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Pragmatic Approaches to Coal and Renewable Energy in Thailand

Thai protestors demonstrate their opposition to the Krabi coal plant in February 2017. Image: Phuket Gazette

 Over the next two decades, Thailand’s Power Development Plan 2015-2036  lays out a path to increase its use of coal as a portion of its overall power mix (PDP2015).The rise of coal is an intentional diversification away from Thailand’s long-standing reliance on natural gas, which has raised its energy security risk. Domestic natural gas is depleting rapidly, and the country is heavily dependent on natural gas imports from Myanmar. However, coal is not as popular with the general public, as Thais are now more keen to develop renewable energy sources. To Thai people, pursuing a path that leads to wider use of renewables fulfills two objectives: it reduces environmental impacts and also supports the local economy, enabling more citizens to produce and sell electricity back into grids. In the battle over Thailand’s energy future, the country can move toward actions that address fundamental dimensions of energy development – local concerns, environmental threats, and energy security by including public involvement, expanding renewable infrastructure, and taking responsibilities to social and environmental impacts by the government.

Prior to the detention of protest leaders in early February, local citizens of Krabi Province in southern Thailand and environmental activists gathered in front of the House of Government in Bangkok to protest against a proposed 800-megawatt coal-fired power plant in their hometown. According to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), the plant will tackle power shortages related to a projected annual demand growth of 6% and insufficient grid infrastructure in the southern region. The new power plant reflects Thailand’s PDP2015 that lays out an increase in the share of coal power generation via clean coal technology from 20% to 25%. The local citizens, however, asserted that renewable energy such as solar and biomass should be considered, instead of coal, together with reinforcement of the renewable grid connection network[i]. Although the potential nation-wide application of a renewables-only strategy is a long way off, policymakers should recognize that renewables have the potential to become a substantial source of electricity in the region.  Pursuing coal as a dominant power source without developing capacity for alternatives will undoubtedly make Thailand’s energy security even more vulnerable.

According to PDP2015, Thailand’s power development aims to address the energy security issue by diversifying its energy mix and avoiding over-dependency on a particular source. Thailand currently ranks near the top of the list in least energy secure countries, according to the US Chamber of Commerce. Thailand plans to curtail natural gas use that accounts for as high as 67% of its total electricity generation in 2015, and diversify by building new coal-fired power plants. New coal-fired generation units in the country would replace old and inefficient coal-fired power plants with “supercritical” or “ultra-supercritical” technologies, leading to an increase in energy efficiency ranging from 30%-50%. Nevertheless, the current most advanced ultra-supercritical technology could render 17% less carbon emissions, compared to other pollutants such as nitrogen which could be reduced up to 80%. Coal prices are expected to decrease by 23%-49% in year 2020 due to its abundant availability. This expected price drop supports EGAT’s estimation that at a capacity of 1000 megawatts, coal-fired power plants will save Thailand up to USD $86 million per year compared to natural gas.

New coal generation, however, carries a set of potential environmental and health concerns, not to mention the tourism impact emerging from coal transportation by water in tourist-concentrated areas such as Krabi. Although some pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and PM2.5 released are not a concern, the potential impact of externalities such as mercury contamination have not yet been studied. Worries about transparency and misjudgment to build the new coal power plant have pressured the Thai government to require a new and more stringent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Environmental Health Impact Assessment (EHIA) to prove the safety of environment and the people.

There is still a silver lining in Thailand’s drive for diversification, in that the national energy plan predicts that renewable energy will grow from 8 to 20 percent of Thailand’s total capacity over the next two decades (AEDP2015). To help meet this target, the Thai government has encouraged renewables by initiating subsidies in a form of feed-in tariff (FIT) to both small and large commercial-scale producers. The FIT rates differ on power plant size and fuel types i.e. waste, biomass, biogas, wind, hydropower, and solar.

Krabi residents are more ambitious than the PDP, as many are advocating for 100% of electricity generation from renewables as the ultimate goal. According to the Research Center in Energy and Environment in Thaksin University, it would be economically and technologically feasible for installations of renewable energy to power the entire province within 2 years. If fully employed, solar, wind, biomass, biogas, and waste capacities combined could provide electricity exceeding Krabi province’s power demand. Similar practices could be adopted by other provinces in the South. A study by Thai Health Promotion Foundation (in Thai) estimated that the exclusive utilization of alternative energy in all the southern provinces alone could increase GDP by $3.309 million USD (116,000 million BTH) and employment by 200,000 workers by 2027, while decreasing imported fossil fuel costs by $683 million USD (24,000 million BTH) and greenhouse gas emissions by 27 million tons per year. However, reliance on renewables alone would endanger local electricity stability since renewables are limited in transmission network and storage capacity.

How, then, should Thailand develop an approach considering its citizens’ health, environmental concerns, and energy security?  First and foremost, the Thai government should allow public participation to occur. There is no denying that the opposition of the coal power plant derived from the lack of decision-making power by local individuals and organizations. Citizens should have a role to play in the decision-making process about energy development in their community. Reports of the benefits and disadvantages conducted by both the government and non-partisan groups should be provided to citizens for their review and understanding. This will also promote transparency and allow the government to discuss its national energy issues with its citizens.

At the same time, adoption of renewable energy sources should be encouraged with a negotiated percentage of the total electricity needed, given its energy diversification benefits. Since Thailand primarily imports energy from abroad, the country should harness its domestic renewable energy potential by enhancing infrastructure for renewable such as transmission and distribution networks for renewables to reverse its current energy dependence. Inevitably, this could solve network congestion that prevents power already online from selling back to the grids.    These improvements will decrease the need for so many new natural gas and coal developments and support diversification.

Due to renewable network constraints and energy security purposes, a balanced use of nonrenewable fuel sources should still be considered.  Whether new coal-fired power plants should be developed or not depends on the consensus for which the public has a stake. The Thai government should assure its people, particularly those who would be directly affected by the operation of new fossil fuel power plants, that adequate remedy will be given if undesirable conditions incur. For a more sustainable path, as IEA Clean Coal Center suggested, the government should establish a clean coal research center to undertake studies on clean coal technologies and implementation. Such a center would allow international experts or organizations a first point to contact and focus their resources and expertise when promoting and/or supporting the clean coal technologies in Thailand.

[i] Thailand’s national renewable development plan, Alternative Energy Development Plan, aims to increase renewable generation to 20% of its overall installed capacity. The target is one of the most ambitious renewable energy plans in Southeast Asia. However, renewable energy facilities tend to concentrate in certain areas, leading to network congestion caused by limited transmission lines. To date, current capacity and planned network reinforcement information has not been publicly available and included in the energy plan.


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Thinking Outside the Dome

The meteoric popularity of Chai Jing’s “Under the Dome,” attests to the Chinese public’s readiness for stronger environmental policies to tackle air pollution. Despite its banning last Friday, the documentary’s apparent support from certain branches of the bureaucracy, and increasing pro-environment rhetoric coming into this year’s hosting of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (also referred to as the Lianghui) seem to suggest that change may be in the air when it comes to tackling China’s smog. What is less clear is what the hidden consequences of these efforts to combat urban air pollution will be.

A fresh shipment of coal from western China.

In September 2013, the State Council promulgated the Action Plan for Air Pollution Prevention and Control (APPC), which contained directives addressing China’s air crisis. These included a reduction in coal’s share in China’s energy profile to 65% by 2017, reduced capacity in high polluting industries like steel and cement production, and improved fuel quality standards.[i] The next year, Premier Li Keqiang famously declared “war on pollution,” spotlighting the issue as a top-tier policy concern.

Regionally, the government has banned new construction of highly-polluting industrial projects such as coal power plants and steel factories in key cities on the east coast. However, the push to curb air pollution in Beijing is driving the coal industry westward, where massive coal bases are being established to feed China’s need for energy. Environmental activists are concerned that because of the massive quantities of water needed for coal processing — up to 20% of China’s water resources are used to produce energy from coal[ii]— the additional strain of a larger western coal industry may wreak havoc on water tables and food resources in a region already plagued by desertification.

Distribution of coal reserves in China.

Air pollution activists also have good reasons to be concerned about this trend. Northern China not only suffers from air quality problems arising from pollutants, but also from periodic dust storms that roll in from China’s northwest.  Relocating coal plants, especially coal-to-chemical projects, and other water intensive polluters to these regions is an invitation for ecological disaster. Worse, Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections show a potential for increased desertification in China due to global warming. Increased coal capacity will continue to threaten the ecosystems of northwestern China and thus the health of China’s citizens elsewhere. The specter of intensified dust storms descending on Beijing each spring should give those concerned about air pollution reason to demand strict controls on heavy industry and coal processing in northwestern China, not just in Beijing and its direct environs.

The upshot of the energy development story in China’s northwest is that many of the same areas endowed with rich coal reserves are also blessed with massive wind resources. In the last decade, the central government has actively pushed for the development of wind power, resulting in a 73-fold increase in wind capacity since 2006.[iii] Moreover, the same electricity corridors built to accommodate China’s new coal bases will also serve large wind farms. Much, however, is still up in the air. Will wind power be given priority in power transmission eastward? Will wind power have the funding and support it needs? And what will be the consequences of China’s massive coal development in the west? These are questions that a concerned Chinese citizenry will need to address in order to breathe free.

Charles Vest is a freelance translator and environmental activist based in Beijing. He researches climate change and environmental policy in China

[i] Cornot-Gandolphe, Sylvie, “China’s Coal Market: Can Beijing Tame ‘King Coal’?” Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, http://www.oxfordenergy.org/2014/12/chinas-coal-market-can-beijing-tame-king-coal-2/

[ii] China’s Water-Energy-Food Roadmap, accessible from http://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/global-choke-point-report-chinas-water-energy-food-roadmap

[iii] Li Xin, “Decarbonizing China’s Power System with Wind Power — The Past and the Future,” Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, http://www.oxfordenergy.org/2015/01/decarbonizing-chinas-power-system-wind-power-past-future/

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