Counting on coal: Cambodia’s fossil fuel push flounders

Expansion plans survived China’s promise to cut overseas coal investments. But most of the promised power plants still aren't built amid a push for clean energy.
<p>Cambodia’s Han Seng power plant in Oddar Meanchey province, part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, lays dormant, as construction delays push the site past its deadline to be online (Image © Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)</p>

Cambodia’s Han Seng power plant in Oddar Meanchey province, part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, lays dormant, as construction delays push the site past its deadline to be online (Image © Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)

The skeletal exterior of one of Cambodia’s newest coal power plants sat silent in farmland of Oddar Meanchey province, in the kingdom’s north-west. On a still afternoon in June, weeds entangling brick stacks, cement mixers and truck tires showed construction had long been paused.

Locals toasting happy hour down the road from the front gate complained of months of delayed pay for the site’s security guards, adding there was no date set for operations to resume. There was little more information at the Ou Svay commune hall.

“Maybe the plan changed to complete construction by 2025?” wondered Roeun Phearin, who was a commune consultant for the Han Seng power plant. “The construction is now paused and we don’t know the reason because it is the internal information of the company.”

Red building with ornate tile roof, sign above entry way in Khmer
Roeun Phearin, who was a commune consultant for the Han Seng power plant in Oddar Meanchey province, said he has received no new information about the long-delayed coal project (Image © Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)

Cambodia bet big on coal in 2020, doubling down on fossil fuels with plans to develop three coal power plants to meet rising electricity demand.

The move bucked the global push for clean energy and dismayed sustainability advocates. But the announced plants are now facing years of delay, raising questions about when, or if, the kingdom’s last coal projects will go online.

When announced, all three plants were attached to China’s global infrastructure-focused Belt and Road Initiative. But while China’s 2021 pledge to cut support for new coal power abroad killed projects elsewhere in Southeast Asia, its plans for Cambodia appeared to survive the chopping block.

Southeast Asia Globe documented the slate of projects across three provinces, as well as Cambodia’s original coal-fired power plant. Of these three sites – which the Cambodian government pledged are its last coal plants – two are in varying stages of inertia. The third is finished and operational

Skeleton of a building viewed through a gap in barbed wire fence
One of Cambodia’s newest proposed coal-fired power plants in Oddar Meanchey province has been dormant for over a year (Image © Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)

In deep-rural Oddar Meanchey province, the 265-megawatt (MW), semi-built Han Seng project missed its deadline to go online last year. Falling revenue for the Chinese companies in charge led them to pivot the project to new contractors, who are sticking with coal, but are also now investing in solar energy at the same plant.

Meanwhile, near the coast in Koh Kong province, south-west Cambodia, the politically connected Royal Group conglomerate has yet to even break ground on a 700 MW power plant initially scheduled to go online this year. Former residents of the area allege unfair deals and heavy-handed evictions.

Just across the Bay of Kampong Som in Sihanoukville province, Cambodia International Investment Development Group’s (CIIDG) new 700 MW coal project appears to be the only one of the three to have hit its expected completion targets.

Just down the same road in Steung Hav district is another plant, the 250 MW Cambodian Energy Limited (CEL) coal complex, which was the first of its kind in the kingdom. Local residents fear the effects these power plants could have on their health and environment.

“This is not good for us,” said Hang Dara, a fisher who left his job as an electrician at CEL because of health concerns. “But it will be much worse for the next generation in this province since they now have even more coal projects.”

Man stands on a boat looking at an industrial building with smokestacks across the water
Hang Dara, an electrician turned fisher, passes the two active coal-fired power plants in Sihanoukville’s Steung Hav district (Image © Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)

Future of fossil fuels

While addressing the UN in 2021 and in order to stay “committed to harmony between man and nature”, President Xi Jinping pledged that China would stop building new coal-fired power projects abroad and step up support for renewables and low-carbon energy.

As a major financier and equipper of coal-fired power plants, China’s announcement was hailed as a major step toward achieving the Paris Agreement goal to limit global temperature rise by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

The fates of 77 Chinese-backed coal projects around the world, which were in varying stages of development before Xi’s pledge, were still uncertain as of October, according to the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA).

Almost half of those power plants would be in Southeast Asia.

If the 37 projects in Indonesia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines are operated for their standard 25-to-30-year lifespans, CREA calculated they’d emit a total of nearly 4,230 million tonnes of carbon. That’s a little less than total US emissions for just last year, the centre said.

The three coal projects in Cambodia continued after China’s pledge, but 14 power plants were officially cancelled in Indonesia and Vietnam, according to CREA, nixing the production of 15.6 gigawatts of coal-fired energy.

Piles of coal on a dock with a power station in the background
A shipment of coal piled onto a dock in Sihanoukville’s Stueng Hav district, home to two coal-fired power plants (Image © Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)

“With the very dramatic drop of costs for clean energy and the increase of costs for coal, the Cambodian government has the chance to re-evaluate if those coal plants are the best way to meet Cambodia’s power needs,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at CREA.

Cambodia is opting into an especially precarious position, Myllyvirta said, as the country mostly depends on imports of coal.

“The wild swings in coal prices and global coal markets in the past three years have vividly demonstrated the economic risks of depending on fossil fuels,” he said, adding that price fluctuations would only “become more volatile”.

In 2021, Cambodia imported approximately US$222 million worth of coal, according to records from the UN Comtrade Database processed by Harvard Growth Lab’s Atlas of Economic Complexity.

The trade data underlines the role of Indonesia as Cambodia’s largest coal exporter for more than a decade. Nearly 85% of coal imported by Cambodia from 2012 to 2021 came from the country.

Zulfikar Yurnaidi, a senior officer at the ASEAN Centre for Energy in Jakarta, agreed with Myllyvirta on the future of coal being increasingly uncertain. Yurnaidi said the international “allergy” for the commodity continues to be an unaddressed ASEAN issue.

“We cannot wish coal and fossil fuels gone right away,” Yurnaidi said. “Support from foreign financial institutions is still required. Maybe not to install a dirty power plant, but to help us reach the end goal of reducing emissions by upgrading fossil fuels and investing in renewable energy.”

Large excavation site or quarry with mining activity
The Yun Khean coal mine operates down the road from the construction site of the Han Seng power plant in Oddar Meanchey province (Image © Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)
A dog stands in front of a gate leading to a partially covered warehouse containing mounds of black material
In 2021, Di Rado, deputy governor of Oddar Meanchey province, said the plant would source coal from existing mines (Image © Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)

As coal funding runs dry, international climate finance has risen in Southeast Asia, with millions of US dollars going into “just energy” transitions in Vietnam and Indonesia. After the third Belt and Road Forum in mid-October, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Manet announced Chinese state-owned power companies had offered the kingdom more than US$600 million to fund renewable energy projects.

Despite foreign funding, Yurnaidi said ASEAN’s emphasis on economic growth means the bloc will continue to require coal while member states shift to renewable energy sources.

“ASEAN is a very huge ship with hundreds of millions of people and trillions in GDP,” Yurnaidi said. “With the energy transition, we know this ship needs to take a turn. But we cannot just make a sudden roundabout, because then everyone will fall into the sea.”

Counting on coal

Cambodia’s bet on coal seemed to embody that idea.

In the aftermath of Covid-19, Cambodia’s Power Development Master Plan charts the way for the country’s energy expansion from 2022 to 2040 and predicts a steady rise in national demand for energy.

The first five years of every “energy scenario” within the plan prioritises the development of Cambodia’s proposed roster of three new coal sites.

At a meeting before COP26 in 2021, Cambodia’s Minister of Mines and Energy Suy Sem said the country would no longer approve additional coal projects.

Map of Cambodia, with markers showing the location of coal power plants in south and north of country
The Ministry of Mines and Energy’s power plan for Cambodia includes the development of two new coal plants: Han Seng in Oddar Meanchay province and the Royal Group facility in Koh Kong province. It also includes the expansion of the active Cambodia International Investment and Development Group (CIIDG) power plant in Sihanoukville province. (Graphic source: Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe. Data: Cambodia’s Ministry of Mines and Energy)

The years of construction delays facing two of the three power plants have some experts wary of potential energy shortages. Chea Sophorn, an energy project manager who specialises in renewable developments, said shortages would depend on how quickly the kingdom’s post-Covid economy, and thus energy demand, recovers.

But with international investors turning away from fossil fuels, Sophorn emphasised that securing support to jump-start the two stalled projects could be difficult.

“What type of investor will still be able to finance stranded assets like this?” Sophorn asked, explaining that, without China, there are few to no places for these projects to turn.

Cheap Sour, an official with the Ministry of Mines and Energy, declined to comment and referred Southeast Asia Globe to the ministry spokesman, Heng Kunleang, who left the Globe’s text and voice messageson “read”.Eung Dipola, director-general of the ministry’s Department of Minerals, was unavailable for comment.

Construction in Cambodia

In Oddar Meanchey, financial difficulties have already pushed companies backing the US$370 million Han Seng power plant to pivot.

The state-owned Guodian Kangneng Technology Stock Co Ltd suffered a massive decrease in its net profit for shareholders in the first half of last year and brought in a new contractor, Huazi International, in September.

The plan to install 265 MW of coal-fired power hasn’t changed, but Huazi has since announced intentions to add 200 MW of solar capacity to the site. This is the first time any other type of energy production has been associated with the struggling Han Seng power plant.

Red banner pinned to a wall with Chinese and Khmer script on
China CAMC Engineering and the Guodian Kangneng Technology Stock company are both listed at the Han Seng coal project (Image © Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)
Faded red sign next to a road with Chinese and Khmer script on
Down the road, a sign in Mandarin and Khmer identifies the Yun Khean coal mine, which could supply the power plant one day (Image © Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)

Just two kilometres from the semi-constructed project site, the Yun Khean coal mine, which is intended to supply the plant, is operating as usual.

Boy Troch, who lives a stone’s throw away from the mine’s slag heaps, believes mining operations contaminated the groundwater beneath his farm, damaging crops and causing harm to wildlife.

“There are a lot of lands affected by the mine, but village and commune chiefs do not care,” Troch said, pointing at shifting slag heaps across the road from his farm.

With his grandchildren by his side, Troch said he feared coal mining would proliferate in his district if the power plant went online.

“We are afraid to protest because our voice isn’t heard,” Troch said. “We are ordinary people. We are more afraid that they will evict us from this land.”

Man, sitting, with hands clasped looks at the camera
Boy Troch, a former member of the Khmer Rouge, lives next to the Yun Khean coal mine in Cambodia’s Oddar Meanchey province (Image © Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)
Two hands holding a smartphone, screen facing the camera
In Koh Kong, Keo Khorn shows the home he was evicted from after the land he resided on was sold to Royal Group for a coal-power plant (Image © Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)
Someone presses a thumb against a piece of paper
Khorn and his neighbours petitioned provincial and national ministries for fair compensation to no avail (Image © Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)

In Koh Kong, stories from evicted residents may validate such fears.

Royal Group, one of the largest investment conglomerates in Cambodia with direct ties to former prime minister Hun Sen, received a nearly 170-hectare land concession in 2020 within Botum Sakor National Park for the coal power plant.

People living on the site without land titles complained of rough evictions for which they were not compensated. Former resident Keo Khorn’s home was torn down in 2021 by a government task force. With 37 other evictees, he petitioned for reparations.

“We all came together to complain about the company,” Khorn said. “Everyone heard us, the provincial ministries and the national ministries. But no one did anything.”

The project site is currently vacant, but workers are clearing forests around the location. These areas, also within the national park, were given to Royal Group in a second, nearly 10,000-hectare land concession this year.

When contacted, Thomas Pianka, with Royal Group’s energy division, flatly refused to speak with Southeast Asia Globe reporters.

“No, I don’t need to talk to you,” he said before hanging up a call.

Aerial view of partially deforested landscape
Workers haven’t broken ground on the land Royal Group designated for the coal power plant in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province, but they are clearing forests around the designated site (Image © Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)

Where coal plants are actually operating, in Sihanoukville province, residents have different worries.

A security guard for the older CEL site said other workers have told him about health concerns, but said the company has never mentioned any risks.

Where the guard lives, deputy village chief Ly Socheat said she regularly fields complaints about the smell from the power plant. Socheat said many of the families in her village have stopped collecting rainwater due to fears of contamination from the coal.

Despite having attended several meetings about potential employment opportunities at the power plant, Socheat said she has also never been informed of any potential health impacts.

Residents complained of respiratory issues and headaches, but coal-fired power plants have also been linked to cancer. A 2019 study estimates that by 2025, 1.37 million cases of lung cancer around the world will be linked to such plants.

A man, face out of shot, wearing a t-shirt bearing the Cambodia flag holds a red safety helmet under his arm
A plant security guard for Cambodian Energy Limited living near the active coal-fired power plant (Image © Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)

In the waters just off the coast, fisher Hang Dara recounted why he left his job as an electrician at CEL to instead cast for crabs by the power plant. He believed the plant’s discharged water was heating the bay and harming the environment.

“I was very worried about my health,” said Dara, who explained he had severe headaches and chronic coughs while working at the power station. “But now I am very worried about the health of the fish.”

As Dara stood by the bow, his fishing partner Loy Chaeum drove from the stern. As they passed coal loading docks supplying the two power plants, Chaeum excitedly pointed out an Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin – classed as a vulnerable species –surfacing for air.

“I don’t see many dolphins now; they don’t like the coal. Like us, they must go farther and farther away to survive,” said Chaeum, who explained he motored across the bay every morning in search of a better catch.

That brings him closer to Koh Kong, where there may one day be another coal-fired power plant.

“If they build it, there will be nowhere for them or us to go,” he said, turning back to land, having lost sight of the dolphin.

Smokestacks are seen from a boat next to the silhouette of a person
Loy Chaeum, a crab fisher in Sihanoukville province, passes the coal power plants on the coast of Steung Hav district (Image © Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)
A dolphin cresting above the surface of the sea
An Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin swims back out to sea, away from the coal loading docks of Steung Hav (Image © Anton L. Delgado / Southeast Asia Globe)

Additional reporting was contributed by Andrew Haffner, with translations by Sophanna Lay and Nasa Dip.

This article was supported by a “News Reporting Pitch Grant” from the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Foundation in Cambodia. It was first published by Southeast Asia Globe and is republished here with permission. It cannot be republished without permission from Southeast Asia Globe.