Solar power inching ahead in Thailand

Construction News

Govt sending mixed signals on renewables, while strongly supporting coal.

Solar power inching ahead in Thailand

A company set up a “Solar Charger Station” display at an exhibition last February to show how solar energy could be harnessed to charge mobile phones.

Two years ago, all Kordin Chaihae could do after sunset was to sit quietly by a candle in his small house in Songkhla’s Chana district.

Ironically, his house is located only 20km from the Chana power plant that has been generating power for the southern provinces since 2008. Unfortunately, Mr Kordin’s house is located just outside the coverage area of utility poles.

To access power, he had two choices: to pay 20,000 baht to build and connect utility poles to his house or hope that the local administrative organisation be provided funding from the state budget.

Disappointed, Mr Kordin chose to invest the same amount of money on researching solar power systems and finding affordable equipment like solar panels, adapters and batteries.

Today, with 62,000 baht of accumulated investment, the roof of his house is covered with solar panels — enough to generate power for a rice cooker, refrigerator, television, iron, electric cooker, water pump, two fans, and 10 LED light bulbs each day — free of charge.

“I didn’t have any capacity to make the officials provide me with power. But the sun has the power to light up my home,” said Mr Kordin, 39.

His house, which relies fully on solar power, has proved the state’s claims that renewable energy is expensive and unreliable are wrong.

The state has repeatedly reiterated that fossil fuels like coal are more affordable and reliable than green energy even though 14 southern provinces — which depend on gas power plants and electricity produced in central provinces — experienced a four-hour blackout one night in 2013.

This incident sparked strong fears, which reinforced the Electricity Generation Authority of Thailand’s push for its 2,200 megawatt coal-fired power plant in Songkhla’s Thepha district.

According to the 2015-2036 Power Development Plan (PDP), Thailand aims to increase its renewable energy supply to 30% of national energy capacity by 2036.

If the target is met, combined with a decreased use of fossil fuels, Thailand will be able to reduce at least 140 metric tonnes of equivalent CO2 emissions and the use of fossil fuels equivalent to 590 billion baht.

But critics are worried if the target will be met as the government is shifting its main reliance from gas to coal and doesn’t fully support green energy by encouraging higher use among the general public.

They criticised the government for its reluctance to invest in renewable energy despite the strong trends in green energy in capital markets and as promising investments.

According to the Stock Exchange of Thailand, SPCG, a solar system developer, enjoyed a rise in gross income from 586 million baht in 2011 to 3.7 billion baht in the first three quarters of 2015 while Energy Absolute, a biodiesel and solar energy company, saw a jump in its gross income from 3.9 billion baht in 2013 to 6.8 billion baht in the first three quarters this year.

Supakit Nantavorakarn, commissioner of the Independent Commission on Environment and Health and a member of the subcommittee for drafting the latest PDP, cited a recent study by the German Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems that the levelised cost of electricity generated by biomass and waste will shrink by 2036 to about 1.7-2.5 baht per unit and solar power will drop to 2.5-2.6 baht while fossil fuels will remain at 2.6-3 baht.

“It’s clear that renewable energy is a worthwhile investment today,” he said, praising the government for allowing households to be able to legally install solar panels on their rooftops and sell electricity to the state.

Solar panels were previously only permitted for factories.

He urged the government to approve the now-dissolved National Reform Council’s suggestion for households to be able to freely sell electricity to the state.

Critics have also criticised the priority given to private investors in the renewable energy policy.

They said investors received an extended quota, resulting in more than 100 solar farms springing up across the country.

The only limitation for a solar farm business is the low capacity of transmission lines while the quota given to households is capped at 100 megawatts around the country.

Mr Supakit said that if the government fully supports renewable energy, then it should encourage people to install more solar power systems and to purchase power from them, to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels.