The government has made an error with its decision to once again kick the issue of coal-fired power plants down the political road. Siri Jirapongphan, the Minister of Energy, has defused the immediate problem of high-profile protests. But getting the anti-coal demonstrators to leave the Bangkok pavement is a side issue. The government still plans to build those coal-fired pollution factories, just a little later than the regime had hoped.
According to Mr Siri, the government's 20-year energy plan is still a work in progress. Covering 2015-36, the plan already has crucial problems, which some planners call errors. For all its years in office, up to today, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, relevant ministers and officials have stuck stubbornly to a uni-faceted plan for the South, citing the need to meet the growing needs of the region which calls for sticking a coal-fired generating plant in Krabi and two others in Thepha district of Songkhla.
It probably sounded simple in the meetings before the power plan was written and distributed. Their claims have challenged by the civic group members who raise solid points regarding the country's excessively high reserve margin which resulted from a false demand forecast. Not to mention that the country has ample sources of renewables, so much so that policy makers can switch from coal, the most filthy pollutant of all possible sources of power plant fuels.
There are two reasons the government is wrong about this. One is the utter failure to consider local advice and consent. In both Muang district of Krabi on the Andaman Sea and Thepha in Songkhla, local opinion opposes coal power. While local conditions affect this opposition in different ways, residents of the two districts have the same feeling about the use of coal as most of the world.
The second error is essentially ignoring alternatives to coal. Mr Siri last week cancelled the existing environmental and health impact assessments (EHIAs) for the Thepha coal plants. Earlier, Gen Prayut ordered a new EIA and EHIA for the planned Krabi power plant. But in neither case has the government taken the proper, needed action and simply cancelled all plans for coal.
There is no rational reason for this. The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) has trotted out statistics showing that coal is cheaper than gas. Mr Siri was busy last week explaining to the media and demonstrators that there's enough power to last five years, and no reason to make a decision until early 2019. Yet there has been no move to do the right thing and simply cancel plans for this Frankenstein's monster of energy planning for the South.
Sticking with coal flies in the face of other government policies. Thailand 2.0 built coal-powered plants. (People in the North still are paying, in health problems.) In Thailand 4.0, there's no room for 19th century power solutions. Coal as fuel is as unpopular as it is outmoded. Fourth-generation technology demands developing solar and wind power, working with local communities to encourage micro-producers to join the national grid. A true Thailand 4.0 energy policy would encourage, subsidise and, if necessary, underwrite high-tech power development.
In encouraging Thepha protesters to get off the pavement and go home, Mr Siri carefully promised only to revisit the EIA and EHIA of coal-fired energy. He promised to put plans for such power plants on the shelf for nine months, while new assessments are drawn up. Having twice already claiming that coal was the perfect fuel for both Krabi and Songkhla, the prospect of a radical change in the third impact assessments seems remote.
The government should the right thing, cancel the coal policy and work with local communities in the South and around the country to establish an energy policy worthy of Thailand 4.0.