Taking solar more seriously
One of the downsides to an authoritarian military government is the public has little influence on politically important issues, such as energy policy. This becomes a problem when a government decides to support building large, centralised, coal-fired power stations in the face of sustained public opposition, such as the regular protests against the proposed plants in Songhkla and Krabi.
This opposition is founded on the public being well-informed about coal-related problems such as global warming, mercury poisoning and the 1,550 premature deaths per year attributed to particulates from Thai coal-fired power stations, together with the destruction of the environment and people's livelihoods during the mining process.
There is also an increasing awareness that the 2C increase in global temperatures since industrialisation projected for 2030 comes from a neo-liberal, pro-fossil fuel mindset which does not adequately internalise environmental costs and which will eventually drown Bangkok under a 4.7-metre increase in sea-levels. The flooding of Bangkok is an inconvenient truth completely overlooked by a recently released report by the International Energy Agency, which sees a huge future for coal in the region.
Thailand actually has a reasonably good planning overview of future energy requirements. The Ministry of Energy's Integrated Energy Blueprint (IEB) covers five areas: energy efficiency, power, and alternative energy development plans, together with the gas and oil roadmaps. For the latter two, the main emphasis is reducing the dependence on natural gas, increasing the use of biofuels, and removing the subsidy on fossil fuels.
However, the IEB has some severe blind spots. It does not factor in the fact that 2016 will see the launch of the world's first mass-produced electric vehicle in the form of General Motors' Bolt. Nor is there any appreciation of the revolution in batteries, where innovations in lithium-ion battery technology include all-climate batteries and lithium superoxide batteries, which could quintuple the energy storage density of conventional lithium ion.
Basically, Thailand lacks a separate "electric roadmap", one with a clear licensing framework, one without a secondary market, for building thousands of 5MW community solar farms as well as large solar power stations over 500MW, together with incentives for moving to electric cars and for employing new battery technology.
The other problem is energy independence. The IEB and related plans all visualise imported coal, using "clean coal technology", meeting 20% of the energy mix by 2030, with another 5% of coal produced locally. Combined with 15-20% of imported hydro and gas from neighbouring countries, up to 40% of Thailand's energy mix could come from imports. This makes a mockery of the military government's claim to be promoting energy security through self-reliance.
Then there is the clean coal technology itself. The effects of the economics of clean coal technology can be seen in one of Thailand's close neighbours, China, where the air is so toxic in places that some schools now teach students under giant inflatable domes.
The reality of clean coal technology is that it is not being commercially deployed in China, as it is still experimental and too expensive. Clean coal implies capturing all the ingredients for acid rain, such as sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, as well as carbon dioxide and particulates, together with the treatment of by-products such as mercury.
Worldwide, there are no commercial clean coal reactors; all are only pilot-scale, such as oxy-fuel plants. In contrast, solar is booming in Thailand. Due to feed-in tariffs, tax incentives and energy production payments, the installed solar output as of 2015 was estimated at 2,500MW -- more than all of the rest of Southeast Asia combined. Moreover, with the price of oil low and China's domestic solar market saturated, China is racing to open photovoltaic factories in Thailand to sell more solar to Thais.
At present, Thailand's IEB sees only 6,000MW of installed solar capacity by 2036. However, this will be exceeded for certain. Research company BMI sees solar expanding by 13.2% per year on average from 2015-2025 -- that is 8,600MW by 2025 alone. If only half the rate of increase is then extrapolated to 2036, there will be 18,000MW of installed solar -- enough to mothball coal-fired power plants and to use them only as back-ups.
That Thailand's energy gurus only see solar producing 8,000MW by 2036 is extremely short-sighted. In fact, even BMI's rate may be low. The worldwide growth of photovoltaics has averaged an annual 40% since 2000. In 2014, the International Energy Agency predicted that, under its "high renewables" scenario, solar power could supply 27% of global electricity generation by 2050.
This scenario is increasingly likely due to technology advances and market economics. Thailand's energy gurus need to revisit Swanson's Law for photovoltaics, which demonstrates the rate of drop in cost of solar photovoltaic over time.
Thailand is unfortunately locked into a coal mentality. Coal provides construction companies with large, profitable contracts, keeps the power in the hands of centralised institutions, and is very vulnerable to corruption -- estimated at 25-40% -- during the construction process. Solar, on the other hand, can be decentralised, is relatively easy to cost and manage, has lower associated maintenance costs, and has zero ongoing fuel costs. And, in a tropical country such as Thailand, there is huge potential: industry data from SolarGIS indicates virtually all of the country is suitable for generating solar power.
The public needs to promote this vision of an electric and solar future to the government as an alternative to coal. They should point out that solar will make coal-fired power plants obsolete because of lower costs and improvements in battery storage. They should also endorse existing low-carbon paradigms such as the Low-Carbon Society Vision 2030, co-ordinated by Thammasat University's Sirindhorn International Institute of Technology.
Thailand needs to move away from failed neo-liberalist economics regarding energy and embrace an industry-friendly, progressive, technology-based environmentalism.
John Draper is project officer, Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Programme, College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University. Peerasit Kamnuansilpa PhD, is founder and former dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University. The article was published on the Prachatai webpage.