Thailand's power choices get harder

Key Issues: 

Bangkok Post 26 March 2011

By Kamol Hengkietisak

According to Thailand's power development plan 2010-2030, the country should be phasing in 5,000 megawatt nuclear power plants during this period. Now the ongoing crisis at the stricken nuclear power plant in Japan is set to derail Thailand's nuclear power ambitions, noted a Thai Rath writer.


Natural gas at 66.2% is Thailand’s most popular form of fuel to produce power, followed by lignite at 12.6%. Hydro power accounts for 5.5%, bunker oil 2.7%, diesel 0.03% and renewable energy 1.6%. KOSOL NAKACHOL

According to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat), at the end of 2009 Japan had 55 nuclear power plants, creating about 28% of total electricity output of the country. Two nuclear plants are under construction.

Japan is third after France (59) and United States (104) in terms of the number of nuclear power plants. However, in terms of the percentage of electricity generation from nuclear power plants, France is first at 77% of the total electricity production.

Most nuclear power plants in the world (about 60%) employ pressurised water reactor (PWR) technology whereby the primary coolant (water) is pumped under high pressure to the reactor core where it is heated by the energy generated by the fission of atoms. The heated water then flows to a steam generator where it transfers its thermal energy to a secondary system where steam is generated and flows to turbines which, in turn, spin an electric generator.

Out of 55 nuclear power plants in Japan, 23 utilise PWR technology. In normal circumstances, this kind of technology is very safe, especially concerning leaked radiation. However, Thai Rath noted that the exception is natural disasters such as in the case of Japan, which faced an unprecedented earthquake and tsunami that transformed safe nuclear power plants into a man-made disaster.

Is it time for Thailand to begin thinking about building nuclear power plants? It is true that right now building a nuclear plant will create panic among the Thai people due to the crisis in Japan. But in the future Thailand has no choice but to consider a nuclear option in the face of the rising electricity consumption and the need for energy security.

Figures from 2007 reveal that Thailand used natural gas to generate electricity more than any energy source at 66.2%, followed by lignite at 12.6%. Hydro power accounted for 5.5%, bunker oil 2.7%, diesel 0.03% and renewable energy 1.6%. Imported coal accounted for 8.4%, while purchased electricity from Laos and Malaysia was at 3%.

In terms of cost, the lignite power plant at Mae Moh, Lampang, is the cheapest at 2.07 baht/unit, followed by nuclear plants at 2.08 baht/unit (estimated), imported coal at 2.45 baht/unit, natural gas combined cycle at 2.80 baht/unit, bio-gas at 3-3.50 baht/unit, waste/garbage at 4.63 baht/unit, bunker oil at 5.32 baht/unit, wind turbine at 5-6 baht/unit and gas turbine at 8.91 baht/unit. The most expensive is solar energy at 15-20 baht/unit.

When compared with developed countries, Thailand's electricity generating cost is higher in terms of energy input. According to the International Energy Agency's (IEA) 2005 report, developed countries on average used coal to generate electricity at 40.10% (USA 50%, Australia 80%, South Korea 38%, Great Britain 34%), followed by natural gas at 19.40%, hydro at 15.90%, nuclear at 15.80%, bunker oil at 6.90% and renewable energy (solar and wind) at 1.90%.

Thailand uses natural gas more than any other energy source. The trouble is natural gas is going to run out within a few decades in Thailand. According to the Natural Energy Department's 2006 survey, natural gas reserves in the Gulf of Siam will last no more than 20 years, while the Joint Development Area (JDA) with Malaysia will last not more than 30 years. The country needs to turn to other energy sources by then.

On the other hand, the IEA estimated that global petroleum could last 41 years, natural gas 65 years, coal 155 years and uranium 85 years. However, spent uranium could be reprocessed and reused for thousands of years.

Developed countries see that natural gas is not as plentiful as coal and uranium and more expensive, so they turn to coal and nuclear power plants due to lower costs and abundant supply.

According to the IEA, coal is the star of electricity production because of its low cost and stable price while bunker oil and natural gas prices keep rising steadily.

Let's consider Thailand's electricity production options:

- Buy from neighbouring countries. The good point is no pollution and thus it does not affect nearby communities. The bad points are the high cost of transmission lines and less security as Thailand has to depend on other countries. The cost is also high and rising, while the available amount is limited.

- Coal option. The good points are a low price and price stability. The bad point is people are wary of pollution that they personally experience from the Mae Moh lignite power plant.

- Nuclear option. The good points are price stability and energy security. The bad point is the danger from leaked radiation in case of accidents and natural calamities.

Now Thailand uses natural gas to produce electricity at the rate of 70% of total production. This percentage will keep rising to even 80-90% as long as there is opposition from the community against the coal and nuclear options.

It means that the country needs to import more natural gas from Burma and other countries in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG), which is even more expensive. Of course, the cost of electricity will rise in line with the rising cost of natural gas and LNG.

Thai Rath discounts demand side management as inadequate. No matter how the country and its people economise, the rise in electricity consumption is estimated at 5.2% a year as the country needs to generate power of at least 5% over the peak usage to ensure that black-outs and brown-outs do not occur.

It is estimated that by 2022 Thailand will need to generate an extra 22,837 megawatts of electricity a year to cope with the rising demand.

Thai Rath also dismisses renewable energy as woefully inadequate. Though it is clean energy, it can only be produced in very small amounts with vast areas required and there is no stability as several factors come into play. Not only is the cost high, a renewable energy power plant cannot be built large enough to replace a traditional power plant that is needed to satisfy the demands of a growing economy.

Purachai makes a comeback

While several SME political parties are forming alliances to fight the general election expected in July, there is a new party emerging this week under the banner Pracha Santi [citizens at peace] headed by former deputy prime minister Purachai Piumsombun, noted Post Today.

The new party aims to become an alternative to the conflicted two main parties, the Democrats and Puea Thai, as the Thai people are getting tired of colour-coded politics. Mr Purachai is proposed as a neutral choice for the electorate to become head of the next government.

In the recent past, former Democrat secretary-general Sanan Kachornprasart tried to push Anake Laothamathat as an alternative prime ministerial candidate, but failed miserably as Thaksin Shinawatra was at the height of his popularity in the 2005 general election.

At the moment, it is believed that after the general election, colour-coded politics will return to rear its ugly head. If the Democrats win and form a coalition government, the red shirts will continue to agitate and mobilise the mob to stage protests in Bangkok. If Puea Thai wins, the yellow shirts will organise to expel the government headed by Puea Thai in order to prevent Thaksin from coming back to Thailand without serving a two-year jail term.

With this scenario in mind, Pracha Santi expects to have a chance to form a coalition government headed by Mr Purachai, who still commands some support among the Thai people.

According to an Abac poll, Mr Purachai had 44% support among the surveyed sample as a premiership candidate in competition with Mr Abhisit. However, it would not be easy for Mr Purachai to become the next prime minister. The chance will happen only when both major parties fail to form a coalition government. As it is now, Pracha Santi does not have seasoned MP candidates who can easily win. It will be an uphill task for the new party to secure about 10 MPs in the upcoming general election, noted Post Today.

What the party does not lack is good connections. Let's look at some of the party's executives.

Panlert Baiyok used to be a financier of Thai Rak Thai in its early days.

Pol Gen Patcharawat Wongsuwan was former police chief and is a younger brother of Defence Minister Gen Pravit Wongsuwan, who has good connections with army chief Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha as both hail from the Burapha task force.

Furthermore, when Pol Gen Patcharawat was the police chief during the Somchai administration and was later found at fault by the National Anti-Corruption Commission for ordering the dispersal of yellow shirts on Oct 7, 2008, Newin Chidchob, who was the kingmaker in this government, came out openly to defend him. So the new party has a good connection with Bhumjaithai.

Thiraphol Noprampha was a personal secretary of the late Samak Sundaravej during his short tenure as Thailand's prime minister. When Samak was ousted by the Constitution Court, it was Mr Newin alone among the big wigs of the People Power Party who stood behind Samak when the PPP chose a new leader to be the candidate for prime minister in House votes. Others in the party heeded Thaksin's call to support his brother-in-law Somchai Wongsawat, who was duly elected. Samak and Mr Newin felt Thaksin had betrayed them.

Seri Suwanphanon was deputy chairman of the constitution-drafting council. He was acting Pracha Santi leader before the party formally elected Mr Purachai this week. Mr Seri is reputed to have wide connections with several political cliques including the yellow shirt PAD.

All these connections make it possible for Pracha Santi to have a significant role in forming the new government. The Bhumjaithai and Chart Thai Pattana alliance still lacks support in Bangkok. It is expected that Mr Purachai's name can make a dent in the Democrat Party's solid support in Bangkok.

If Bhumjaithai, Chart Thai Pattana and Pracha Santi can garner a significant number of MPs, it is possible that the next prime minister of Thailand will not be Mr Abhisit, Ms Yingluck or Mr Mingkwan, but it could be Mr Purachai, who may come in as a compromising figure to heal the rift in Thai politics, concluded Post Today.