The Coal Situation in Thailand and Strategic Environmental Assessment

Now is the right time to get serious about climate change. Many countries including Thailand have signed the Paris agreement which sets a common goal in keeping the global temperature to rise lower than two degrees Celsius. While the countries around the world have announced their intention to stop using coal in the near future yet the number of coal-fired power plants are going up and booming particularly in Southeast Asia region. Likewise in Thailand, we can see that energy and coal-fired power plants have been one of the boiling topics circulating in mainstream media in the past few years.

Thailand has around 10 coal-fired power plants[i] at the moment of which nine of them belong to private sector with estimated capacity around 2,400 MW in total and one coal-fired power plant which is owned by Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT). If we dig into the directory of EGAT’s coal-fired power plants, we can see that there are two projects which have been succeeded, the first is the Krabi coal-fired power plant which had capacity of 60 MW and started its operation in 1964 but later was terminated in 1995 and the second is Mae Moh coal-fired power plant in Lampang province with capacity of 2,400 MW. This plant was able to generate electricity since 1978 as well as generating respiration diseases for the people living nearby.

There was Thap Sakae project with capacity of 3,200 MW in Prachuap Khiri Khan which was canceled due to local residents’ protests that they do not want to live their lives with pollutants which could destroy their health, livelihood as well as threat the food and water security in the future.

The current Thailand Power Development Plan (PDP) 2015-2036[ii] reveals that the natural gas dominates almost 70% in the generation mix, followed by coal, renewable energy, and others, respectively. There is an effort from the energy authority to replace the percent usage of natural gas with coal, renewable energy, and import from neighboring countries. The reason is that the amount of natural gas in the Gulf of Thailand is depleting so it has to be imported from Malaysia and Myanmar. Although the PDP requires increasing coal portion, there are plenty of people do not agree and protesting against coal–fired power plants in those areas which mostly are coming from both sites of the coast along Southern Thailand.

The disagreement and conflict situation has worsened. We could see that many people and academics from various organizations, private sectors, and civil society organizations have stepped in and proclaimed that the modeling of demand forecast in PDP 2015 was not accurate enough in predicting the excessively high energy demand. The current reserved margin is almost 40% whereas the standard level of reserved margin stated in the PDP 2015 is at least 15% of the national peak demand. Consequently, it shows that Thailand does not need coal-fired power plants anymore.

By the end of 2017, the Ministry of Energy launched the new load forecast for PDP 2018. The modified modeling results has already accounted energy efficiency and captive demand (independent power supply) showing the energy demand in 2036 will be approximately reduced 17 billion kilowatt-hours compared to PDP 2015. This calculation has factored in big upcoming projects which will consume huge of electricity such as the Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), Electric vehicle cars, and high speed train project. However, PDP 2018 is expected to be completed in April 2018. The director of Energy Policy and Planning Office disclosed coal still necessary in order to lower the risk and diversify the fuel type of power generation. In parallel, Ministry of Energy is funding a lot for education, research, and innovation related with the matter for example on decentralization, power management system, energy storage, and energy efficiency. With the condition of all those things must be in line with the Information Communication Technology platform.

Three coal-fired power plants in the pipeline

Thailand has three projects of Coal–fired power plants which are waiting in the pipeline. The first one, “Khao Hin Sorn coal-fired power plant” with capacity of 600 MW is owned by a private company. This plant will be constructed in Chachoengsao province in Eastern Thailand.

The problem with this project is that the 4th Environmental Health Impact Assessment (EHIA) report was rejected by Thailand Environmental Expert Commission. However, the project owner is allowed to improve the EHIA report based on the last edition. With the disagreement and opposition from villagers who live in the area, they have been trying so hard to fight to oppose the project and eventually, through learning process they have created a Community Health Impact Assessment (CHIA) by themselves to challenge and to show that their area is not the right place for constructing the coal-fired power plant. 

The second project, “Krabi coal–fired power plant” with capacity of 800 MW will be constructed in Ramsar site in Krabi, a seaside province in Southern Thailand. Although the EHIA report was approved by Thailand Environmental Expert Commission but due to the protest and disagreement from residents, the EHIA have finally been put on hold by the Prime Minister who was urged to reconsider this plan.

The third project is “Thepha coal-fired power plant” with capacity of 2,200 MW in Songkhla province, Southern Thailand. This site was also put on hold by the Prime Minister as he waits for the new launch of PDP 2018 to see if there is a must to build such power plant in Thepha district. The scoping are for EHIA was done only within 5 km around the Coal-fired power plant area, this was unreasonable because there were approximately 240 households who have to migrate to somewhere else due to this project. While estimated total of 2,000 residents have to live with the expected pollutions around the power plant without certain remedies or plan for affected groups, said a local community leader in Thepha. He added, coastal erosion is also a main concerning problem that would come with the coal port construction. The EHIA report seems not accurate, as there are some mistakes of information found, such as there are fresh fish and duckweed aquatic plants found in the seawater canal. However, Thepha villagers said that they do not refuse power plant, but they definitely refuse coal. They prefer to have renewable energies such solar or wind that they find it will be easier to adapt with.

The on-going debates

The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) reports that the electricity demand in the Southern Thailand is increasing 5-6% annually due to the regional economic growth, especially from the tourism sector[iii]. With the strong promotion of “Clean Coal Technology” of which they say it will be able to control the emission rate below the environment’s criteria. The base load power plant is a crucial thing for the Southerners and also for Thailand’s energy security. No surprises that lots of residents, academics, and civil societies have been opposing and protesting against these two mentioned projects in Southern Thailand.

On the other hand, the anti-coal network in Thailand has announced that they will not allow any coal-fired power plants to be based in Thailand anymore based on the reason that nowadays, renewable energies technology like solar photovoltaic or solar rooftop and wind power technologies are developing very fast. This reasoning also shows the fact that renewable energies have higher efficiency, cheaper price, and more feasible than before. Particularly, biomass and biogas-based fuels are found to be a vast majority resource in the agricultural country like Thailand which will be able to contribute much more employment rate in the local areas as well as boosting the re-circulation of money inside the country.

On top of that coal-fired power plant is one of the causes that develop the climate temperature, as being concerned in the rest of the world. Securing the electricity system does not only depend upon the import of fossil fuels. Thailand essentially needs more innovative planners who will reconsider the alternative ways of doing grid management for example, lift up the energy prosumer concept, microgrid, and prioritizing of renewable energy. All these things have been previously proposed to the energy policy maker and regulator.

On Feb 20th, 2018 The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between Mr. Siri Jirapongphan, the Minister of Energy and a group of Save Andaman from Coal which includes the residents from Krabi-Thepha districts who were on the hunger strike in front of United Nations Office in Bangkok. The people requested the government to cancel the two projects. The MOU contains four important keys as follows:

  1. Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) has been ordered to withdraw all the existing EHIA reports of both Thepha and Krabi Coal-fired power plants from the office of Natural Resources and Environment Policy and Planning within 3 days after the signing date.
  2. Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) is required to evaluate whether both districts are suitable for coal-fired power plants or not. The SEA has to be completed within 9 months and must be conducted by the academics that had been accepted by the supporters and protesters.
  3. If the SEA indicated that area is suitable, the EHIA report needs to be done by a neutral authority that is accepted by both sides.
  4. The lawsuits between EGAT and protesters regarding Krabi and Thepha coal-fired power plants have to be withdrawn after the signing date.

Apart from the anti-coal group in Krabi and Thepha districts, there is also another group of villagers who really want coal-fired power plant to be built near their place due to their belief that coal is the cheapest fuel type for power generation which would provide energy security and contribute less harm to environment and people‘s health as well as generating economic opportunities in their area. There are some of academics from universities who also support coal as they confidently believe in the “clean coal technology” that can reduce the rate of the harmful gas and particles emission.

The EGAT Labour union also marched in front of the Ministry of Energy and demanded the government to annul such MOU. Keep in mind that EGAT always points out that coal-fired power plant is necessary to be built as the main reason that the electricity in the South is insufficient. In contrast, they consider that renewable energy as a low security and unreliable solution whether solar, wind or biomass, they are not consistent and depend on the seasons. Moreover, EGAT argues that adding more renewable energy into the grid will increase the electricity cost per unit, since the large scale of investment in the power backup system is undeniable. 

Meanwhile, on Feb 28th 2018, EGAT as a power state-owned utility and the University of Hawaii have signed the MOU to study the integration of Renewable Energy into the Thailand’s power system[iv]. The MOU cover two years for education, workshop, and exchange program on the issues of energy policy, rules and regulation, energy market and also the plan for power system control.  This shows and interesting development as whether EGAT and the energy authority believe in Renewable Energy or not, one thing they cannot fight is the disruptive technologies like solar and battery. The fact is when the price becomes reasonable, there is nothing can stop people to use them.

I would argue that coal-fired power plant nowadays is not only a source of power but it is also a source of wide conflicts in the communities and nationwide which is, of course, unhelpful for the country. Recently, there are more cases of Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) which purpose are to use lawsuits to shut or obstruct civil society and environmental activists. I believe that our society really needs a tool to bring a real and effective public participation. Even though, we have implemented EIA and EHIA which contains public hearing processes but the weakness is that those hearing process were made just before the project construction. Then this pseudo-participation has been made just to meet the protocol and formality, in order to expedite the project. My question, what if the stakeholders are kept informed, and are involved in the participation process since the very first day of the policy consideration, would it be better?

What is Strategic Environmental Assessment?

Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA)[v] is one of the tools that contain the process of public participation from the very first step of project planning that leads to the consideration and decision making on the whole picture. That allows stakeholders to take parts in the consideration process that disclose the conventional approaches and also the alternative ways of development. Providing the impact assessments from multi-perspectives i.e., economic, social, environment, and technology. For this reason, SEA would be used to reduce the delay and potential conflicts during the project that more likely to be found in EIA and EHIA processes and could also help to accelerate the implementation of mega projects of the government. Nevertheless, the SEA is irreplaceable by the other tools such as EIA and EHIA but it will help to fill the gaps and existing problems.

At the moment, SEA is considered as a new thing for Thailand. Only EIA and EHIA (optional) are required by the law to be conducted by the project owner. For a group of huge development projects that will be caused the substantial negative impacts to people and environment. However, Thailand getting started to put more awareness in applying SEA with the plan and policy making. Especially, for the development that contributes wide adverse impacts i.e., energy, Special Economic Zone, transportation, etc. The SEA still not included in the laws and regulations yet, it is currently in-process of approval by National Legislative Assembly. 

Focusing on the power sector, many countries have been applying SEA with PDP (Power Development Plan). For example in ASEAN region, the government of Vietnam[vi]  has used the SEA for the PDP 2011-2020. Since SEA was designed to consider the alternative approaches of development. Then, the scenario of renewable energy mixes, plus energy efficiency has been taken in to account. The SEA has shown a significant value of electricity demand reducing, which equivalent to 16 Coal-fired power plants, also to reduce the environmental and social costs by an estimated $1.7 billion by 2030 compared to the business-as-usual approach. That would have enormous benefits to the country i.e. lower the risk of human health, more diversified of energy resources which also help to enable the energy security.

Back to Thailand, There are two on-going SEA studies. The first SEA relates to the anti-coal group and Minister of Energy is expected to be completed by November 2018, firstly it was intended to be an area-based SEA which is assessing the two districts of Thepha and Krabi whether both areas are suitable for coal-fired power plants. “It has nothing to do with clean coal or dirty coal and insufficient of electricity in Southern Thailand”, said Mr. Thon Thamrongnawasawat, a member of the SEA advisory board[vii].

As the Minister of Energy could not stand the pressures from the coal support group and EGAT labor union, the second MOU was signed on March 28, 2018 which details procedure of applying information from the EHIA study of Thepha coal-fired power plant and its port in the SEA study. If the SEA indicates that Thepha district is a suitable to build the project, then it will be continued using the existing EHIA study, without having to conduct a new one. In the other hand if SEA indicates Thepha district is not suitable right place, the coal-fired power plant has to relocate to the most suitable place somewhere in the Southern region.

This second MOU was directly affected the replacing of some committees from the first designation. Again, the list of committees had been criticized a lot from both sides about being the “neutrality”. Two months has passed and the scope of the SEA study is still not yet revealed to the public. There is a possibility that the scope might be changed from the previous direction into the option of selecting the most suitable place for the coal-fired power plant in the Southern region.

The second one is an issue-based SEA and directly relates to power development that corresponds with sustainable social and economic development for Southern Thailand. This issue-based SEA is being conducted by the Healthy Public Policy Foundation and it is funded by Thai Health Promotion Foundation and it is expected to be completed by August 2018.

This issue-based SEA contains alternative scenarios of electricity generation that increasing the proportion of renewable energy with enhancing the energy efficiency; it proposes the alternative way of grid management, energy market, and also the alternative way of social and economic development compared to the business-as-usual approach. Based on the first workshop of the public hearing in Krabi province on October 2017, there was a recommendation from local villagers and civil society that it would be better to make a concrete evidence such a model of 100% renewable energy village, district or province rather than just making the SEA study report. In addition, an increase of employment rate that being generated by renewable energy in Thailand is yet to happen.

Furthermore, few models of renewable energy have been implemented successfully in various businesses such as Solar PVs which are installed on the roof of hospitals, supermarkets, superstores, and commercial buildings. There are also factories which can generate electricity from wastewater-biogas, unfortunately, they unable to sell the electricity to the power system due to energy policy constrain.

As for now, Krabi province has a crystal clear vision and provincial strategy called “Krabi Goes Green” which was coined long time ago. This agreement comes from multi stakeholders including the private sector, The Federation of Krabi industries, tourism and the agriculture sector. These stakeholders have done many things push towards sustainable tourism, for example, more than 90 hotels and resorts became member of Zero Carbon Resorts for Sustainable Tourism which was one of the EU funded projects that aims to increase the energy efficiency, and enhancing better water and waste management. There was also initiative to register the world heritage site for Ramsar site that covers 3 provinces of Krabi, Phang-nga, and Ranong. Furthermore, three years ago there was a study of the potential of renewable energy in Krabi done by a tripartite committee which comprises of the representatives from the ministry of energy, EGAT, National Legislative Assembly, and the academics. The result showed that Krabi has the potential of renewable energy nearly 1,700 MW.  Unfortunately, it seems that these findings and efforts made are not enough to change the pro-coal groups’ mind to stop coal-fired power plant.

Last but not least, we could not deny that the national economic growth requires an investment in the infrastructures, transportations, and a complex city planning. But, we hope to see that development progress to come with a mutual-recognition and acceptance as well as a real meaningful participation from the local communities, not only dominates by the big players in the investment and policy makers or authorities side. However, we can expect by the end of this year that these two SEA studies will be able to bring down the conflicts and could upscale public participation process in the energy sector as well as being such a guideline for the other SEA studies for the next years to come.