Brendan Cook '08 (USA): Thesis on Biogas in Vietnam

August 12, 2008

While preparing MESPOM thesis, I decided to take advantage of our global network and focus on a topic that was not just environmental but also related to the social and economic dimensions of sustainability. Through a partnership between MESPOM, Stockholm Environment Institute, The International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics and the Course on Energy for Sustainable Development, I was able to travel to Vietnam and study biogas enterpreneurship. Using biogas as a case study, I traveled to Hanoi and three key provinces interviewing organizations, entrepreneurs, masons and households. During my stay I forged contacts and allowed myself a renewed cultural understanding of a country and culture that was so often the subject of war. Now, at peace, Vietnam is rapidly changing and in order to prevent it from being crushed under the weight of its own growth there are much needed initiatives in energy for the entire country.

In Vietnam, biogas dominates the bioenergy field and as a technology that is renewable, it’s derived from agricultural residues, biogas has improved livelihoods, the environment and the public health of many communities around the country. Biogas is a type of energy that utilizes biodegradable organic matter, which is broken down by methane producing bacteria. These bacteria then produce a mixture of carbon dioxide and methane that produce a combustible gas that produces virtually no indoor pollutants. The gas can be used for cooking, lighting, heating and electricity generation. Biogas is utilized to provide a renewable rural energy source for off grid communities and as a solution to reduce indoor pollution, improve public health and reduce the burden of energy costs and improve livelihoods of women.

Working with the Netherlands' and Vietnam's Biogas Programme, I visited the rural and mountainous province of Son La. Many of the countries’ ethnic minorities reside here, with many people still lacking basic access to not only reliable energy services, but also to sanitation and a drinkable water source. In Ha Tay, I met with the Vietnam Women’s Union to see their work in one of Vietnam’s Peri-urban and fast growing provinces. Here, agriculture met the urbanized and their organization was doing something to provide energy, and clean up the environment and improve the sanitation situation. In Ninh Binh, a popular tourist site known for its natural beauty and Vietnam’s the first national, showed a very developed and growing market for biogas.
Based on each case studied, Biogas offers the possibility of steps towards energy security for rural and even peri-urban communities. Biogas allows them to have access to energy during periods of blackouts and those off-grid. The projects’ resources, whether for the plant construction, fuel and businesses, all come from the local region. The study’s look at rural entrepreneurs showed an interesting and frequently overlooked aspect of energy security, involving the state of the sector (or broader economy) rather than solely looking at the availability of resources. Through identifying key drivers and barriers, the study is hoped to improve the sector stability of rural biogas and provide modernized energy and rural access in Vietnam.