Pongsak touts coal as solution to energy woes

Democrats say government knew of gas crisis last year

Thailand must consider coal-fired power plants or invest in energy production overseas to meet surging demand for electricity, the energy minister says.

The country needs to secure an additional 25,000 megawatts (MW) of power to meet rising demand, Pongsak Raktapongpaisarn said Thursday.

According to the Energy Policy and Planning Office, national power consumption stands at 31,500 MW a year.

The office expects that to more than double to 70,000 MW in 2030 based on average gross domestic product growth of 3.7 per cent.

Mr Pongsak said there is no choice but to build more power plants.

The Democrats have attacked the timing of the minister's comments, saying Mr Pongsak is exploiting a looming energy shortage to justify a push for unpopular policies.

Pongsak Raktapongpaisarn, energy minister: Technology has improved

Routine maintenance on a gas platform in Myanmar in April will lead to a drop in gas supplies to Thailand of 1.1 billion cubic feet per day, potentially creating a nationwide energy supply shortfall.

Democrat MP Alongkorn Ponlaboot said the ministry had known about the scheduled maintenance of Myanmar's Yadana gas field since last year.

He accused the minister of drumming up the disruption as an excuse to justify the construction of more power plants or to hike power costs.

But Mr Pongsak said the country depends on natural gas for 70 per cent of its electricity generation, which is risky.

"Few energy sources are cheaper than natural gas — nuclear, hydro or coal. The so-called soft, alternative fuels such as wind or solar energy have a high price tag of 10 baht per unit," Mr Pongsak said.

"Relying on these sources will add to the public's power bills while eroding the competitiveness of the industrial sector."

He said the ministry is looking to build a coal-fired power plant in the resort province of Krabi but has run into opposition from locals.

He admitted the Mae Moh case had made it more difficult to diversify to coal as an alternative fuel source.

In that case, people affected by air pollution from the coal-fired power plant in Lampang province successfully sued the Industry Ministry and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) for failing to solve the problem.

"All agencies must speed up their attempts to make the public understand that coal-fired technology is a viable alternative to our current heavy reliance on natural gas," Mr Pongsak said Thursday.

"The technology has become better and cleaner. If people are made to understand this, they will accept coal-fuelled power plants more easily."

He said the government also plans to invest in energy production overseas and to import more electricity from Myanmar and Laos.

The new imports would cut the ratio of gas dependence to 50 per cent of total energy generation.

Mr Pongsak said there is also room for the fuel adjustment tariff, or Ft charge, to be raised by another 48 satang per unit because Egat will have to switch its power plants to run on bunker oil and diesel instead of cheaper gas from Myanmar during the disruption period in April.

He said the Electricity Regulatory Commission (ERC) would decide whether the higher cost will be passed on to consumers.

Former energy minister Piyasvasti Amranand, however, said the Myanmar gas disruption had been factored in when the ERC announced in December an increase in the Ft rate of 4.04 satang per unit of electricity for the January-April period.

The electricity price is now 3.76 baht per unit.

"The Myanmar gas disruption was known long beforehand. Indeed, the announcement for last year's Ft increase mentioned the delivery disruption as a factor for the hike," Mr Piyasvasti, who was energy ministry under the Surayud Chulanont government, said.

In its December Ft increase announcement, the ERC projected it would have to increase the use of bunker oil in electricity generation from 21 million litres in March to 60 million litres in April.

That was tipped to increase fuel procurement costs from 453 million baht in March to 1.3 billion baht in April.

Mr Piyasvasti said the routine maintenance of the Yadana gas field does not represent an energy crisis.

However, a crisis of management could result if the government is unable to avoid any power outage which might result.

Mr Piyasvasti said that since coal-fired power plants will face resistance from communities fearful of air pollution, the government should pay more attention to small-scale, independent power producers which could add up to 1,000 MW of electricity to the power grid.

A source in the ERC said the regulator may keep the Ft rate for May-August unchanged because the additional cost from the Myanmar gas disruption will be offset by a decline in gas prices during the rainy season.

Tevin Vongvanich, president and chief executive of PTT Exploration and Production Plc (PTTEP), said the platform work cannot be delayed further.

The government had already persuaded the French operator of the Yadana block to delay the work by 36 hours.

"The gas platform needs to be fixed as fast as possible. By the end of April, a monsoon will arrive in the Martaban Sea and there will no longer be enough time to carry out repairs," he said.

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Writer: Aekarach Sattaburuth and Amornrat Mahitirook