Sunny future for Thai solar energy; Boom in sector may help country reach 500MW goal ahead of schedule

Construction News

A doctor who runs a hospital known as Thailand’s cosmetic surgery capital has become the country’s single largest individual investor in solar energy.

Riding on a boom in the sector that has investors flocking for a place in the sun, Dr Supot Sumritvanitcha, 62, is developing three solar farms over 404ha.

The sites will produce 34.25MW of power – enough for tens of thousands of homes.

For the doctor who started Yanhee Clinic 25 years ago and now has a hospital with 400 beds, soon to increase to 600 beds, solar energy was just a side interest. Until recently, the cost of generating power from the sun was just too high.

But the economics of the industry now makes it attractive.

A study this year by Solarbuzz, a solar energy research organisation, said Thailand was marching ‘possibly far ahead of schedule’ towards its goal of 500MW of solar power by 2022.

There is plenty of room for growth and an ongoing blizzard of investment. Last year, some 30MW of solar power came on line, and this year somewhere between 50MW to 100MW is being installed.

Thailand’s Ministry of Energy has applications for 3 gigawatts worth of solar projects – six times the target – and is considering expansion of its targets to accommodate the investment.

Dr Supot recalled that in 2008, the Thai government, seeking to curb greenhouse gas emissions, adopted targets and offered incentives for investors in renewable energy. It cost US$6.6 million (S$8 million) to generate 1MW of solar power.

At that price, no banks were interested.

By 2009, the cost had come down to US$5 million for 1MW, and by last year, to US$4 million.

‘That was when I became interested,’ said Dr Supot, adding that this year, the cost has dropped even further to US$3.6 million for 1MW – comparable with costs in highly developed solar markets like Germany.

A surge in manufacturing of solar plant equipment from China helped to drive down costs, he said.

Dr Supot obtained power purchase agreements, which ensure utilities will buy power generated from solar farms. With a local utility, Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding, he started a joint venture called Solarta.

The German company Conergy, the world’s second-largest producer of solar equipment and systems, is among those contracted to supply solar systems for Solarta’s sites. Another is Phoenix Energy, also a German company.

Conergy recently opened an office in Bangkok to serve the booming market.

‘Thailand has all that is needed to be an interesting market, because there is a lot of sunshine, a lot of land, and a growing need for electricity,’ said Mr Alexander Lenz, Conergy’s vice-president for South-east Asia and the Middle East, who is based in Singapore.

Ms Chee Yeen Yee, commercial director at Phoenix Solar in Singapore, noted that Thailand was the most advanced country in the region in terms of grid connectivity and the feed-in tariffs crucial for the development of the industry.

Conergy has already supplied equipment for three solar farms in Thailand. German firm Schott Solar AG will be delivering 67,000 photovoltaic modules for two solar power plants that Phoenix Solar Singapore is building just north of Bangkok.

Among the major investors are China Light and Power and Mitsubishi Corp, which have begun construction on the Lopburi Solar Project, which will eventually generate 55MW.

This month, GE Energy said it planned to introduce its cadmium telluride thin-film photovoltaic technology to the Thai market. Last December, Japan’s Kyocera Corp said it was gearing up to supply Thailand with one million solar panels, worth US$485 million.

Dow Chemical will build two new overseas manufacturing plants next year, to make speciality films used in photovoltaic modules – one in Germany, the other in Thailand.

In an interview, Mr Krairit Nilkuha, the Ministry of Energy’s director-general of alternative energy development, said: ‘As of March this year, alternative energy accounted for 11.7 per cent (of the country’s energy mix). Solar energy and biogas are going to exceed their targets.

‘We have strong confidence that we are going to achieve our target of 20 per cent renewable energy by 2022.’


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