Wrong idea to buy power from Laos

Wrong idea to buy power from Laos

With numerous hydro-electric dams (like the Nam Ngum, above) and projects already under way, Laos is changing life of people and nature along the Mekong River. (Creative Commons via Wikipedia)
With numerous hydro-electric dams (like the Nam Ngum, above) and projects already under way, Laos is changing life of people and nature along the Mekong River. (Creative Commons via Wikipedia)

Recent news reports about the government's plan to increase electricity purchases from Laos by 30% has me wondering whether we really need it that much, especially as Thailand's economic growth is low and our power reserves margin has always been high.

The World Bank last month predicted Thailand's economic growth this year will be the worst among Asean members, excluding Brunei and Singapore. But the Ministry of Energy still plans to make a huge increase in electricity purchases from its neighbour to meet "rising demand".

What rising demand?

Aren't economic growth and income increases key determinants driving electricity demand? So, when I read the news, I couldn't help but feel that it seems like a story of a shopper being tempted to max out his credit card on things he may not really need.

Surasak Glahan is deputy oped pages editor, Bangkok Post.

Thailand's power purchasing is one of several bilateral inter-country power trades in the Greater Mekong Sub-region, with Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia as potential exporters and Thailand as a key importer. Most of the extra electricity to be purchased from Laos will be generated by hydropower projects. In addition to this news, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) earlier revealed it will build six new coal-fired power plants by 2025.

I wouldn't question our policy-makers' decision to increase electricity imports to ensure energy security for all of us if the country's earlier projected electricity demand had not been overstated. For example, Egat revealed peak demand in 2013 stood at 26,598 megawatts, or a 2% increase from the previous year, while the installed generating capacity in the same year was 33,051 megawatts.

It is worse when such excessive projection means we will buy more electricity from hydropower projects. As the world gears towards renewable energy sources, Thailand's decision to source its electricity from hydropower makes it look like a shopper who ignores organic and fair-trade products when available.

Critics have pointed out that Egat, which monopolises the nation's electricity generation, has passed along its excessive investment in electricity development to consumers who have to bear the brunt of tariff increases.

In addition to the overstated demand, the country's energy policy-makers have not made sufficient progress on renewable energy. They have not introduced substantial measures that can curb demand or bring about more efficient use of electricity.

Hydropower is renewable. But it is controversial as big projects have the potential to damage the environment, affect natural water flows and destroy fish breeding grounds.

People who depend on water resources usually have to pay the price of big projects, so only small projects should be considered to avoid significant environmental impacts.

In its latest report, "Toward 100 Percent Renewable Electricity 2050", the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) suggested Thailand and its Mekong neighbours shift to renewable and sustainable energy, reaching 84% to 100% by 2050, based on different scenarios that include all countries using electricity generated by wind, solar, biogas, geothermal and biomass.

The WWF suggests that despite the upfront costs of converting to renewable technologies, the business case for switching to 100% renewable energy is overwhelmingly positive and economically feasible over the long term.

Coupled with energy efficiency programmes, the region can anticipate a reduction of energy demand by 30%, it says.

So, can Thailand expect something exciting like Cochin International Airport in India which is powered by solar?

The Ministry of Energy's current Alternative Energy Development Plan sets a target for renewable energy of 15-20% of the country's electricity generation by 2037. It will factor in construction, maintenance and operational costs of renewable energy facilities.

It is true that capital expenditure in wind and solar energy is higher than for fossil fuels. But technology is developing fast, reducing costs of running renewable plants and the batteries.

Even the region's major powers like China and India are paying more attention to renewable sources. The Indian government, for example, aims to achieve as much as 100 gigawatts of solar capacity by 2022.

Thailand should do more to curb demand by imposing a pricing structure for businesses and industries that is different from that for household customers. It is time to think and plan differently.

Surasak Glahan

Deputy Op-ed Editor

Surasak Glahan is deputy op-ed pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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