Waste-to-energy projects see official support, villager resistance
The ever-growing volume of garbage is not going away
A plan to call for bids for new waste-to-energy (WTE) projects next year is giving hope to local officials worried about the growing volume of garbage in their neighbourhoods.
Their enthusiasm is tempered by fierce opposition from some villagers who complain the construction sites of some WTE projects are too close to communities and water sources.
The National Energy Policy Council decided to increase plant numbers, preparing to invite investors to propose new projects, with total capacity of 400 megawatts, early next year.
WTE plants, which were already granted licences in previous auctions, operate in 36 areas, with combined capacity of 328MW.
Though projects promise a new business opportunity to power companies that want to join the growing trend in renewable energy, Thailand Environment Institute (TEI) encourages moving away from the profit incentive.
"All sides should primarily focus on getting rid of garbage and view electricity as a byproduct," said Wijarn Simachaya, TEI president, at a recent seminar.
WTE projects must be done for the sake of the environment, helping Thailand better cope with garbage flooding the country, which ranks as the sixth largest polluter when it comes to dumping plastic waste into the sea, he said.
In 2018, only 35% of 27.9 million tonnes of solid waste in Thailand was sorted for recycling and 39% was disposed of at landfill and incinerators as well as through WTE projects. Up to 26% ended up in some other areas including land, rivers and sea, according to TEI.
Plastic waste made up 2 million tonnes of total garbage. Only 500,000 tonnes were recycled while the majority was eradicated together with other types of garbage.
Way out of garbage
Local officials, who are struggling to deal with huge amounts of garbage, voiced their support for WTE plants, but they have not seen any projects implemented in their areas.
Thanakorn Wanakitkulpat, deputy mayor of Muang Surin Municipality, expressed his concerns at the same seminar, saying WTE is a good option, but his office has no authority to decide on building a WTE power plant in the area.
Landfills are the municipality's sole form of waste disposal facility, but the amount of garbage keeps piling up every year, causing concern among officials.
Garbage is also a big problem in Surat Thani, located some 645 kilometres south of Bangkok. An area overseen by Tha Rong Chang Tambon Administration Organisation (TAO) has become a "centre of waste" as garbage from the whole province, including Samui island, is sent there for disposal, said Nipaphan Phakdee, deputy chief of Tha Rong Chang TAO.
Officials need WTE plants, but the TAO is granted an annual budget of only 50 million baht, which is too small to develop a garbage-fired power plant that requires up to 900 million baht, she said.
Surat Thani is a bustling tourist destination that needs better waste management as the amount of garbage, generated by tourists and local residents, will keep growing every year, said Ms Nipaphan.
At present, 402 tonnes of garbage are dumped in landfills daily. The amount is more than enough to feed a WTE plant, but Ms Nipaphan's office cannot find investors interested in this project. Ms Nipaphan said she may need a consultant to advise her office as to what to do.
The Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), which oversees WTE auctions, advised looking into the mindsets of villagers and seeking a new business model to turn garbage into electricity.
Media reports of protests against garbage-fuelled power plant projects in Pathum Thani and Nakhon Ratchasima provinces have shown that some communities had a negative attitude toward them.
Communities did not oppose waste management in principle, but opposed construction sites they said infringe on their communities.
In 2017, villagers in Chiang Rak Yai subdistrict in Pathum Thani's Sam Khok district asked the ERC to deny permission for a project for 25MW on 140 rai. They said the construction was in the vicinity of a school, a temple and riverside farmland.
Even if there is no opposition, some communities do not have good waste sorting systems, so their garbage cannot generate enough heat for power plants, said Kittapong Pinyotrakool, ERC's deputy secretary-general.
Mr Thanakorn admitted many villagers do not bother to separate garbage, but this is a crucial step in putting together "quality garbage" to generate electricity.
Participants in the seminar agreed the government must do more to raise public awareness of acceptable waste disposal practices. Mr Kittapong even pointed to a need to enact waste sorting practice.
Financially, he said, local officials may use the Energy for All renewable power scheme at WTE plants to address their budget constraints.
Energy for All has private investors and communities co-investing in power development projects. Similarly, a local administrative body may set up a co-operative as its business unit to work with companies to co-develop WTE plants, Mr Kittapong said.