Energy Minister Pongsak Raktapongpaisarn has put the country on alert for an energy crisis in April when routine maintenance cuts off the flow from the Yadana natural gas platform in Myanmar. But not all is doom and gloom. That particular shutdown will occur during a natural period of reduced demand as factories here close to allow workers to celebrate Chakri Day and Songkran. This is not work that can be deferred. When essential maintenance is neglected, a genuine crisis point could be reached and then the country could be plunged into a fully fledged emergency.
Mr Pongsak makes the valid point that we lack a coherent long-term energy policy and need a wake-up call now that demand threatens to exceed supply. And, while there are several possible solutions, none of them are attractive. But building an environmentally hideous coal-fired power plant in Krabi, as has been proposed, must surely rank as the least attractive of all. This province is deservedly one of the country's biggest tourist attractions because of its natural beauty.
The choice of such an inappropriate site requires further explanation as does the rush to increase skytrain fares and electricity charges because of the threatened shortfall in power supplies in April, which will last little more than a week. A week in which many regular passengers will have returned to their homes in the provinces and reductions in BTS services would normally be expected. Hiking power and commuter fares could trigger a new inflationary spiral at a time when household budgets are already stretched thin.
At present, natural gas accounts for about 70% of total production, which mainly comes from the Gulf of Thailand. It is pollution-free but has to be piped in. About one-quarter is imported from Myanmar. Hydroelectric power from dams in Laos has long been a mainstay and this will continue with the addition of the controversial Xayaburi Dam due for completion in 2019. Coal-burning power plants make up the remainder. Renewable energy, while the big hope for the future, has several drawbacks. At present it can only be produced in small amounts and large areas need to be utilised. While supplementing existing energy sources, it cannot replace them. That said, we should be following Germany's example and making more use of solar energy.
The government's choice appears to be coal as the source of fuel for more power plants. Coal is cheap, prices are stable but one does not have to go as far as China to see how destructive it is to human health and the environment. The Mae Moh coal-fired power plant in Lampang poisoned the air, sickened those in nearby communities and led to a major court case. More than 200 people died of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases and tens of thousands had to be relocated. Acid rain wiped out crops. The bad publicity it generated did incalculable damage to the image of coal-fired power plants.
Technology to minimise carbon dioxide emissions has improved in recent years but "clean coal" is still viewed by many as an oxymoron. Many prefer it to the other alternative, strongly favoured until the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. That is, of course, nuclear energy. It is clean, cheap, plentiful but potentially dangerous. That has not stopped Vietnam from adopting it and it was the direction the Electricity Generating Authority was going in before Fukushima. Such a course of action is politically impossible here at present, although that is not a problem Vietnam will face. Clean energy must replace dirty and dangerous energy for the sake of the planet. The question is how best can this be achieved.