Coal and nuclear PR could start in schools
Bangkok Post
Mar 22, 2007
The government plans to embark on a large-scale public relations campaign that may include adjusting school curriculums in an effort to win public support for nuclear or coal-fired power plants in the coming years, according to Norkhun Sitthipong, the Energy Ministry's permanent secretary. ''Nuclear power is unavoidable, but it takes time,'' he said in an interview. ''We need at least seven years to change laws and regulations and get approval from the International Atomic Energy Association.

''It will take a large public relations campaign to educate the public, starting from kindergarten. We have to discuss with the Ministry of Education [how] to change the curriculum.''

Policymakers are in the midst of preparing a 15-year power development plan (PDP) that calls for electricity production to more than double to about 55,000 megawatts by 2021.

Energy Ministry officials have said the plan aims to diversify fuel sources away from a heavy reliance on natural gas for electricity, but many analysts doubt whether the government has the political will to push through a controversial switch to coal or nuclear power.

Three proposals have been put forward for the PDP. The first says coal will produce two-thirds of new capacity; the second says only 9%; and the third envisions 53% coal and 15% nuclear.

Since most analysts think nuclear power is at least a decade away, the short-term plan calls for either increased hydropower imports from neighbouring countries or _ much to the dismay of environmental groups _ the development of coal-fired power plants.

''Most of the new power plants will be coal because of the price,'' Mr Norkhun said. ''The tariff of coal-fired power plants is the cheapest.''

However, he added, finding a place to build a coal-fired power plant was ''extremely difficult''.

In a bid to win local support for new power plant proposals, the cabinet recently approved a draft of the Energy Industry Act. The Council of State will now vet the bill before it heads to the National Legislative Assembly for consideration.

The draft law calls for an energy tax that will funnel millions of baht into villages falling within a five-kilometre radius of any power plant. For example, a 700- megawatt coal-fired plant could bring surrounding communities up to 150 million baht per year, Mr Norkhun said.

Moreover, the Energy Ministry may offer the communities big discounts on electricity bills.

But while the government realises the need to diversify away from gas, many analysts doubt if it has the political strength to follow through on coal.

In calling for coal-fired plants, Mr Norkhun said that private companies would be on their own to win the support of local communities _ a move that would likely deter most private operators from choosing coal unless they can put the plant in an industrial estate.

''The current government is damaged goods, and it doesn't have the courage to stand up and say a coal-fired plant needs to be built. If they don't use coal, they'll have a problem in 2012, but nobody in the government wants to get chewed up Pridiyathorn-style for taking a tough stance on an issue people feel very emotional about,'' said a long-time energy consultant in Bangkok, referring to former deputy premier M.R. Pridiyathorn Devakula.

Certainly the country's bad experience with Egat's dirty lignite-fuelled power plant in Lampang province lingers in the background of any coal discussion.

Protests from villagers in Prachuap Khiri Khan, where earlier coal plants were proposed and then scrapped, also forced the cancellation of the first PDP public hearing in February.

Mr Norkhun declined to speculate on what energy mix the final PDP would stipulate. But he said the ministry would hold another public hearing on April 4, and hoped to approve the PDP by the end of next month.

''For the next public hearing, we'll use the military auditorium so hopefully we won't have the same problems,'' he said.