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Thais hot under the collar over threat of blackouts

Publication Date : 25-02-2013


April, already the most sweltering month in Thailand, may get even hotter this year as an electricity shortfall could force the government to impose partial blackouts.

Cabinet members set an example last week by shedding their jackets, turning up the temperature in air-conditioned state offices and ordering government agencies to cut energy use to prepare for the looming shortage. But the flurry of measures has raised questions about why the government sounded the alarm so late.

This is especially so as the week-long shortfall has to do with annual routine maintenance work on a Myanmar gas field, which feeds six power plants in western Thailand. Typically, the plants switch to bunker fuel or diesel during the yearly shutdown.

Last year, the shutdown took place during Songkran, or the Thai New Year, when electricity consumption is usually lower as offices close for the holiday.

This year, however, it starts on April 5, a full week before the start of the Songkran holiday.

Energy Minister Pongsak Raktapongpaisarn, who warned that Bangkok and southern Thailand could be affected by this shortage, has publicly mulled over declaring an "energy emergency".

Industry observers do not think a major disruption is likely. Last Saturday, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra urged the public to have confidence in the government's plans.

Energy economist Decharut Sukkumnoed of Kasetsart University reckons that the shortfall - after taking into account provisions for additional bunker fuel and diesel - makes up less than 4 per cent of Thailand's peak daily demand.

"It's not a lot," he told The Straits Times. "And it's only during weekday afternoons."

But the warnings of a power shortage are getting environmentalists as well as the opposition Democrats hot under the collar.

The Puea Thai government, they allege, is stoking fear to shore up support for controversial projects such as coal-fired plants and hydroelectric dams.

Apart from importing Myanmar gas, Thailand also draws power from hydroelectric dams in Laos. In recent months, it came under fire for its role in the building of the Xayaburi dam in the Laotian stretch of the Mekong River, which it is feared will cause ecological damage downstream.

At home, the Thai government is planning to open for bidding a series of development projects as part of its 350 billion baht (US$11.63 billion) water management plan to prevent a repeat of the 2011 flood devastation.

Environmental activist group Living River Siam's director Teerapong Pomun suspects that all this shortage talk is being used to erode opposition to hydroelectric dams. The dams often displace people and affect fish populations.

"(The government) wants to get approval for dam construction," he said.

Pongsak has urged activists not to blindly oppose such projects and called on government agencies to educate the public on the viability of coal-fired power stations.

Meanwhile, talk of the looming shortage has put the spotlight on the need to diversify Thailand's energy sources. Analysts warn that the country is overly dependent on natural gas, which last year accounted for some 68 per cent of the power generated. About 20 per cent of the gas was imported.

Former energy minister Piyasvasti Amranand told The Straits Times that longstanding fuel subsidies have created unnecessarily high demand for gas at the expense of alternative fuels. The growth of independent power producers, he added, is being hampered by red tape.

Thailand has hundreds of small-scale producers, many of whom derive their electricity from renewable resources. These plants sell power to the national grid but their contribution remains relatively minor for now - in 2011, they made up just 7 per cent of the country's overall capacity.


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