Power blackout a black mark for the country

Ever since Pongsak Raktapongpaisal became energy minister last October, the national energy situation has drawn wide public attention _ and confusion.

I guess the new energy czar wants us to consider the fragility of the country's energy grid and to contemplate what life would be like without electricity.

But a couple of incidents have helped muddle the situation.

Mr Pongsak is taking on the challenge of ensuring the country has the capacity to keep in step with the expected rise in demand for power, which he said would accelerate once the Asean Economic Community (AEC) becomes a reality in less than three years.

If something is not done soon, Thailand is bound to be hit by a power crisis, he has warned.

As if to illustrate his point, he put the nation on alert earlier this year for a blackout affecting a wide area, including Bangkok, during the Songkran festival.

The alert came in response to a regular maintenance shutdown scheduled for a natural gas well in Myanmar just before Songkran.

This was baffling considering that such maintenance had been planned months in advance and had taken place in the past without any hitches.

In any event, Songkran came and went without incident. Mr Pongsak attributed it to cooperation from the public and private sectors.

A man of action, Mr Pongsak has pursued his mission with the earnestness worthy of a successful business tycoon. He thinks nuclear power is the answer to the pending energy crisis. But since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster has made this practically a non-option, the next best thing is coal-fired power.

Building coal-fired power plants is now, for him, a matter of utmost urgency. In the latest revision of the nation's power development plan for the next 20 years, Mr Pongsak ordered the use of natural gas as fuel for electricity generation to be slashed from the current 68% to 45%.

Mr Pongsak says relying too heavily on natural gas poses a security threat, and is more expensive than coal, nuclear or hydropower.

Coal-fired power, meanwhile, is set to increase from the current capacity of 4,000MW to a whopping 10,000MW.

The plan calls for at least four power plants to be built in the South. The energy minister has set his eye on a plant in the tourist haven of Krabi as an urgent project.

From May 13-17, the minister led a study trip to two coal-fired power plants in Japan. The trip was organised by the Electricity Generation Authority of Thailand (Egat) for a group of 45 people representing government and independent agencies, non-governmental organisations and the media.

The objective was to demonstrate that coal-fired power plants can be run safely and cleanly. He wants to organise at least 20 more such trips for opinion leaders from all sectors.

Ironically, the Japan trip came only a few days before a massive blackout hit 14 provinces in the far South.

The five-hour southern outage not only gave rise to widespread criticism of electricity authorities, but also suspicions that there was more to the incident than met the eye.

Mr Pongsak earlier expressed exasperation that power plant projects in this country always meet resistance.

He said he accepts that local people will decide whether they want a power plant, but he warned that if they rejected any proposed project they should accept the possibility of power outages as a fact of life.

Many environmentalists believe the southern blackout was a political ploy to push for power plant construction. Witoon Permpongsacharoen, director of the Mekong Energy and Ecology Network, called for an independent investigation into the incident.

Considered an energy expert in his own right, Mr Witoon says the power system run by Egat is world class.

If Egat officials had been left to do their job, an incident of this magnitude should never ever happened.

He said the unexplained sloppiness indicated something fishy was going on.

Just before the blackout, one of three main power lines to the South was taken down for maintenance. Egat officials blamed lightning and excessive demand for bringing down the two remaining lines and causing the blackout.

However, it was later found that three small power plants were not operating at the time. They included a crucial 340MW plant in Krabi, which was down for maintenance.

Mr Witoon said Egat officials surely must have known about the non-operational plants. And if they did, why didn't they restart the plants before taking down a main power line for maintenance?

Mr Witoon suspects, without saying in so many words, that top Egat officials had succumbed to political interference. Egat governor Sutat Patmasiriwat, he said, "would have to bear the sin of causing this unprecedented blackout to his grave".

Widespread suspicions that the Songkran energy crisis and the southern blackout were manufactured events cannot be substantiated. However, strong local resistance to the government's power plant projects is a fact that has riled authorities.

Many southern villagers fear pollution from the power plants would destroy their livelihoods, which are largely dependent on agriculture and fishing.

Bang Maad, an elderly fisherman, said he had questioned Egat officials at public forums. "How do you handle the thousands of tonnes of coal before it is fed into the burner? Doesn't it just sit in the open? What happens to the coal dust after you spray water on the piles or after rain? Where does the dust-laden water go?" he said.

"Into the sea and farmland, that's where. And what would happen to us poor folk? What would happen to the natural resources that give us plenty of food?

"It's not fair to ask us to sacrifice for the greater good. And who will benefit from the greater good, by the way?"

Many people suspect that Thai companies, including PPT and Banpu, which over the last few years have acquired ownership of foreign coal mines and companies, may have influenced the government's policy.

That's not to mention the nagging suspicions of corruption which are always in the back of people's minds.

Is the country's energy policy being held hostage to vested interests? Can we expect an honest answer from the energy czar?


Wasant Techawongtham is a former news editor, Bangkok Post. He is currently a freelance writer and editorial director of Milky Way Press, a publishing house.

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Writer: Wasant Techawongtham
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