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The illusions clouding Thailand's energy outlook

Apr 01. 2014
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By Achara Deboonme

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The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) has hosted media trips to several countries over the past few years.
The destinations have been coal-fired power plants which boast excellent pollution-control measures. Reporters have been briefed about techniques that ensure low omissions of sulphur and other pollutants. Egat’s message is clear: the nightmare created by its Mae Moh power plant in Lampang two decades ago is firmly in the past, thanks to today’s advanced technology. 
The electricity generator’s objective is just as clear. Egat officials have been talking for some time about the difficulty in building new power plants, amid local resistance.
But despite spending so much time and money on public relations, Egat is unlikely to achieve what it wants, mainly because of its poor communications strategy.
Established 45 years ago, Egat’s mission is to ensure sufficient power supply for Thailand’s economic and social development. As a state enterprise at a time when government check-and-balance mechanisms were even poorer than they are today, its operations caused trouble. The Mae Moh episode ruined its plans to erect more power plants.
Blackouts would be an everyday occurrence but for the policy to allow independent power producers (IPPs) to contribute. For the last decade, several private companies have been selected to produce power. Meanwhile Thai power companies’ investment in Laos has also secured a supply of hydropower. 
Things were smooth, until private producers who won the second round off IPP bidding faced strong resistance from local communities surrounding proposed power plants. These projects have been delayed for two years, threatening national power security. 
These days everyone wants to own electronic devices, and power demand looks set to grow. Yet, some of us continue to act like we have an abundant supply. As such, Egat should be commended for the fact that no part of Thailand routinely experiences blackouts, or even brownouts. 
Egat and other relevant agencies have to do more to kill the public’s illusions about the supply and demand of power in Thailand.
One such illusion is that we have massive dams that ensure an unlimited power supply. Over the past year, Egat has been so busy advertising the turnaround of Mae Moh power plant that it has neglected to mention that hydropower accounts for just 5 per cent of total capacity. 
There have been also been calls for more investment in solar energy. Well, the bright, hot sun seems like a clinching argument, but few people know that solar farms need huge plots of land. SPCG, one of the big solar-energy players, had to acquire 6,000 rai for 34 solar farms with a combined capacity of 240 megawatts. If the entire country was to be powered by solar power, we would need some 800,000 rai for solar panels that could generate 32,000MW – the current installed capacity. And we would need more land if power demand continued to rise in tandem with economic growth. 
Given that most of the available land is upcountry, solar farms would threaten our agricultural capacity. And, more significantly, how many Thais would be ready to shoulder the sharp rise in their bills. We currently pay about Bt3 per unit; 100 per cent solar power would cost about Bt8 per unit. For a typical household with no air-conditioners that consumes less than 100 units, the power bill could spike from Bt300 to Bt800 a month. 
Another illusion concerns the ability to generate power from wind. Wind speeds in Thailand are relatively low. On Doi Intanon, our highest peak, the average wind speed is only 6.4 metres per second. In Germany, where wind turbines are everywhere, the average wind speed is 7.5 metres per second along the coast and 5.5 metres per second in the south.
Egat also has an illusion to deal with. Officials have cried foul over the growing public calls for more wind and solar energy. They insist that without new power plants, particularly those powered by “clean” coal, the country will suffer from shortages.
Well, such a claim seems irrelevant, thanks to Egat’s message to the public last weekend. 
On March 29, Thailand and many countries observed “Earth Hour”. 
Egat was elated with the results: 1,778MW was saved as people turned off superfluous lighting for one hour. It was a big success, given that the Philippines – with a similar sized economy – saved only 611MW.
Egat was more than happy to announce that the country had saved over Bt6 million in power bills. What it didn’t mention was that the power saved was equivalent to the capacity of a big new power plant. 
What a missed opportunity! Our state power provider should have grabbed the chance to launch a monthly “Earth Hour”. If the rate saved was maintained, we could save over 20,000MW per year. All of us should lend a hand if we don’t want new power plants.
It’s time to tell the public that the demand side is equally important as the supply side. 

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