Power planners fail to see the light
The Nation
Apr 10, 2007
by Tira Foran
On March 28, The Nation reported that more than 16.4 million Thais are now living in areas at risk from rising sea levels and intense cyclones linked to climate change.

Thailand currently has no obligations under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Nor has it set any other targets.

On the same day, The Nation's editorial page urged the Surayud government to restore flagging GDP growth by developing "coherent" economic policy, specifically with respect to promoting foreign investment.

When it comes to electric power systems planning - a major draw for foreign investment - the problem is not lack of coherence. If you look at Thailand's draft 2007 Power Development Plan, you will see very clear roles for coal, large hydropower dams, and even nuclear power.

But as a professional response to protecting Thai people from a warming planet or from environmental hazard, the plan is astonishingly inadequate. And as the most economical use of scarce state resources, it amounts to a policy failure.

Whereas many other nations have woken up to the inconvenient truth of climate change, Thailand's energy experts still cling to controversial long-term planning practices.

The 2007 Power Development Plan projects Thailand's electricity consumption for the 15 years to 2021. It hasn't been fully revealed to the public, but parts of it unveiled since late last year show how the planners want to march Thailand into the future with its eyes wide shut to clean energy alternatives:

Thai people will see on average one or two large power generating units constructed every year for the next 15 years. These units will be placed in existing and new sites, and will burn natural gas or coal. After 2011, they will consume hydropower from Thailand's neighbours and liquefied natural gas (LNG). From 2020, Thailand will go nuclear.

Prime sites for power plants are near natural gas pipelines, close to water, on the coast. Pluak Daeng district in Rayong and Bang Saphan on the Malay peninsula alone can accommodate nine more power units, according to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat).

By contrast, renewable sources will account for only 0.6 per cent of electricity generation in 2021, a tiny fraction of the Kingdom's overall renewable energy target of 8 per cent by 2011.

Some weeks ago, on the morning of February 7, several hundred villagers from Prachuab Khiri Khan province attempted to join a public hearing by the Energy Ministry at a Bangkok hotel. But the hotel and the ministry cancelled the event, for fear of public disorder. The villagers shuttled over to the Energy Ministry, set up a rally, and hailed the minister by loudspeaker until he came out to discuss the plans to build new power stations in Prachuab Khiri Khan. The next "seminar" was an invitation-only event held at a PTT Plc facility in Ayutthaya. Prachuab villagers and many civil society organisations boycotted the latest "seminar" on April 4 at the Army Club.

Emotionally-charged interaction, closed doors and boycotts are the antithesis of good planning. But independent academics and sustainable-energy activists argue that not only has the public hearing process been flawed, the methods by which the Power Development Plan is drawn up are also flawed.

Independents argue that the right approach is an even-handed one. Assess all options for their achievable commercial potential, then calculate their total cost to society. (The total cost includes the cost to human health from pollutant emissions as well as disruptions to land, freshwater and coastal systems from energy development.) Invest in the lowest-cost options to their full potential, then the next lowest, and so on.

The lowest-cost options are on the demand side. By 2011, tougher efficiency standards for five household appliances (air conditioners, fans, refrigerators, rice cookers and compact fluorescent light bulbs) could save consuming one-fifth of the annual energy produced by Nam Thuen 2 dam in Laos. By 2020, continued efficiency improvement programmes involving just the same five devices could save consumption of 5,188 million kWh, or 92 per cent of Nam Thuen 2's annual output.

A competitive bidding programme for energy-demand reductions could likewise do wonders, saving hundreds of megawatts of electricity, postponing the need to build other disruptive hydropower stations.

Amazingly enough, all the seminars on the draft Power Development Plan have provided plenty of large numbers on the supply side, but no numbers at all for cool (literally) demand-side programmes.

So why is it so hard for Thailand's system planners to do the right thing, to plan in an integrated manner? One reason is that Egat, the utility in charge of expert modelling, regards small, distributed energy systems as unreliable. Another reason is that the more electricity Egat generates, the more profit it makes. In fact it is guaranteed an acceptable rate of return on its capital investments. This is a powerful incentive to hold all the smart energy-saving programmes at arm's length and keep on building and burning. But Egat could generate profits from saving energy: it could create an energy service division, which would implement demand-side energy savings at lower cost than new plants.

To do that - and to take up other progressive policies - the ministry will need to wake up and realise that the 2007 Power Development Plan is just taking Thailand down the path towards a warmer planet. Along the way, in areas targeted for new power plants, the state will face increasingly sophisticated - and upset - local people.

As the inconvenient truth of biased planning sinks in, people will want to know why Thailand's planners are bent on taking the Kingdom, its people, and the rest of the world to a warmer and more dangerous place than they found it.