power generation in 2019 and was the second largest source of low-emission energy around the world (after hydropower). Nuclear energy has also contributed to the reliability of energy supplies: most reactors continued to operate throughout the first wave of the pandemic, despite demand being lower than usual. NPPs made it possible to ensure a certain flexibility of power grids and reduce the dependence of some states on imported fossil fuels.

Nuclear power generation is expected to return to pre-crisis levels by 2023 as demand recovers. Depending on the development scenarios, it is forecast to grow by 15–30 per cent before the end of 2030, although its share in the energy balance will decrease somewhat against the backdrop of various trends manifesting in two groups of states. In 2019–2030, developing states will increase NPP power generation by two thirds, which will bring its share in the total power production to 6 per cent. In early 2020, NPPs with total capacity of 42 GW (out of 62 GW) were being constructed. In 2030, nuclear power capacity will increase from 110 GW to 180 GW. China is on track to becoming the leader in nuclear power by 2030, ahead of the United States and the European Union. As of early 2020, China operated 48 nuclear reactors and was building 11 more. China is one of the few states that, under the Paris Climate Accords, included both nuclear power generation and renewable energy sources in its national programme for reducing emissions. The NPP development programmes that are being implemented in Russia, India and the Middle East could also contribute to increasing the global significance of nuclear energy.

Nuclear energy was the largest source of power in developed economies in 2019, but its generation is expected to drop by 10 per cent in 2019–2030 due to reactors aging and the restrictions imposed on new construction projects. Within the next decade, over 70 GW will be decommissioned at the NPPs currently in operation. Extending their service life may provide about 120 GW that otherwise would be shut down by 2030. By early 2020, about 20 GW of new NPP capacities had been built in Finland, France, Japan, South Korea, Slovakia, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. Otherwise, the projected additional capacities in developed economies is limited.

By 2030, total NPP capacity in the European Union will have dropped by 20 per cent. The biggest drops will be seen in Germany (which plans to fully decommission its NPPs by 2022), Belgium, Spain and France. By 2030, the installed nuclear capacity in the United States will have declined by 10 per cent, despite the fact that construction has been completed on two AP 1000 reactors and that five states now offer livelihood loans to companies with zero emissions. In Japan, the total installed capacity of its NPPS will drop from GW 33 in 2019 to GW in 2030. Even those countries that are interested in developing nuclear energy are running the risk of soon abandoning it due to extremely complicated market conditions and the risks connected with new capital investment. This development is highly probable, despite the possibility of nuclear energy being declared “clean” and despite NPPs being the most economically efficient low-emission power source.

Overall, global investment in renewable energy sources and nuclear power will rebound to pre-crisis levels in 2021, and is expected to grow steadily to USD 420 bn by 2030. In the next decade, renewable energy sources and nuclear energy will account for up to 80 per cent of all investments in energy generation.

Features of Nuclear Energy Development in Russia and Around the World

Nuclear energy is a technologically proven source of electric power that has significant potential to reduce carbon emissions. It has a large number of unique features that make it a viable option for many governments throughout the world. For example, one of the advantages of nuclear energy, besides it having zero carbon emissions, is that it is manageable: it does not depend on weather conditions, which makes it compatible with renewable energy sources. Additionally, nuclear energy generates more power than other zero-carbon energy sources per unit of area (facilities require less space).

However, nuclear energy technologies are capital intensive. Capital costs may account for up to 80 per cent of the energy costs of a new nuclear power plant. Therefore, reducing the cost of power plant construction (including equipment, building materials and labour) are of fundamental importance for making nuclear energy competitive.

In addition to the high capital costs, nuclear energy has other problems—possible construction time and budget overruns and the uncertainty of energy prices throughout the life cycle of nuclear power plants in an era of increasingly cheap renewable energy sources and advances in energy storage technologies. This has prompted consumers and other interested actors (from taxpayers to national governments) to reassess their standing on NPPs. Additionally, the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011 sparked political and social debates on nuclear power in some markets.

At the same time, according to the Energy Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, even though some countries abandoned the development of nuclear energy in favour of using renewable energy sources, global power generation at NPPs will increase by 2040.

Some experts believe it is desirable, reasonable and even necessary to combine nuclear energy with renewable energy sources to achieve the global carbon-free development goal. The goals set by international treaties to reduce environmental impact may prove unattainable if NPPs are abolished, despite the growing economy, population and emerging technological development trends. Additionally, some experts consider the projects to combine the use of NPPs (base-load demand) and renewable energy sources (variable duty) of particular interest.

The new developments in nuclear energy, such as building and operating mini nuclear reactors, appear highly promising in terms of long-term development. Several countries are working on such reactors. Russia, the United States and France have been particularly successful in this area. These technologies are particularly interesting for small states and isolated and remote regions (Russia is already building such a mini NPP in Yakutia).

Given Russia’s leadership in nuclear technologies, nuclear energy could play a leading role in the low-carbon technological restructuring of Russia’s energy sector. The transition to the new generation of VVER-TOI light-water reactors has already begun, and the use of fast nuclear reactors will develop at an increasingly rapid pace, which will in turn speed up the nuclear sector’s changeover, first to the combined fuel cycle, and then to the closed cycle. Additionally, new types of NPPs will boast improved safety and efficiency and lower capital intensity. Therefore, the share of capital investment in VVER-TOI power units will be reduced by 15 per cent compared to their current costs, and the target specifications for fast reactors will be 15 per cent lower still compared to VVER-TOI. Transitioning to the closed nuclear fuel cycle will also make it possible to halve the costs of generating power at NPPs.

The introduction of fees for greenhouse gas emissions, even at RUB 600 (approximately USD 8) per tonne of СО2, significantly improves the competitive edge of carbon-free energy technologies and will lead to a 10-per cent increase in NPP capacity by 2050 compared to the base case, which does not include emissions payments. This is about 31% of the installed capacities of Russia’s UES.

With two thirds of its territory made up of isolated or remote regions with power supply problems, Russia has a huge area for applying new nuclear energy technologies. It is perfectly clear that a large country with a low population density cannot resolve the problem in developing its energy sector through large-scale network construction. Small-capacity nuclear power plants constitute one of the most realistic ways out of this situation.

Conclusions

Our analysis demonstrates that renewable energy sources are the most attractive energy generation technologies for ensuring sustainable carbon-free development around the world. At the same time, there are a number of technological and economic problems that can only be overcome by adopting a systemic approach using additional technologies, radically new approaches to managing and regulating energy markets, and complex energy systems (including in the course of transitioning from primarily centralized to primarily distributed systems). This, in turn, requires additional expenditures on developing the energy infrastructure. Under the currently emerging conditions, nuclear energy has rather good development prospects in both developed and developing states. It can serve as a supplement to renewable energy. As one of the leaders in nuclear energy, Russia has several competitive advantages in the face of the tougher requirements and commitments in environmental protection and countering climate change.

1. For instance, the difference in the U.S. energy policy of the Republicans (Donald Trump) and the Democrats (Barack Obama, Joe Biden).

2. World Energy Outlook. International Energy Agency. Paris. 2020

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in Technical Sciences, Deputy Director of the Energy Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Deputy Director of the Energy Industry Institute of the National Research University Higher School of Economics

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Energy transition is a global challenge that needs an urgent global response

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COP26 showed that green energy is not yet appealing enough for the world to reach a consensus on coal phase-out. The priority now should be creating affordable and viable alternatives 

Many were hoping that COP26 would be the moment the world agreed to phase out coal. Instead, we received a much-needed reality check when the pledge to “phase out” coal was weakened to “phase down”. 

 This change was reportedly pushed by India and China whose economies are still largely reliant on coal. The decision proved that the world is not yet ready to live without the most polluting fossil fuels. 

 This is an enormous problem. Coal is the planet’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, but also a major source of energy, producing over one-third of global electricity generation. Furthermore, global coal-fired electricity generation could reach an all-time high in 2022, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

 Given the continued demand for coal, especially in the emerging markets, we need to accelerate the use of alternative energy sources, but also ensure their equal distribution around the world.

 There are a number of steps policymakers and business leaders are taking to tackle this challenge, but all of them need to be accelerated if we are to incentivise as rapid shift away from coal as the world needs. 

 The first action to be stepped up is public and private investment in renewable energy. This investment can help on three fronts: improve efficiency and increase output of existing technologies, and help develop new technologies. For green alternatives to coal to become more economically viable, especially, for poorer countries, we need more supply and lower costs.

 There are some reasons to be hopeful. During COP26 more than 450 firms representing a ground-breaking $130 trillion of assets pledged investment to meet the goals set out in the Paris climate agreement. 

 The benefits of existing investment are also becoming clearer. Global hydrogen initiatives, for example, are accelerating rapidly, and if investment is kept up, the Hydrogen Council expects it to become a competitive low-carbon solution in long haul trucking, shipping, and steel production.

 However, the challenge remains enormous. The IEA warned in October 2021 that investment in renewable energy needs to triple by the end of this decade to effectively combat climate change. Momentum must be kept up.

 This is especially important for countries like India where coal is arguably the main driver for the country’s economic growth and supports “as many as 10-15 million people … through ancillary employment and social programs near the mines”, according to Brookings Institute.  

This leads us to the second step which must be accelerated: support for developing countries to incentivise energy transition in a way which does not compromise their growth. 

Again, there is activity on this front, but it is insufficient. Twelve years ago, richer countries pledged to channel US$100 billion a year to less wealthy nations by 2020, to help them adapt to climate change. 

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that the financial assistance failed to reach $80 billion in 2019, and likely fell substantially short in 2020. Governments say they will reach the promised amount by 2023. If anything, they should aim to reach it sooner.

There are huge structural costs in adapting electricity grids to be powered at a large scale by renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. Businesses will also need to adapt and millions of employees across the world will need to be re-skilled. To incentivise making these difficult but necessary changes, developing countries should be provided with the financial support promised them over a decade ago.

The third step to be developed further is regulation. Only governments are in a position to pass legislation which encourages a faster energy transition. To take just one example, the European Commission’s Green Deal, proposes introduction of new CO2 emission performance standards for cars and vans, incentivising the electrification of vehicles. 

This kind of simple, direct legislation can reduce consumption of fossil fuels and encourage industry to tackle climate change.

Widespread legislative change won’t be straightforward. Governments should closely involve industry in the consultative process to ensure changes drive innovation rather than add unnecessary bureaucracy, which has already delayed development of renewable assets in countries including Germany and Italy. Still, regardless of the challenges, stronger regulation will be key to turning corporate and sovereign pledges into concrete achievements. 

COP26 showed that we are not ready as a globe to phase out coal. The priority for the global leaders must now be to do everything they can to drive the shift towards green energy and reach the global consensus needed to save our planet.

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Pakistan–Russia Gas Stream: Opportunities and Risks of New Flagship Energy Project

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source: twitter

Russia’s Yekaterinburg hosted the 7th meeting of the Russian-Pakistani Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation on November 24–26, 2021. Chaired by Omar Ayub Khan, Pakistan’s Minister for Economic Affairs, and Nikolai Shulginov, Russia’s Minister of Energy, the meeting was attended by around 70 policy makers, heads of key industrial companies and businessmen from both sides, marking a significant change in the bilateral relations between Moscow and Islamabad.

Three pillars of bilateral relations

Among the most important questions raised by the Commission were collaboration in trade, investment and the energy sector.

According to the Russian Federal Customs Service, the Russian-Pakistani trade turnover increased in 2020 by 45.8% compared to 2019, totaling 789.8 million U.S. dollars. Yet, there is still huge potential for increasing the trade volume for the two countries, including textiles and agricultural products of Pakistan and Russian products of machinery, technical expertise as well as transfer of knowledge and R&D.

Another prospective project discussed at the intergovernmental level is initiating a common trade corridor between Russia, the Central Asia and Pakistan. Based on the One-Belt-One-Road concept, launched by China, the Pakistan Road project is supposed to create a free flow of goods between Russia and Pakistan through building necessary economic and transport infrastructure, including railway construction and special customs conditions. During the Commission meeting, both countries expressed their intention to collaborate on renewal of the railway machines fleet and facilities in Pakistan, including supplies of mechanized track maintenance and renewal machines; supplies of 50 shunting (2400HP or less) and 100 mainline (over 3000HP) diesel locomotives; joint R&D of the technical and economic feasibility of locomotives production based in the Locomotive Factory Risalpur and other. The proposed contractors of the project might be the Russian Sinara Transport Machines, Uralvagonzavod JSC that stand ready to supply Pakistan Railway with freight wagons, locomotives and passenger coaches. In order to engage import and export activities between Russian and Pakistani businessmen, the Federation of Pakistan Chamber of Commerce signed a memorandum with Ural Chamber of Commerce and Industry, marking a new step in bilateral relations. Similar memorandums have already been signed with other Chambers of Commerce in Russian regions.

— Today, the ties between Russia and Pakistan are objectively strengthening in all areas including economic, political and military collaboration. But we, as businessmen, are primarily interested in the development of trade relations and new transit corridors for export-import activities. For example, the prospective pathways of the Pakistan-Central Asia-Russia trade and economic corridor project are now being actively discussed at the intergovernmental level, — said Mohsin Sheikh, Director of the Pakistan Russia Business Council of the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry. — For Islamabad, this issue is one of the most important. Based on a similar experience of trade with China, we see great prospects for this direction. That is why representatives of Pakistan’s government, customs officers, diplomats and businessmen gathered in Yekaterinburg today.

However, the flagship project of the new era of the Pakistan-Russia relations is likely to be the Pakistan Gas Stream. Previously known as the North-South Gas Pipeline, this mega-project (1,100 kilometers in length) is expected to cost up to USD 2,5 billion and is claimed to be highly beneficial for Pakistan. Being a net importer of energy, Pakistan will be able to develop and integrate new sources of natural gas and transport it to the densely populated industrialized north. At the same time, the project will enable Pakistan—whose main industries are still dependent on the coal consumption—to take a major step forward gradually replacing coal with relatively more ecologically sustainable natural gas. To enable this significant development in the Pakistan’s energy sector, Moscow and Islamabad have made preliminary agreements to carry on the research of Pakistan’s mineral resource sector including copper, gold, iron, lead and zinc ores of Baluchistan, Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and Punjab Provinces.

A lot opportunities but a lot more risks?

The Pakistan Stream Gas Pipe Project undoubtedly opens major investment opportunities for Pakistan. Among them are establishment of new refineries; the launch of virtual LNG pipelines; building of LNG onshore storages of LNG; investing in strategic oil and gas storages. Yet, it seems that Pakistan is likely to win more from the Project than Russia. And here’s why. The current version of the agreement signed by Moscow and Islamabad has been essentially reworked. According to it, Russia will likely to receive only 26 percent in the project stake instead of 85 percent as it was previously planned, while the Pakistani side will retain a controlling stake (74 percent) in the project.

Another stranding factor for Russia is although Moscow will be entitled to provide all the necessary facilities and equipment for the building of the pipeline, the entire construction process will be supervised by an independent Pakistani-based company, which will substantially boost Pakistan’s influence at each development. Finally, the vast bulk of the gas transported via the pipeline will likely come from Qatar, which will further strengthen Qatar’s role in the Pakistani energy sector.

Big strategy but safety first

The Pakistan Stream Gas Pipeline will surely become an important strategic tool for Russia to reactivate the South Asian vector of its foreign policy. Even though the project’s aim is not to gain a fast investment return and economic benefits, it follows significant strategic goals for both countries. As Russia-India political and economic relations are cooling down, Moscow is likely to boost ties with Pakistan, including cooperation in economy, military, safety and potentially nuclear energy, that was highlighted by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during visit to Islamabad earlier this year. Such an expansion of relations with Pakistan will allow Russia to gain a more solid foothold in the South Asian part of China’s BRI, thus opening up a range of new lucrative opportunities for Moscow.

Apart from its economic and political aspects, the Pakistan Stream Project also has clear geopolitical implications. It marks Russia’s growing influence in South Asia and points to some remarkable transformations that are currently taking place in this region. The ongoing geopolitical game within the India-Russia-Pakistan triangle is yet less favorable for New Delhi much because of the Pakistan Stream Project. Even though the project is not directly aimed to jeopardize the India’s role in the region, it is considered the first dangerous signal for New Delhi. For instance, the International “Extended troika” Conference on Afghanistan, which was held in Moscow last spring united representatives from the United States, Russia, China and Pakistan but left India aside (even though the latter has important strategic interests in Afghanistan).

With the recent withdrawal of the U.S. military forces from Afghanistan, Moscow has become literally the only warden of Central Asia’s security. As Russia is worried about the possibility of Islamist militants infiltrating the Central Asia, the main defensive buffer in the South for Moscow, the recent decision of Vladimir Putin to equip its military base in Tajikistan, which neighbors Afghanistan, seems to be just on time. Obviously, Islamabad that faces major risks amidst the Afghanistan crisis sees Moscow as a prospective strategic partner who will help Imran Khan strengthen the Pakistani efforts in fighting the terrorism threat.

From our partner RIAC

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How wind power is transforming communities in Viet Nam

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In two provinces of Viet Nam, a quiet transformation is taking place, driven by the power of renewable energy.

Thien Nghiep Commune, a few hundred kilometres from Ho Chi Min City, is a community of just over 6,000 people – where for years, people relied largely on farming, fishing and seasonal labour to make ends meet.

Now, thanks to a wind farm backed by the Seed Capital Assistance Facility (SCAF) – a multi-donor trust fund, led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) – people in the Thien Nghiep Commune are accessing new jobs, infrastructure and – soon – cheap, clean energy. The 40MW Dai Phong project, one of two wind farms run by SCAF partner company the Blue Circle, has brought new hope to the community.

For the 759 million people in the world who lack access to electricity, the introduction of clean energy solutions can bring improved healthcare, better education and affordable broadband, creating new jobs, livelihoods and sustainable economic value to reduce poverty.

“It’s not only about the technology and the big spinning wheel for me. It’s more about making investment decisions for the planet and at the same time not compromising on the necessity that we call electricity,” said Nguyen Thi Hoai Thuong, who works as a community liaison. “The interesting part is I work for the project, but I actually work for the community and with the community.”

While the wind farm is not yet online, a focus on local hiring and paying fair prices for land has already made a big difference to the community.

“I used the money from the land sale to the Dai Phong project to repair my house and invest in my cattle. Currently, my life is stable and I have not encountered any difficulties since selling the land,” said Ms. Le Thi Doan.

Powering change

The energy sector accounts for approximately 75 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). UNEP research shows that these need to be reduced dramatically and eventually eliminated to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Renewable energy, in all its forms, is one of humanity’s greatest assets in the fight to limit climate change. Capacity across the globe continues to grow every year, lowering both GHGs and air pollution, but the pace of action must accelerate to hold global temperature rise to 1.5 °C this century.

“To boost growth in renewables, however, companies need to access finance,” said Rakesh  Shejwal, a Programme Management Officer at SCAF. “This is where SCAF comes in. SCAF works through private equity funds and development companies to mobilize early-stage investment low-carbon projects in developing countries.”

The 176 projects it seed financed have mobilized US $3.47 billion to build over one gigawatt of generation capacity, avoiding emissions of 4.68 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent each year.

But SCAF’s work isn’t just about cutting emissions. It is bringing huge benefits across the sustainable development agenda: increasing access to clean and reliable electricity and boosting communities across Asia and Africa. SCAF will be potentially creating 17,000 jobs.

This is evident in Ninh Thuan province, where the Blue Circle created both the first commercial wind power project and the first to be commissioned by a foreign private investor in Viet Nam.

Here, the Dam Nai wind farm has delivered fifteen 2.625 MW turbines, the largest in the country at the time. These will generate approximately 100 GWh per year. They will avoid over 68,000 tCO2e annually and create more than an estimated 302 temporary construction and 13 permanent operation and maintenance jobs for the local community.

Students from the local high school in Ninh Thuan Province were also given the opportunity to meet with engineers and technicians on the project, increasing their knowledge about how renewable energy works and opening up new career paths.

SCAF, through its partners, is supporting clean energy project development in the Southeast Asian region and African region. SCAF has more than a decade of experience in decarbonization and is currently poised to run till 2026.

UNEP

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