Thailand wobbles toward its place in the sun
Thailand may at last be entering the 21st century in terms of energy management, albeit slowly and with a wobble. The Bangkok Post reported on Thursday that the Energy Ministry has finally agreed to lift restrictions on households and commercial buildings selling power from their rooftop solar systems to state utilities.
The decision will ease — but not end — more than a decade of wrangling between energy authorities and supporters of renewable energy.
Renewable energy advocates have in the past complained bitterly of obstacles put in place by the authorities to frustrate owners of rooftop solar systems from selling excess power to the grid operators.
However, more debates and haggling will likely continue following the ministry’s latest move, most probably over the terms and conditions of the deregulation.
The ministry was reported to have fixed the buying rate at below 2.6 baht per kilowatt-hour while electricity users are currently charged 4 baht per kWh.
Another contentious issue concerns earlier reports that the authorities planned to impose surcharges on individual renewable systems as a result of shifting peak power use from daytime to nighttime, thus disrupting current grid management.
Energy officials call the proposed surcharges “back-up charges” while solar supporters call them “sun taxes”.
The latest development is a clear indication that the energy authorities are beginning to accede to the rise of renewables as the trend of the future. It may have taken a long time but it has finally happened.
The march of renewable energy seems unstoppable now. Recently, a group of researchers, headed by an environmental engineer from Stanford University, took on the task of laying out a “road map” that will lead 139 nations toward total energy independence by 2050.
The 139 countries weren’t picked arbitrarily. The researchers relied on publicly available data from the International Energy Agency. Combined, the chosen nations also produce more than 99% of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions.
To develop their roadmap, the researchers first looked at how much raw renewable energy resources each one has, and then they determined the number of wind, water, and solar energy generators needed for that country to reach 80% renewable energy dependence by 2030 and 100% by 2050.
The researchers claim that such a shift would lead to 42.5% less energy use globally and avoid 1.5C of global warming. In addition, there would be a net increase of roughly 24.3 million long-term full-time jobs, an annual decrease of up to 7 million deaths from air pollution annually, and savings of more than US$50 trillion in health and climate costs per year.
The team published their findings in an August issue of the journal Joule.
Similar trends can also be seen here in Thailand. More businesses are exploiting the space they have in their plants to install solar systems either as groundbased or rooftop.
Based on self-reporting by major businesses, the Energy Regulatory Commission of Thailand reported that at least 2,400 megawatts of power have been generated by businesses.
Solar represents a good portion of the output as the cost of solar systems has declined continuously to the point where it is cost effective.
Among higher-learning institutions, Thammasat University has become the first to embrace solar energy. Its vast Rangsit campus has installed a 6MW system that will be expanded to 9MW this year with a plan to eventually increase it to 15MW.
Renewable energy sceptics may still harbour the conception that renewables, especially from the sun and wind, can only supply energy intermittently and be sustained only through state subsidies.
Praipol Koomsup, economics professor at Thammasat, says this is no longer true in a rapidly developing technological world.
The cost of solar power has dropped to about 4 US cents or 1.30 baht per unit of electricity generated this year compared to the cost of power generation in Thailand at over 3 baht per unit.
Meanwhile, many countries, particularly those in Europe, have succeeded in increasing the ratio of renewable energy to as much as half of total power supplies.
Prof Praipol says if a system is large and scattered enough, the problem of intermittency can be satisfactorily managed with the help of smart technology.
A system now exists that enables coalfired power plants to adjust output at a great range, say a drop from 10,000MW to 3,000MW, in a relatively short time. Such a system would render unnecessary the construction of new power plants to provide base-load power reserves.
With all these developments, a question arises: Why do the energy authorities, particularly the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, still insist on building coal-fired power plants in Krabi and Songkhla at great costs financially and environmentally — not to mention the fact that we already have over 30% in power reserves?
Early last year, Areepong Bhoochaoom, permanent secretary of energy, told officials to prepare Plan B and Plan C in case the two power plant projects encountered protracted delays.
In my humble opinion, this is an opportune time to look seriously at renewables as viable options and plan accordingly.
By supporting the private sector and individuals in installing renewable energy systems, the state can forgo the huge investments and headaches that accompany conventional power generation systems.
Try it and we may keep up with the 21st century on a firmer footing.
Officials inspect solar panels on the roof of a building at Thammasat’s Rangsit campus. The university has become the first higher-level education institution to embrace solar energy.