By Wasant Techawongtham
Bangkok, Thailand, February 27, 2017
Cheers went up at the protest site when it was announced that Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha had promised to “set zero” the coal-fired power plant project in Krabi.
But the elation proved to be premature. The military junta has merely made what many consider a strategic retreat to avoid escalating the confrontation at the moment.
Gen Prayut himself contributed to the ensuing confusion as his announcement at Government House can be interpreted two ways.
It could mean the environmental and health impact study of the power plant would be re-done from the start. Or the current process, which is under dispute, should proceed from where it was temporarily halted. In either case, the work should be finished in a year or so.
Some project opponents were quick to claim victory. Others were optimistic that the project would never get off the ground.
I would say, not so fast. From where I stand, nothing has changed.
The fact that government representatives and protest leaders, who were rudely taken into custody the night before, came to an agreement rather quickly may be seen by some as progress having been achieved.
I think instead we are witnessing more running around in circles. The only thing achieved at the talks is to delay the eventual confrontation.
The first sign that the talks went nowhere came from Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, the deputy prime minister.
The issues of using alternative fuels may be discussed some other time, he proclaimed, but the coal-fired power plant must proceed as planned. Otherwise — here comes the veiled threat — be prepared to face power outages, particularly in tourist areas such as Samui and Phuket (not to mention Krabi).
Just to dismiss this misinformation right away: At the moment, there are no power shortages in the South.
Statistics from the Electricity Generating Authority (Egat) itself confirm this. The power demand in the southern peninsula in 2016 stood at 2,697 MW, and was expected to rise to 2,809 MW in 2017.
Meanwhile, the installed capacity for the region was 3,393.5 MW in 2016 and was expected to reach 3,531.5 MW in 2017.
In other words, we have an oversupply or a reserve of 25%, which is higher than the norm of a 15% reserve. That is why Laos is able to sell about 100 MW or more of power to Malaysia and Singapore using our national grid.
Now both sides of the line are prepared for a new round of battles.
Egat is somewhat ambivalent on what steps to take next. It has to deal with Gen Prayut’s demand to increase the level of public participation in the preparation of the environmental and health impact studies. More stakeholders — most likely those from the opposing camp and civil society — will need to be included in the process.
Another question it is contemplating is whether to re-start the process from the beginning or to pick up where things were left off. But so far, it has not strayed from its commitment to using coal.
The project’s opponents in Krabi have issued a statement detailing their demands for comprehensive studies and full public participation. Their demands apparently are formulated to make it almost impossible for currently available technologies for coal-fired power plants to meet.
If everything stays on course, a collision is inevitable. This situation is rather silly. It will be a waste of time and resources, and may perhaps end up in a violent confrontation, which I assume nobody wants.
In my humble opinion, the government should abandon coal as a fuel of choice. The argument often heard against this suggestion is that we need more base-load capacity, not the transient type that renewable energy provides.
But we do have sufficient base-load capacity. This is an opportunity to seriously consider the development of infrastructure for renewable energy. It is the trend of the future toward which most nations are heading.
However, if the government remains unconvinced, then might it be more prudent to conduct a comparative study of the technical, economic and environmental feasibility of both coal and renewable sources as fuel for the power plant?
The study must be comprehensive and conducted by teams of respected and independent experts. The finished study is to be reviewed by a committee of socially and academically respected and independent citizens.
An argument may arise that the process will be time-consuming and costly, and it will hold the country back years in development.
But what price are people willing to pay for peace? Besides, it will settle the nagging question of what power sources are most appropriate for Thai society, rather than enduring the repetition of the same old arguments back and forth.
It will also set the direction for the development of future power plants that will be, relatively speaking, free of conflicts and confrontation.
I realise, of course, that nothing in Thailand, especially in areas where high stakes are involved, is ever straightforward. But — here I appeal to the junta’s goodness of heart and patriotism — for the sake of social harmony and progress, isn’t it worth a try?
At least, it beats the inevitable head-butting that benefits no one.