HANOI, Vietnam (AlertNet) – Until recently, when teacher Nguyen Thi Thu Ha wrote something on the blackboard of her dimly lit classroom, her students would immediately consult their classmates to see if anyone could read it.
“They used to have to turn to their neighbour and ask, ‘What is it?’” remembers the fourth grade teacher, who battled to keep noise levels down.
But thanks to the installation of new energy-efficient classroom lighting – part of a nationwide effort to improve energy conservation in Vietnam and curb climate change – Ha’s classroom is now quieter, brighter and producing better test results.
“Before, I couldn’t see the blackboard clearly,” says Pham Hong Mai, one of Ha’s 10-year-old pupils who moved onto the school’s academic honour roll after the new lights were installed. “Now I can.”
Vietnam is often listed among the countries most vulnerable to climate change. Sea level rise threatens the Mekong Delta, home to the country’s rice production, as well as Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest city, its economic capital and home to much of the nation’s wealth of new industry. Increasingly irregular rainfall is hurting the country’s reliance on hydroelectric dams for a share of its power.
But Vietnam’s leaders also see climate change pressures as an opportunity. Since 2005, the government has passed energy efficiency laws and worked with the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), the Global Environmental Facility and national institutions such as the Vietnamese Academy of Science and Technology to increase the use of high-efficiency public lighting and turn the country’s biggest state-run lighting manufacturing plant into a largely private and increasingly profitable producer of energy efficient light bulbs.
That has fueled a surge in exports to countries as diverse as Brazil, South Korea, Australia and India, and assisted local authorities in installing high-efficiency lighting in 10 percent of the country’s half-million public school classrooms, saving cash and improving conditions for millions of school children.
“There’s a big cut in power consumption,” boasted Nguyen Doan Thang, director general of Hanoi’s revamped Rang Dong lighting factory. And “the public is happy to use our products.”
JOBS AND EXPORTS
In the board room of the sprawling Rang Dong factory complex, a bust of Ho Chi Minh and gold-fringed red Vietnamese flags now share space with a display of new high-tech lighting products, including compact fluorescent and LED (light emitting diode) bulbs.
Since 2005, state support for the factory has been reduced from 100 percent to 20 percent, and private investment has helped pay for a $7.2 million new production line to build energy efficient bulbs, Thang said.
Recovering that investment was supposed to take four to five years. But with demand for the new lighting surging – the company saw a 60 percent boost in its exports last year alone – the new line is now expected to pay for itself in two to three years, Thang said.
High-efficiency bulbs today account for 60 percent of Rang Dong’s revenue – it still produces old-style bulbs as well – and producing them has helped create 500 new jobs, the company chief said.
The bulbs are also playing an increasingly important role in ensuring Vietnam’s lights stay on. The country, which relies on coal, gas and hydroelectricity for power, is struggling to cope with surging demand for energy as fossil fuel prices continue to rise and hydropower production becomes more irregular in response to worsening droughts and unusual rainfall patterns believed linked to climate change.
In a country where 25 percent of power production goes to keep lights burning, “energy efficiency for lighting plays a very important role” in conserving power, said Phan Hong Khoi, director of the UNDP-backed Vietnam Energy Efficient Public Lighting project.
Efforts to cut power use while extending access to good-quality lighting also are paying social benefits. At Thanh Tri Town Primary School, a complex of yellow-tiled, veranda-fronted classrooms in a fast-growing suburb of Hanoi, school officials have had to quadruple the number of classrooms, to 16, in recent years to keep up with demand.
But the school has also been able to cut its power consumption per classroom by 30 to 40 percent by installing high-efficiency light fixtures that have simultaneously brightened once-dim classrooms, said Nguyen Tat Hoan, the school’s principal.
Nguyen Duc Minh, an economist who works with the UNDP-backed effort, plonks a light meter down on a desk in one revamped fourth grade classroom. It shows illumination of 600 lux – six times what the room formerly registered, and twice the international standard for adequate classroom lighting.
An array of 13 compact fluorescent tube lights, set in white-painted, downward-reflecting fixtures, now make the blackboard much easier to see, both teachers and students say.
“The pupils enjoy the new lighting very much. It’s affected their psychology a lot,” said Ha, the classroom teacher. It’s also reduced the time she needs to introduce new ideas, she said.
Fitting a classroom with the new lights costs about $500, including design, wiring, materials and installation, economist Minh said, but electricity savings mean the costs are recovered within two years – a period that continues to shorten as electricity prices rise. Still, getting the lights installed in classrooms across Vietnam remains a challenge because of the high upfront costs, which parents and local authorities are asked to pay.
“In poor, remote areas it’s very difficult to raise the funds,” Minh said, noting that most of the high-efficiency lighting conversions have so far happened in urban areas.
Investing in better lighting has produced some unexpected payoffs at Thanh Tri Town Primary. School officials say the percent of pupils judged nearsighted has fallen from 17 percent to 12 percent in the year since the new lights were installed, presumably because more can now see the blackboard without difficulties.
“If kids are short-sighted now, it is because of too much TV watching,” Minh joked.
Laurie Goering, the editor of AlertNet Climate, recently travelled in Vietnam. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.