Chinese firms step up investments in climate-friendly power projects in Southeast Asia as costs fall, policy shifts

Eric Ng
·4-min read

Chinese companies and financiers, the biggest backers of coal power plants globally, are stepping up their investments in Southeast Asia’s renewable power sector, thanks to the falling costs of clean energy and climate-friendly policy in the region, according to project advisers.

“There is an increasing shift in focus since 2018 to invest in renewable projects,” said Singapore-based Kim Hock Ang, a principal in law firm Baker McKenzie Wong & Leow’s finance and projects team. “I see Chinese sponsors setting up subsidiaries focusing solely on [them].”

Supported by China’s solar equipment manufacturers, which have built the biggest supply chain in the world, Chinese investors are in a particularly strong position in terms of cost-competitiveness in project tenders.

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“Chinese bidders have had overwhelming success in recent Myanmar solar tenders,” he said. “They have also been active in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.”

Vietnam’s policies allowing full foreign ownership of renewable projects also played a role in attracting Chinese companies, he added. Malaysia and the Philippines have foreign ownership restrictions.

State-owned power plant builder PowerChina financed a 0.5 gigawatt solar farm in southern Vietnam which was the largest in Southeast Asia when it was completed in mid 2019.

Vietnam, whose power demand grew at an average annual rate of 10 per cent in the five years to 2019, aims to lift the proportion of renewables in its power capacity mix to 15-20 per cent by 2030 from 10 per cent in 2020.

Subsidised power tariffs could see Vietnam’s wind-power generating capacity surge from 0.5GW in 2019 to 4GW by 2025, although a proposed 17 per cent tariff cut and power grid bottlenecks could dampen growth from 2022, industry body Global Wind Energy Council said.

While Chinese investors and financiers are paying more attention to renewable energy, they will not stop investing in fossil fuel projects in the region, said Lucas Zhang Liutong, director of consultancy WaterRock Energy Economics.

Rapid growth in demand for power means they also need to build so-called baseload plants, he noted.

These are large and can produce energy at a constant rate. They include nuclear, coal and hydro plants, in contrast to wind and solar farms which are typically smaller and whose output is intermittent.

These countries are still looking to invest in more efficient and “cleaner” coal power plants to meet their rising demand and replace old and inefficient ones, Zhang said.

“This trend will probably continue until there are economically viable baseload alternatives,” he said. “Indonesia and the Philippines do plan to invest much more in geothermal power, which can be a viable baseload option, but the development timeline can be long.”

Policy banks in China, Japan and South Korea provided a combined US$78.9 billion for the construction of fossil fuel-fired power plants globally between 2009 and 2019, compared to just US$9.1 billion for renewable energy projects, according to a report published by environmental campaigner Greenpeace in December.

This is set to change. The Japan Bank for International Cooperation, under pressure from environmental groups, said in April last year it will stop accepting loan applications for new coal power plants. Some Japanese and Korean commercial banks have pledged the same, but Chinese banks have yet to do so.

Chinese companies have been encouraged by Beijing to make sustainability a priority when assessing investment targets in 138 nations covered by its Belt and Road Initiative, including Southeast Asia.

President Xi Jinping said last April that infrastructure projects built under the initiative must be green and sustainable.

Southeast Asia has the biggest block of coal-fired power plants either planned or under construction outside mainland China, with a combined capacity of 79GW – seven times Hong Kong’s installed capacity, according to Greenpeace.

Energy demand growth in the region would create a potential market for renewable energy projects worth US$205 billion this decade, it said.

The projection assumes the region will one day adopt similar pledges made by China, Japan and South Korea in recent months to become carbon-neutral – with emissions to be offset by projects capturing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

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