Thailand steps away from coal

opinion December 14, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

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Natural gas gets a bigger role in the draft 2018 Power Development Plan, but it remains to be seen which fuel is better for producing electricity



The Electricity Generating Authority Thailand (EGAT) has turned its back on coal-fired power plants for now after years of fruitless attempts to build them in southern Thailand.

The proposed Krabi coal-fired plant came up against strong opposition from environmental groups and non-governmental organisations on the grounds that it could cause harm to the ecosystem, specifically fisheries, as well as the tourism industry.

EGAT also wanted to build the Tepa coal-fired power plant in southern Songkhla province, but both of these projects are now on hold – deleted from the just-released draft 2018 Power Development Plan (PDP), which sets out the country’s long-range energy goals and ambitions.

According to the draft PDP, waiting next for Cabinet approval, EGAT would instead focus more on power plants that burn natural gas, with Surat Thani named as the site for construction of two such facilities. Each of these would generate 700 megawatts of electricity into the national grid system, the first in 2027 and the second by 2029. Natural gas is seen as a more environmentally friendly fuel compared to coal, even though EGAT has often asserted that today’s technology for burning coal has improved to the point where coal-fired plants produce less pollution and those using natural gas.

The gas-fired plants proposed for Surat Thani would effectively be substitutes for the Krabi and Tepa projects in ensuring power security in southern Thailand.

In addition, the PDP calls for the government to invite the private sector to invest in a 1,000-megawatt “independent power producer” (IPP) project that would start generating electricity in 2034. The National Energy Policy Committee held a public hearing on the 2018 PDP in Surat Thani on December 6, where it was noted that the IPP project could use coal as fuel, but the final decision would be subject to further studies on environmental impacts. Another IPP scheme, rated for 700 megawatts, is planned for 2035, but this would use natural gas as fuel.

Energy experts believe southern Thailand should have at least one major coal-fired power plant so there is diversity among fuels used for generating electricity, which would favourably affect prices and help guarantee power security. The PDP will likely be updated again in 2020, when the consequences of using natural gas and rooftop solar power on the country’s energy demands can be taken into consideration. The government is keener now on energy produced with rooftop solar panels and will start buying solar power from the private sector next year, with a target of purchasing more than 10,000 megawatts as we approach 2036.

EGAT meanwhile has sought support from the Energy Ministry to allow it to boost its share of electricity generation to 50 per cent of the country’s total capacity. At present, EGAT’s share is only 37 per cent, with the rest coming from facilities run by the private sector, especially IPPs. To increase its role in power generation, EGAT will have to compete with the private sector. 

Public hearings on the draft 2018 PDP will be completed shortly, after which the plan will be submitted to Cabinet for approval. Overall, the PDP is supposed to cap the average price of electricity at about Bt5.55 per unit, equivalent to the average tariff set out in the 2015 PDP.