Thai­land wob­bles to­ward its place in the sun

Bangkok Post - - WORLD - Was­ant Techa­wongtham is a former news ed­i­tor, Bangkok Post.

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.

TANAPHON ONGARTTRAK­UL

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.

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