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Rows over energy issues heat up

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Rows over energy issues heat up | Thaiger

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Rows over energy issues heat up
The Nation / Phuket Gazette

PHUKET: Several energy issues are threatening to trigger serious conflicts between the government and communities this year.

Just as activists, conservationists and local communities have expressed their firm intention to protect their environment from potentially harmful power plants and demanded better management of energy affairs, government figures look set to stick to their much-criticized plans.

Energy Minister Narongchai Akrasanee, for example, has vowed to push hard for the 800-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Krabi this year.

He has insisted that the planned plant must start generating electricity for the country’s distribution system by 2019, in line with the already-approved plan.

“It is one of our key performance indicators. The Office of the Public-Sector Development Commission will

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evaluate our performance based on these grounds,” he said, adding that he would try to go ahead with the plan no matter what opposition might arise.

Once established, the coal-fired power plant in Krabi will support the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand’s (Egat) goal of boosting coal as the energy source for power generation from 14 per cent to 23 per cent by 2030.

If things go as Egat plans, two more power plants will go up in Songkhla very soon, too. Also in the pipeline are projects to construct coal-fired plants in Nakhon Si Thammarat, Trang and Satun.

While Egat has conducted campaigns to promote the image of clean coal and its safe use at power plants – with several press tours to foreign countries where such facilities have been in service – many are not convinced.

Outspoken academics, activists and environmentalists have used the slogan: “Clean Coal is a Dirty Lie”.

Egat documents, after all, reveal that bituminous coal for its facilities will be between 0.1- and 1-per-cent sulphur and 0.73-0.85-per-cent arsenic. Moreover, the coal will contain cadmium, lead and mercury.

So, even if Egat tries hard to tell the public that the clean coal is environmentally friendly, opponents believe the use of such coal will cause environmental and health impacts anyway.

The way the state enterprise organised a public forum on September 28 on a project to construct a coal pier for the planned new power plant in Krabi was not at all friendly, it has to be said.

Even though the event took place during martial law, it was still strange to see a huge number of armed soldiers and policemen turning up. When combined with security volunteers, their number was well over 700.

More than 1,500 Egat officials and supporters of the project were also mobilised to crowd the venue of the public forum, making it impossible for the project’s opponents to squeeze in.

Hundreds of people had in fact gathered that day in the hope of protecting wetlands in the area.

In principle, members of the public can have their say on projects that will have big impacts on health, the environment and natural resources.

In practice, however, activists, academics and environmentalists – let alone general members of the public – have found it hard to make their voices heard when they disagree with government projects. Even at public forums, they have hardly had any chance to speak up.

Aside from that, no matter what they say, government agencies seem set to go ahead with their plans anyway.

Greenpeace Southeast Asia Campaign director Tara Buakamsri said that during the past two decades, several communities from Lampang to Chachoengsao, Samut Songkhram, Rayong, Prachuap Khiri Khan, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Songkhla, Trang and Krabi in fact had already come forward in a bid to protect their hometowns from coal.

“Coal has been polluting the environment. It has been touted as a material to ensure energy security, though,” he said.

Several opponents of coal have spoken out in chorus that authorities should explore other energy sources, and use something that is much friendlier to the environment than coal. They have pointed out that even China is trying to cut down on the use of coal.

Financial cost being put first

In the eyes of many activists, Thai authorities have sadly put financial cost ahead of health cost.

Wiwat Chancherngpanich, Egat’s assistant governor for power-plant construction, has recently commented that coal is a good choice for electricity generating because with coal production, costs range only from Bt2.8 to Bt3 per unit.

“When using wind energy, the cost is between Bt5 and Bt6 per unit,” he said. “When using solar energy, the cost ranges between Bt8 and Bt9 per unit.”

In recent years, activists have therefore had concerns that some widely circulated pieces of information – such as electricity-blackout risks and the need to build more power plants – may be misleading. They have also been worried about the government’s preparations for the next round of petroleum concessions.

According to a resolution approved by the National Energy Policy Council on October 22 last year, concessions will cover 29 fields.

While some people expect this round of concessions to lower oil prices in Thailand, others suspect that business groups will be the beneficiaries – not Thai people. The group called Partnership on Energy Reform tried to stage a demonstration last year, but its leaders were quickly arrested under martial law. Some energy seminars were also forced to cancel.

The implementation of martial law may suppress protests by activists, environmentalists and people who disagree with the government’s energy policies and plans for quite some time.

But, as the suppressed are unlikely to lie low for too long, quarrels over energy issues may reach boiling point this year.

— Phuket Gazette Editors

 

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