Critics say emissions vow 'a pipe dream'
Renewable resources under-used as southern projects and energy import plans forge ahead.
Thailand’s pledge to massively cut carbon emissions by 20-25% from its 2005 levels has been questioned by critics, who regard it as a pipe dream.
The pledge, also known as Thailand’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC), was made by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at the 21st Conference on Climate Change (COP 21) held in Paris last week.
The Office of the Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning said they were confident Thailand could meet its targets. But according to critics, the main obstacle that will bar Thailand from reaching its ambitious goals is a plan to build two coal-fired power plants — an 800-megawatt plant in Krabi’s Nua Khlong district and a 2,200-megawatt plant in Songkhla’s Thepha district — as stipulated in the Power Development Plan for 2015-2036.
“The PDP is determined to build more power plants to offer business opportunities,” said Santi Choakchaichamnankit, an academic for the Energy Watch Group, who says the state commitment to renewable energy is only lip service.
Though the PDP pledges to increase renewable energy supplies to comprise up to 30% of overall power supplies, replacing gas dependency, the reliance on coal and the country’s high power reserve margin — between 25% to 39% — remain environmental concerns, say activists. In 2012, 73% of Thailand’s emissions came from the energy sector.
The Department of Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency reported that between January and August 2015, the bulk of Thailand’s carbon emissions were from electricity generation (39%), followed by the industrial sector (28%), transport (26%) and only 8% attributed to residential, commercial and agricultural sectors.
The energy sector is also the largest source of global emissions, mainly driven by fossil fuels that significantly increased global carbon emissions by more than 16-fold between 1900 and 2008.
Twarath Sutabutr, director for the Energy Policy and Planning Office (Eppo) of the Ministry of Energy, dismissed activists’ fears of carbon emissions and the rising reliance on coal.
The PDP aims to reduce gas supplies, the main source of electricity, from 70% to 37% by the end of 2036 while increasing renewable energy supplies from 7% to 20%. But also included in the agenda is a plan to increase power from neighbouring countries from 6% to 15%, and coal imports from 10% to 23%, he said.
According to the Eppo director, the high power reserve margin is based on a projection of risk factors, such as the temporary maintenance shutdown of gas pipelines in Myanmar and the Thai-Malaysian Joint Development Area, which Thailand depends on for gas.
Thailand can no longer rely on gas because its domestic exploitation capacity has peaked, he said, adding that only one source of gas remains — in the Gulf of Thailand, which is claimed by both Thailand and Cambodia, a jurisdictional conflict which has long delayed energy development.
The reserve margin of power will increase to up to 39% of total installed capacity, even though global standards are set at 15%. Critics say this will lead to the construction of unnecessary power plants.
Since early 2015, driven by the current PDP, conflict has flared around the proposed sites for two coal-fired power plants strongly promoted by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat).
“We want to ensure that even if one or two major power plants stop working, power generation in the country is still secure,” he said, adding that southern Thailand still does not have a secure power system because it continues to rely on imported gas for electricity.
The rapid growth of tourism in major cities, such as Phuket and Samui, is the main cause of the reliance on imported electricity, as tourists use four times the electricity that local residents do. “Coal-fired power plants are a must-have and the best solution to secure power demand is to place the plants near the spot power is being used,” Mr Twarath said.
Even though coal supplies increase emissions, the overall greenhouse gas emissions per electric unit will decline due to decreased use of gas supplies, he added.
Combining various energy sources, plus new technologies, will help to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 37% from the expected emissions in a previous version of the PDP — from 0.506 to 0.319kg of carbon dioxide per kilowatt/hour.
To reduce emissions, other plans are being put in my place, such as the Alternative Energy Development Plan (AEDP) and the Energy Efficiency Plan (EEP).
Mr Twarath said he was confident the PDP would balance security, the economy and ecology while addressing climate change issues. But he insisted renewable energy is not stable enough for consistent power generation.
Activists disagree. Power demand will increase at a lower rate than previously expected due to the economic slowdown, said Mr Santi, explaining that the two coal-fired power plants could be suspended without interrupting power security.
The German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources estimates there are 1,052 billion tonnes of coal reserves left — equivalent to 134.5 years of global coal output based on 2013 numbers when coal was used to generate over 40% of the world’s electricity.
Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts Southeast Asia will meet 49% of its energy needs based on coal by 2035, up from 31% in 2011, while the share from gas will drop to 28% from 44%.
Coal will dominate the region’s doubled energy consumption, and emissions linked to climate change will also rise, says the IEA.
With the government pushing forward with coal-fired power plants and industrial growth, it is unlikely the PDP will succeed in achieving its goals of sustainability, said Mr Santi.
Decharut Sukkumnoed, Kasetsart University’s economics lecturer, said more renewable energy capacity is available than the amount the PDP aims to use.
"A country cannot abolish [the base load of coal-fired power plants] suddenly, but many, including Germany, have gradually shifted their base load power plants to renewable energy sources," he said. “I believe Thailand can do that too. We just need to be open to new options.”