Pak Beng dam delay paves way for cleaner solutions
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Pak Beng dam delay paves way for cleaner solutions

The disruptive potential of renewable energy has reached the Mekong region, and its impacts are playing out faster than anticipated.

Thailand's recent deferral of the power purchase agreement for the Thai-Chinese Pak Beng dam on the Mekong mainstream in Laos calls into question the future of hydropower development in the Mekong region. Thailand's rising energy demand has been the major driver for damming the Mekong, but Thailand's electricity rethink has put a Mekong mega-dam on hold.

Last year, the Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand started to revise the 2015 Power Development Plan (PDP) to better reflect actual power consumption. The government has already shelved plans for controversial coal plants in southern Thailand, admitting that existing plants can meet peak electricity demand in the near-term. Thailand has historically over-estimated its energy needs, and the 2015 PDP included an unusually high reserve requirement to address transmission risks. Currently, the electricity reserve requirement through 2036 reaches up to 39% more than peak demand, twice the global average.

The overestimation of electricity demand and excessive reserve requirement contributed to Thailand's investment in hydropower projects in Laos, including Pak Beng dam. There has been strong criticism of Thailand's over-investment in electricity generation as a waste of money and driver of unnecessary environmental damage.

Another driver for the power plan revision is the rapid integration of decentralised micro-grids, distributed generation, and solar and wind into Thailand's electricity system. Since 2015, Thailand has doubled installed utility-scale solar capacity to 3,000 megawatts (MW). This means Thailand has achieved 50% of its 2036 solar adoption target, compelling the government to consider setting a more ambitious goal. Wind is also making rapid gains, with 450MW to come online by end 2018.

The Stimson Centre, IUCN, and the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab at the University of California at Berkeley have argued that the revolution in renewable energy generation, storage technology, and transmission, combined with regional power trading, will inevitably reduce the need for large dams in the Mekong and the threats they pose to the world's most productive freshwater fishery and the agricultural productivity of the Mekong Delta.

Thailand's effective suspension of the Pak Beng dam throws the future of Mekong hydropower development into uncertainty, particularly for high-risk Mekong mainstream dams. If the Pak Beng dam is permanently suspended it would open to door to technologies that can ensure regional power security at a faster, cleaner, and cheaper rate than the business-as-usual model dominated by hydropower.

The Stimson Centre's Brian Eyler and Courtney Weatherby, IUCN's Jake Brunner, and UC Berkeley Energy and Resource Group's Nikky Avila lead the Mekong Basin Connect initiative.

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