In the dark over power puzzle

I have to admit that I am a little disappointed there may be no electricity blackouts today, the first day of the suspension of natural gas supplies from Myanmar.

It remains unclear what the real agenda of Energy Minister Pongsak Raktapongpaisal was when he issued last month an ominous blackout warning which effectively triggered public panic, only to make a U-turn with some "good news" a few days later.

(Obviously Mr Pongsak differs from Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong, who came out to confess he had told "white lies".)

Mr Pongsak's "good news" was that cooperation from the industrial sector had resulted in a promise to reduce energy consumption to conserve supplies, reducing the risk of blackouts.

Needless to say, the relief has led the public to resume its "business-as-usual" approach to energy consumption.

Despite certain economic losses, I believe some blackouts might actually be a good thing for Thailand. They would serve as a wake-up call for people to think more seriously about saving energy. This level of thought should go beyond Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's ill-fated "wear traditional Thai fabrics" campaign.

Significant blackouts across the country would also make the public more curious about how national energy infrastructure is managed - or mismanaged.

It would encourage people to ask difficult questions of those in charge of energy planning and hold them to account rather than letting them get away with nonsensical explanations that, if anything, bear close resemblance to outright lies.

Among those questions we have to ask are:

Why is it that the annual maintenance of Myanmar's Yadana gas field is scheduled for a time when energy demand is at its peak? What does the contract say? And why do Thai consumers have to shoulder the burden in the form of the fuel tariff?

Why is "green energy" going nowhere in this country?

Is it really unaffordable and more expensive than conventional energy sources? What about the hidden costs and externalities of conventional sources?

Why has demand-side management (DSM) of energy never been implemented despite the fact it has proven to be a marvellous tool for energy - and budget - saving?

We should also demand transparency in the methods of calculating the controversial fuel tariff to ensure fairness.

I spoke recently with activist Santi Chokchaichamnankit of the Energy Watch Project, who brought to my attention some disparities in the awarding of power plant contracts and also conflicts of interest between some agencies which perform the roles of both energy regulator and operator.

The dual roles may have hindered the implementation of DSM, he noted.

Energy Watch and its network has called on the Energy Regulatory Commission to step in and examine the fuel tariff calculation process.

There was no response from the agency.

Mr Santi also questioned Energy Minister Pongsak's instruction to energy planners to reduce Thailand's dependence on natural gas by cutting the amount of gas used in electricity generation from the current 70% to 45% by 2030.

"But at the same time, the bidding process for six new gas-fuelled power plants has begun, with the first due to be operational in 2021," Mr Santi said.

He said it was necessary for the bidding process for these new plants to be halted and the development contracts held up to public scrutiny.

Blackouts would give the public the courage they need to reject politicians' empty lip service and knee-jerk reactions that simply lead us nowhere.

If blackouts could lead to answers for any of these questions, I think they would be worthwhile.

If not, this power puzzle will continue and next year we will have to go through another "wear Thai fabric" campaign.

Ploenpote Atthakor is Deputy Opinion Pages Editor, Bangkok Post.

About the author

Writer: Ploenpote Atthakor
Position: Deputy Editorial Pages Editor