11 July 2024

Thailand’s power plan unplugs country from sustainability, say critics

Thailand is set to boost renewable energy used in electricity production from 36% to 51% in its latest power development plan (PDP). Yet, many experts argue that the plan is a blueprint for failure in meeting emissions targets and ensuring energy security.

Prepared by the Energy Ministry, the PDP is the country’s masterplan for power production based on forecasts of rising demand over the next 15 to 20 years.

The PDP was aired at a week-long public hearing and will be submitted to the Cabinet for approval soon, said Veerapat Kiatfuengfoo, director of the Energy Policy and Planning Office (EPPO).

“We expect to introduce this PDP in September,” he said.

The 2024-2037 PDP aims to overhaul Thailand’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels by generating over half of the country’s electricity with renewable energy in the next 14 years. The current goal of 36% has been in effect since 2018.

Under the new PDP, solar energy will be responsible for generating 30% of the country’s power supply by 2037. The main other renewable sources, accounting for 600 megawatts, will be small nuclear reactors and hydrogen-fired plants.

Veerapat said the new PDP aims to reduce Thailand’s greenhouse gas emissions by between 30% and 40% by 2030 in support of the country’s target of carbon neutrality by 2050.

What’s wrong with the plan, then?

Chalie Charoenlarpnopparut of Thammasat University’s Sirindhorn International Institute of Technology (SIIT) rejects those claims and warns the new PDP will fail to secure carbon neutrality within the next 26 years. 

“The International Energy Agency has advised Thailand to produce 30% of its power supply with solar or wind energy within the next six years to ensure it can realise its carbon-neutrality goal,” he said. “But the new PDP has set a deadline of around 2050 to achieve the 30% benchmark.”

Chalie, an expert in electrical engineering, was sceptical that authorities are serious about achieving carbon neutrality, pointing out also that the plan called for a lowly 10,000 megawatts of battery storage.

“If you really mean to ensure zero emissions, the storage system should be between 30,000 and 40,000 megawatts,” he said.

The PDP’s drafters had failed to understand that energy security was not just about preventing power outages but also the country’s self-reliance, he added.

“The new PDP may deprive Thailand of energy security in some way because it will increase the country’s dependence on imported power.”

He explained that the new plan relies heavily on imports of LNG (liquified natural gas) and will increase production capacity at fossil fuel-based plants by 6,300 megawatts. 

In his view, the new PDP answers neither Thailand’s push for sustainability nor its nationally determined contributions (NDC) commitment made under the Paris Agreement to combat global climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Natee Sithiprasasana, chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries’ Renewable Energy Industry Club, cautioned that the Thai economy would be at risk if foreign traders feel the country is falling behind in clean-energy efforts.

“They may just buy from greener nations,” he told a recent seminar.

Natee also pointed out that several foreign investors had demanded 100% renewable energy in the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) before they would invest in Thailand’s flagship industrial infrastructure zone.

“So, if the government does not set a clear direction now, investments will be affected too,” he warned.

In his opinion, the new PDP bears too much similarity to its predecessor at a time when the global trend for sustainability demands bigger changes.

Public ignored?

Watchalawalee Kumboonreung of environmental justice NGO, ENLAW Thai Foundation, claims the new PDP was drafted without adequate public participation.

“I wonder how people can participate in the preparation of the PDP. It seems the plan was prepared and pushed ahead solely by authorities,” she told a recent public forum on the PDP.

“It’s a top-down plan.”

She conceded that the preparation process included public hearings, but said participation was limited to certain stakeholders. The few on-site forums that were held had been dominated by individuals affiliated with state enterprises and private companies, Watchalawalee said.

Although people could express opinions via online channels, these were only open for one day. People living in the Central and Northeast regions were allowed to leave comments online on June 17 while those in the South and North had only June 19 to post their queries or objections to the new power plan.

“It’s as if public hearings were merely a formality,” Watchalawalee said. “The PDP content is also difficult for people to understand,” she added.

Critics have complained too that the plan prescribes too large a power reserve. The cost of keeping such a huge oversupply will be borne by power consumers, they add.

JustPow (Just Power for All), which promotes a fair transition to sustainable energy, said the new PDP lowers the loss of load expectation from one day to 0.7 per year, which could translate into a bigger reserve margin.

“We are worried that the cost of power will rise further,” it said.

Thailand currently has a power production capacity of 49,571.79 megawatts – far higher than the peak consumption of about 34,440.1 megawatts, JustPow said.

“In reality, the reserve should be just 15% of peak demand,” it added.

It’s still ‘dirty’

Various non-governmental organizations also question why at least eight more large natural gas-fired power plants will be constructed under the new PDP, adding to Thailand’s reliance on “dirty” fossil fuels.

“These types of power plant are outdated because they fail to address the environmental crisis, and their production cost is not lower than the cost of renewable energy either,” Chalie said.

JustPow also attacked the plan to purchase more Lao hydropower at a rate of 2.92 per unit, up from the previous price of 1.70-2.10 baht.

“At a unit price this high, it would be just as economical to opt for solar rooftops,” it said.

Watchalawalee told a forum organized by JustPow that the government should draft the PDP with a bottom-up approach to reflect the interests of every stakeholder group.

“That’s how to make it fair for all,” she said.

By Thai PBS World’s General Desk