Govt needs to get fired up over renewables

Govt needs to get fired up over renewables

This photo taken in January this year shows an anti-coal activist in Krabi province holding a whale-shaped cutout during a campaign to save the sea from a coal-fired power plant. WICHAN CHAROENKIATPAKUL
This photo taken in January this year shows an anti-coal activist in Krabi province holding a whale-shaped cutout during a campaign to save the sea from a coal-fired power plant. WICHAN CHAROENKIATPAKUL

'Can the province of Krabi be 100% powered by green energy?" This is a typical question raised by those who support mainstream power production and who view with suspicion companies looking to develop renewable energy sources in this top tourist destination in the Andaman Sea.

At best, the question stems from suspicion; at worst, disbelief.

The question chimes with the number of campaigns for mainstream power sources, such as coal and hydropower.

Instead of being daunted by such challenges, the pro-renewables group, which includes businesses, academics, members of local administrations and activists, have formed a working group to conduct a study on the potential of the green power -- and the results are positive.

Last week, they put forward their proposal to the public. The working group is under a tripartite committee set up by the Prayut Chan-o-cha government to find a solution to the conflict over a coal-fired power plant project in Krabi.

Under the proposal, which is touted as a "Green Power Development Plan" -- Green PDP -- Krabi will be able to depend 100% on renewables, mainly biomass and biogas.

The clean Krabi proposal seeks to debunk the belief that renewables are not sufficient and will not be reliable sources of energy, they said.

Biomass is the top choice among the group to be used in the plant as it can generate about 118MW in the first three-year period; the next choice is solar energy, at 55MW; biogass, at 54MW; and wind energy, at 40MW.

According to the study, the potential of the renewables in the subsequent three-year period would see them generate 287MW. This exceeds yearly demand for energy in the province, which peaked in 2015 at 142.9MW. After another four years, the potential capacity of renewable sources is expected to reach 1,699MW.

"For biomass, we have a vast area of palm plantations, totalling 980,000 rai, or 52% of the province's farmland," said Atirat Damdi, a palm oil expert.

He said the number is rising as the government encourages rubber planters to switch to palm oil, given the former's unfavourable prices in past years.

A study by University of California Berkeley showed that each tonne of palm oil can give about 218 electricity units. Last year, total oil palm production in the province was 3.5 million tonnes, which could supply about 785 million electricity units. Krabi's electricity consumption last year was recorded at 777 million units.

Unlike rubber, also a source of biomass, every part of the palm tree can be used as biomass material, without felling the tree. In the case of rubber, only the trunk can be used.

The study shows that after four years, solar energy emerges as the most bountiful source, with an estimated production of 1,076MW, followed by wind and biomass at 146 and 136MW, respectively.

If adopted, the group says the plan would enable the province to ignore coal, a commodity that threatens the province's environment and risks losing the many tourists the place relies on.

The merit of biomass and biogas is that we can make use of waste and turn it into clean energy, according to the group.

"Anytime an oil palm operator switches on the engine, we get palm oil waste for biomass and waste water for biogas production," said Suphakit Nuntavorakarn, of the Public Policy Foundation. Besides, unlike coal and other fossil fuels, renewables can help the government cut back on greenhouse gas emissions, and make a positive contribution to fighting global warming.

Despite the potential, lack of state support is the biggest obstacle for renewable energy development.

The study showed that current biomass and biogas production, at 49.5MW, is about one-third of the province's 142.9MW peak demand for energy last year.

With solid potential, local operators are planning to open new plants that would take the total to 31, and generate an extra 92.1MW.

One problem is that the state has stopped buying energy from biomass producers for some time because it says the power lines are full, said Kittichai Engchuan, vice chairman of Krabi Provincial Administration Organisation.

The Provincial Electricity Authority has promised to increase the number of power lines, but it is not clear when that will be done.

"That is bad for renewable energy development," he added.

Mr Kittichai said renewables deserve state support for the cost because it is not only cheaper than coal, but also good for the local economy.

"If we go for a coal-fired power plant, we have to pay up to 175 billion baht for the imported coal over a 25-year period. The money goes out of the country," said Mr Kittichai, adding that renewables can be used over and over again, making them more cost effective.

Unless there is a shift in state policy, renewable energy will continue to be a much-neglected option, said energy expert Prasat Meetam, who is based in the south of Thailand.

In some western countries, the state purchases renewables from the producers first, which if fails to meet the country's energy demands, will be topped up using non-renewable energy sources.

But in Thailand, it's the opposite. That's why power lines are full for renewable producers.

The state should pay serious attention to the group's study, in accordance with the agreement made by the tripartite committee, they said.

"By coming up with the proposal, we have fulfilled our duty to the government," said Prasitthichai Nunual, a staunch anti-coal activist who staged a protest in Bangkok early this year.

He cautioned that there are suspicious signs on the part of the energy planners.

When the tripartite committee was set up early this year, all parties agreed that any move to push for the coal-fired power plants must be halted, pending the study on renewable energy development.

The state must not further the environmental impact assessment (EIA) studies for coal-fired plants.

But it turns out that the EIA process is still going on. Worse yet, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand later on opened bidding for coal-fired plants.

That is a breach of promises, he said.

But the people's sector is determined to push for what they believe in, and make sure that the state listens to their demands.

Ploenpote Atthakor

Former editorial page Editor

Ploenpote Atthakor is former editorial pages editor, Bangkok Post.

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