March 16, 2014 00:00 By Manta Klangboonkrong
Norwegian ambassador Katja Christina Nordgaard underscores her commitment to the environment by fitting solar panels at her official residence
It’s not only the constant warnings about climate change, global warming and energy shortage that have many of us pondering the possibility of living a greener life. The real crunch comes every month when the electricity bill arrives and we find ourselves wishing dearly that our homes were kitted out with a power supply mode that didn’t break the bank.
Katja Christina Nordgaard, Norway’s ambassador to Thailand, probably doesn’t worry too much about her power bills but she is sufficiently concerned about man’s abuse of the environment to take the efficient though costly step of making her Bangkok residence energy efficient with solar panels.
The installation was completed just last month and Nordgaard was eager to talk about it during a recent visit to her home.
Tell us a bit about the house.
I believe the house was built in 1956. The State of Norway started renting it very soon after in 1958, and bought it in 1964. Back then I imagine this area was pretty far out and still very rural. Now it’s in the middle of town, with Skytrain just around the corner, which is great. My daughter and I take the BTS to get around a lot, and it’s nice to have this oasis to come home to.
Why did you decide to do this makeover?
I’ve been passionate about the environment for as long as I can remember. I raise this issue wherever I go, and there is so much potential here in Thailand to improve energy efficiency. The country has a huge source of energy thanks to the sun and so much can be done to harness it. It’s something I constantly raise in bilateral dialogue between Norway and Thailand. It’s not that Norway is perfect but we have improved a lot and there’s a great deal of consciousness around environmental issues and energy saving.
If you look at Thailand, there’s a big gap between what you need and what you have. Rather than try to make or buy more energy, people should look at making their power supply more efficient. I’m always freezing when I go to cinemas, shopping malls and hotels as well as on the BTS. The air conditioning is so cold that people have to wrap up. You can imagine how much energy is wasted that way. In the next 100 years, climate change and environmental issues are going to be top issues, and we are all going to suffer if we don’t do anything now.
How does it work?
We installed solar panels to cover half of the whole roof and this provides one third of the energy for the residence, which is about 60 kilowatt per day, and improves the efficiency for energy use by 15.8 percent. We have 54 panels, weighing 972 kilograms in total. It took us six weeks to complete the installation and cost Bt986,770. So far we only use the energy when it’s coming in. We don’t have a battery to store it, so at night we still use mains electricity.
Besides the solar panels, we changed all the air conditioners and light bulbs to be more energy saving and environmental friendly. You wouldn’t believe how much toxic gas air conditioners emit!
It’s a lot of money to go green.
For the residence, the money came from the Norwegian government as part of an awareness- raising attempt for energy efficiency. But yes, it’s costly. However, compared to the cost we will have to pay for the catastrophes that will inevitably occur, it’s nothing. And the panels, which require very little maintenance, last up to 30 years.
When a country provides or updates energy to people in rural areas, the costs of installing a power supply system like poles, wires, transformers and generators is also very high. Why not use that money to install solar panels instead? It’s more sustainable, cleaner and of course more efficient.
How are people in Norway coping with energy crisis?
We recycle a lot. We have different bags for plastic, paper, glass and so on to be recycled. Today, everything is covered in plastic. And we just throw it away. Norway has special ovens in which you burn garbage to make energy, instead of dumping it somewhere.
We can’t rely much on solar energy because we don’t have a lot of sun. But we have other sources such as wind and hydropower because we have a lot of rivers and lake. The kids too are very conscious about environmental issues and they are very realistic about it.
Given that this is such a pressing matter, why are so many people still not aware of it?
I think they are aware, but it’s the here and now that they want to live in. When you see the news about floods and catastrophes caused by environmental damage, you think it’s someone’s responsibility to fix it, to take care of it. A hundred years too far away and not worth worrying about, but let’s not forget about our children. You hear of cities that will be completely under water in a few hundred years and if you look at the world today, you know that it’s not that faroff. What happens in the North Pole is so far away from Bangkok, but it’s not. We need informed politicians and NGOs to help them get the bigger picture and see that it’s very close to us.
Here comes the sun
With solar panels too expensive for many Thais, an expert offers some alternatives to cutting down on costs
Assistant Professor Atch Sreshthaputra of Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Architecture, agrees that solar power is economical, especially if homes can feed back the surplus to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.
“We buy from EGAT at Bt3 per unit, and we can make Bt10 per unit if we feed back the electricity generated from the panels. Then you might break even in 10 years rather than 40-50 years, considering a solar panel costs around Bt20,000 per square metre and you need quite a few to make enough power to use and sell.”
It’s also unlikely that a house can run entirely on solar power though, especially with air conditioning because the wattage is not very compatible.
Also, there’s the house’s structure to consider, as these panels are heavy. Solar power works best in remote areas or those with frequent wattage problems. And for the panels to work to their fullest capacity, you have to install them properly, angling them towards the sun at 15 degree. You might have to renovate the house if you’re converting or include the panels when the construction plans are drawn up.
“With solar panels such a heavy investment, I’d recommend less expensive and simpler options with the same effect,” says Atch.
“For example, reduce the heat in the house and use less air conditioning, because 60 per cent of household power consumption in Thailand comes from cooling.”
“Block the heat from outside, grow some shady trees, install tinted glass windows, fit black-out curtains or even install roof insulation, which costs Bt500 a square metre. Stop using halogen light bulbs that give out more heat and opt for compact fluorescent ones. There are quite a few options that you could use that will not only help the environment but also reduce your monthly power bill.