Energy minister Pongsak Raktapongpaisarn can keep shouting about an energy crisis in April until he is blue in the face but the public will not believe it until they are told they can only use one light bulb and five hours of computer time a day. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra can set some fashion trends by shedding her silk jackets and embracing single-layer blouses of light materials but she will never succeed in convincing people to use less air-con until she limits its use to a quota of one per household or tells those who need more to pay a surcharge.
The simple truth is there is no crisis until a crisis hits home.
That is probably why the government's announcement that there could be an energy shortage in April when gas deliveries from Myanmar's Yadana field necessary for our electricity generation will be disrupted because of annual maintenance has been met with scepticism.
Energy experts and activists questioned both its timing and motive. Many argued the government had known about the disruption in advance, since last year actually. Why then is the energy minister making it appear as if the disruption was an unexpected emergency that will be so difficult to manage that energy blackouts could be expected in some areas in Bangkok and the South?
These activists also questioned if the government is orchestrating the disruption to the routine as a pretext to push for unpopular energy supply choices, in particular construction of coal-fired power plants that have been opposed by local communities.
I personally do not support a coal-based alternative because I do not believe the government or agencies which take care of the power plants will be able to ensure they are pollution-free. Energy Minister Pongsak may say that coal-fuelled technology has become better and cleaner, not like the old days of soot and sulphur. But "cleaner" does not mean it's clean, does it?
Like these energy activists, I also find the government's "energy crisis" scare tactics odd and unlikely to achieve their stated goals, which is for the public to start conserving precious energy.
The superficial measures which the cabinet has come up with so far, including telling state agencies to keep the air-cons at a maximum of 25 degrees Celsius or imposing a no-jacket policy for ministers, only makes a pantomime of its serious message.
Still, I have to say that excluding the possible hidden agenda and the save-energy campaign that has been on the silly side so far, I find it encouraging that the government is at least trying to highlight the need to manage the energy issue from the demand side instead of concentrating single-handedly on finding enough supplies to feed the country's ever-growing demand.
Mr Pongsak may not have appeared particularly visionary when he proposed that no other alternatives were as appealing as coal, both in terms of price per unit and viability, but at least he has brought the need for Thailand to diversify from its current heavy reliance on natural gas up for debate.
We may not need to agree with his panicky energy emergency call but we can probably see a valid point in his message that it's too risky for the country to rely on natural gas, a large part of it supplied by other countries, for 70% of our electricity generation.
But of course, Mr Pongsak and the government must include sustainability in the energy supply calculation too. Coal may be cheap today but is it not fossil energy just like natural gas, which we are running away from? Solar energy or wind farms may be expensive today but considering their renewability, would they not be a better choice for power reserves?
We may not have an answer by April but the fact that members of the public are informing themselves and talking about the issue is one good thing to have come out of Minister Pongsak's shrill "energy crisis" outburst, whether it's real or not.
Back to demand-side management, the government should implement a much more comprehensive, technology-driven campaign to save energy than the simplistic take-off-your-jacket measure. After all, the country made an agreement with Apec leaders in 2007 to reduce its "energy intensity" or the amount of energy used per unit of GDP by 25% in the year 2030 compared with the 2005 base year.
In short, if Thailand is to honour that agreement, we will have to reduce demand by 20% of projected growth.
That is some serious power units we are talking about. We won't get there even if half of Bangkok's population were to agree to strut about in bikinis.
Atiya Achakulwisut is Deputy Editor, Bangkok Post.
About the author
- Writer: Atiya Achakulwisut
Position: Deputy Editor (Day)