Facts weigh more than coal or no coal
Since February 15, the Thai public and business sector have not been assured of smooth power supply in April, when Myanmar temporarily shuts down natural gas supply to Thailand. Conflicting figures are coming from the energy authorities. On February 15 there was a meeting between Energy Minister Pongsak Ruktapongpisal and the chiefs of PTT and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT). The public learnt about the shutdown of the Yadana gas project for drilling rig maintenance in April.The Yadana block can produce 650 million cubic feet of natural gas a day, while the Yetagun block can produce 460 million cubic feet a day. Since the Yetagun gas is of lower quality, it is mixed with the Yadana gas. The maintenance shutdown will cut off daily supply of about 1.1 billion cubic feet of naural gas. (In January, the Natural Fuels Department said the supply totalled 1,200 mcfpd.)
PTT's chief executive officer, Pailin Chuchottaworn, however, did not look worried. He said PTT is to use 5 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas (LNG) reserves, or 700 million cubic feet per day, to back up the country's electricity-generating system. Days later, a company executive said PTT plans to raise gas output from the Gulf of Thailand by 100 mcfpd during the period, and to reduce gas consumption at its separation plants by another 100 mcfpd. That totals 900 mcfpd, leaving a shortage of only 200 mcfpd, which could be filled by LNG imports. As a shareholder in the gas project, PTT was informed in advance of the shutdown maintenance, so it should have ample time to arrange imports.
A big question here is why the energy authorities reacted as if the world is ending, if Thailand will be short of only 200 mcfpd of gas for a period of 10 days. They are scrambling for alternative fuels - bunker oil and diesel.
Gas from Yadana and Yetagun reaches six power plants in the west of Thailand, which have 6,400 MW in installed capacity. (Pongsak used a round figure of 6,000 MW).
From the website of Total EP Myanmar, the biggest shareholder and operator in the Yadana gas project, the 650 mcfpd supply accounts for 2,500 MW of the capacity. Based on this fact, Yetagun's 450 mcfpd should be used to generate another 1,730 MW, making up 4,230MW.
The public was bewildered, though, when the energy minister said that all six power plants would stop without gas from Myanmar. As this will happen in April, the hottest month of the year, this could lead to power blackouts.
Days after February 15, he repeated this warning, saying that power consumption would peak on April 5 at 27,000 MW, up from 26,000 MW last year. EGAT's Facebook page says the peak is just 26,300MW.
As if he wanted to ease public worries, Pongsak said on February 19 that some power plants can generate 2,000 MW from diesel, leaving Thailand to fill the remaining 4,000 MW capacity. But according to Egat Governor Sutas Patamasiriwat, Ratchaburi power plant can switch to bunker oil to generate 2,000 MW. Meanwhile, a power plant in Bang Pakong and one in Bangkok, with combined capacity of 2,600 MW, can also generate power with diesel. If this is true, it means only 1,400 MW will be missing, and it should be manageable.
According to former energy minister Piyasvasti Amranand, if many alternative energy projects won approval in January, by April they should start to feed in electricity. This could mean higher power bills, but at least this supply is locally sourced.
Complicating matters is the fact that all power users may pay higher bills for the use of bunker oil and diesel, given that these fuels cost Bt4 and Bt6 per kilowatt per hour, respectively, against Bt2 for gas. Asked who will shoulder this burden, Pongsak said it is up to the Energy Regulatory Commission's judgement.
He also said Total EP Myanmar cannot be held responsible, as it notified Thailand about the shutdown in advance.
Complicating the matter even more is Pongsak's initiative to have the Power Development Plan 2010 revised for the fourth time, this time to increase the use of coal.
I can't help feeling that the authorities are using the public as a hostage against environmentalists who are against coal. It's like "back me on this plan or nationwide power blackouts will return".
Yes, he could win some support given that Thais are used to smooth power supply. We can plug in devices without worrying about brownouts or blackouts, particularly in big cities. Yes, they should also support the plan given that coal is a lot cheaper than bunker oil or diesel, or alternative fuels, if environmental costs are excluded.
The authorities should be more active in educating the public on costs and benefits of each fuel, and then let people decide. This would re-establish trust, as the horrendous experience of the coal-fired power plant in Mae Moh still haunts us. Trust can be won only through sincerity, which can be gained only through facts. And facts can be convincing only when they are the same sets of facts used by all agencies involved.
Without the facts, the government seems as panicked as the public. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra will launch a national energy-saving campaign on April 13. She will recite measures that have been promoted for some time, like air-conditioner temperature control. We need more facts!