Falling asleep at the switch

The explanation given for Tuesday's massive power blackout in the South raises more questions than it answers.

Any national grid should have enough redundancy built in to enable rerouting of supplies in the event of a maintenance shutdown, a lightning strike, or both. This ensures that if a blackout or load reduction cannot be avoided, it can at least be localised. If the damage is catastrophic, then a targeted series of rolling blackouts can be ordered to minimise hardship, unnecessary suffering and economic loss. So why did none of this happen?

The answer is one we have heard before, especially when state enterprises are involved, and makes a strong case for privatisation. While there are contingency plans designed to handle such situations, no one in authority was prepared to take responsibility for authorising their use. Incredible as it may seem, no one at the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand or the Provincial Electricity Authority dared to show initiative and begin the necessary emergency power redistribution. Instead, the buck was passed to the Energy Regulatory Commission which monitors market conditions, pricing and dispute settlement. As a result, 14 southern provinces and the business and tourism hubs of Songkhla, Phuket and Surat Thani suffered the worst power outage since 1978.

Energy Minister Pongsak Raktapongpaisal has ordered a review of the failed emergency decision-making process as part of a thorough investigation into what went wrong. Those in charge of the nation's power supply must be prepared to accept accountability or seek less responsible work elsewhere. The Federation of Thai Industries has also lent its weight to demands for preventive measures to enable business confidence to be restored. But it would do better to advise its members to buy emergency generators rather than expect the government to pay billions of baht in compensation.

Mr Pongsak also reiterated his call for more coal-fired power plants, but failed to address the issue of the pollution they cause. Krabi province is a prime example. Known internationally for its beauty, it has been named as host for one or more of these sulphur- and carbon dioxide-belching plants. More thought needs to be given to alternatives such as renewable energy, and particularly solar power. Although renewable energy remains the most promising hope for the future, there are drawbacks. Large areas need to be utilised and while supplementing hydropower and natural gas, it cannot replace them. Harnessing the power of the sun is a technology with great potential and one our scientists should be researching it with greater enthusiasm.

The Science and Technology Ministry has been quietly working with the International Atomic Energy Agency on developing the culture of safety necessary for the use of nuclear power and minimising its impact on the environment. Experts from countries using nuclear energy have met at the ministry to share their experience and knowledge of working with this clean but controversial source of power.

The minister, Woravat Au-apinyakul, sees nuclear power as an alternative energy essential for future use. The Office of Atoms for Peace has been operating a two-megawatt nuclear reactor in Bangkok without incident since 1961, so Thailand is no stranger to nuclear technology. But before making any further progress in that direction there would have to be a massive improvement in work standards, acceptance of responsibility and quality control.