EARTH Thailand

Coal no longer an option

Bangkok Post 22 February 2017 | EDITORIAL

Just when it appeared the dispute over the Krabi coal-fired power plant was on the verge of boiling over, cooler heads prevailed.

The commander of the 1st Army, Lt Gen Apirat Kongsompong, intervened to free protest leaders from interrogation rooms at the 11th Military Circle. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who approved construction of the plant last Friday, promised on Sunday there will be a new environmental impact study. Anti-coal protesters got on buses and went home.

The rapid cooling of the dangerous and increasingly angry confrontation deserves praise. Credit is due all round. By backing down from its initial decision to take prisoners and make a show of force, Gen Prayut and Lt Gen Apirat in particular made wise moves. But as the prime minister noted, the swelling crowd of "no coal" protesters rested on "love of Krabi and the country".

That won't change. Sunday's actions by the government and protesters have settled nothing. They merely put off the showdown that is inevitable unless the exceptionally unimaginative and doctrinaire pro-coal government and regulators change their plans.

That presents an opportunity. The Energy Ministry, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) and Gen Prayut's own National Energy Policy Committee (NEPC) clearly love coal. And the strongly anti-coal forces of Krabi and Songkhla must recognise there is logic behind that reasoning. Coal-fired plants were among the first generators of the electricity age. They began operating in the 19th century.

That is the problem for coal adherents. Coal is dirty. That includes "clean coal". What worked for the 19th and much of the 20th centuries is outdated, filthy and unacceptable to a majority of the country. Even if it is efficient, which it really isn't, coal is no longer a satisfactory option. And this is where Gen Prayut, Egat and the NEPC have made terrible decisions.

Certainly the Krabi power project needs another environmental impact study. One hopes it will be honest. Those in charge must not simply accept some input from a pre-approved public. Everyone must be allowed a voice. Experts must be welcomed whatever their own opinions about the coal-fired plant.

But the government is actually taking the wrong tack, as it has from the start. Gen Prayut could easily help his regime, serve the country and actually get cooperation instead of confrontation from the anti-coal factions. All he needs to do is combine the new EHIA for the Krabi coal project with a new and serious campaign to study and adopt alternative energy.

Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva and the party's economic doyen Korn Chatikavanij have already called for the use of biofuel for the Krabi power plant. That kind of thinking must expand.

It is not acceptable that a 21st century government -- even a stubborn military government -- should stay so fixated on such old, dirty technology. The government that wants to take the country into the advanced state of Thailand 4.0 cannot credibly do that by producing Electricity 1.0.

It is already a scandal that the country lags so far behind on alternative energy. Due to a court verdict, wind-energy projects in the Northeast have hit a snag.

No government can claim to be forward-looking at this time while simultaneously adopting long-range plans for coal-fired power.

The heated debate over the Krabi coal-fired plant provides an excellent opportunity to move the entire discussion of energy into the place it should be -- the 21st century.