With a theoretical hydropower potential of 26.5 GW, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) is among the richest countries in south-east Asia in terms of hydropower resources.
Due to high average annual precipitation, hilly terrain and a low population density that limits the need for human resettlements, 18 GW of the theoretical potential are technically exploitable. Lao PDR’s geographic region includes a significant part of the Mekong River basin and its tributaries, which contribute an estimated 35 per cent of the Mekong’s total inflows.
Hydropower is now seen as a cost-effective energy supply option in Laos. However there were only four operational hydropower stations, totalling 206 MW installed capacity, before the Laotian government opened the power sector to foreign investment in 1993. Since then, the country has experienced a rapid growth in installed hydropower capacity, bringing more than 3.5 GW online during the past 20 years. Growth in the Laotian hydropower sector has been driven by demand for electricity exports to neighbouring Thailand and, to a lesser extent, Vietnam; consequently these neighbouring countries have supported the development of projects in Laos.
Laos currently exports an estimated two-thirds of its hydropower. Revenues from power exports make a significant contribution to economic growth and poverty alleviation in the country. Electricity accounts for roughly 30 per cent of all Laotian exports. In 1993, Laos and Thailand signed their first memorandum of understanding (MOU), which outlined a plan for Laos to supply 1,500 MW of power to Thailand.
This MOU has since been extended several times in response to rising demand in Thailand. The most recent power purchase scheme states that Laos will supply some 7,000 MW of electricity to Thailand by 2020. Laos has also entered into similar bilateral agreements with both Vietnam (5,000 MW) and Cambodia (200 MW).
Under these agreements, approved independent power producer (IPP) projects that export energy are required to reserve a minimum of 10 per cent of their total installed capacity for domestic markets.
Investment from neighbouring countries has contributed to a significant increase in the country’s electrification rate over the last 20 years. The Laotian electrification rate increased from 15 per cent in 1995 to close to 90 per cent in 2015, though the remaining unserved areas are remote and difficult to reach.
Laos added 599 MW of installed hydropower capacity in 2015, bringing its total installed capacity to 4,168 MW. In its intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Laos outlined continued plans for hydropower development, projecting a total hydropower installed capacity of 5,500 MW by 2020 and further 20,000 MW planned after 2020. In total, there are more than 50 hydropower sites in the country which are expected to be operational by 2025.
The 130 MW Nam Khan 2 project, located in the northern Luang Prabang province, was completed in cooperation with the China Power Construction Corporation and Sinohydro. This station will mainly supply domestic power demand, but is also a milestone project for cooperation between Laos and China; Nam Khan 2 will also provide power for the construction and operation of the upcoming China- Laos railway to be completed by 2021.
After four years of construction, Nam Ngiep 2 in Xieng Khuang province was connected to the national grid. The 180 MW generating station was constructed by the China International Water & Electric Corporation (90 per cent ownership) in partnership with Electricite du Laos (10 per cent) under a build-own-operate-transfer (BOOT) scheme. The power supplied from Nam Ngiep 2 will contribute towards meeting local demand.
The first station of a seven-stage cascade project was completed on the Nam Ou River in late 2015. Nam Ou 2 (120 MW) is part of the first phase of the cascade development and is located upstream of Nam Ou 5 (240 MW) and Nam Ou 6 (180 MW), which are expected to come online in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
Other stations commissioned in 2015 include Houay Lampien (88 MW) in the south, Nam San 3B (45 MW) in central Laos, and Nam Beng (36 MW) in the north.
This country profile is featured in the 2016 Hydropower Status Report. You can download the full report here.
This profile was last updated in May 2016.