EARTH Thailand

No such thing as 'clean' coal power

Bangkok Post 20 May 2018 | EDITORIAL

In what is seen as a ploy to get the coal-fired power plants in Krabi and Songkhla back on track, energy policymakers have announced they will conduct a strategic environmental assessment (SEA) into the controversial projects.

The energy ministry said this week it set up a committee of several analysts to look into the environmental, community and economic impact of the projects.

The state will fork out 50 million baht for the study which is seen by some observers as an attempt to keep the coal power plants alive. The study is expected to take roughly five months to complete before it is submitted to policymakers who will make the final decision over whether they will proceed.

The 800MW plant, to be located in Krabi, was initially scheduled to begin commercial operations in 2019. The 2000MW plant, to be situated in Thepha district of Songkhla, was expected to open in 2021-22. The investment into setting up the two plants will exceed 160 billion baht.

The resistance of local people and civic organisations has stalled the plans for the two plants several times during 2014-17. Local people expressed fears that the environmental impact of the plants would adversely affect their health and livelihoods. They staged a series of demonstrations in Bangkok and their provinces to draw the attention of the government. The march by Thepa villagers to meet with -- and hand a petition to -- Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha during a mobile cabinet meeting in November in Songkhla was suppressed by the authorities, resulting in clashes with police. Sixteen local protesters -- among them one child -- were arrested in the scuffle and faced charges.

Over the past few years, the residents have complained about a lack of transparency and irregularities on the part of agencies pushing for the controversial projects. In particular, they criticised the lack of open consultation with the people and an environmental study which appeared to be purely cosmetic. They also wondered aloud why the state has ignored the potential of renewable energy, that is solar, biomass and biogas as an alternative which would allow these southern provinces to avoid the environmental costs associated with coal.

They complained about the attempts of the state to paint an inaccurate picture about energy demands in order to justify the construction of the plants, while the country's reserve margin, as a result of inaccurate forecasting, exceeds international standards.

Locals attempted to convince the state of their areas' respective advantages: Songkha's Thepa is rich with fishery resources while Krabi is one of the top destinations in the country for tourists, who generate a huge income for the local economy.

It's feared that coal power development would affect both those crucial industries for the worse.

As part of these latest efforts to revive the plans, Nantika Thangsuphanich, deputy permanent secretary for the Energy Ministry, said: "The study will help determine whether the South should have more coal-fired power plants. If the answer is no, then policymakers will draw up a Plan B of alternative resources or power supply systems to generate electricity for the region."

The National Economic and Social Development Board said the SEA study will consist of experts in the fields of energy, transport, tourism, the environment, fisheries, marine science, hydrography, public health, city planning, engineering and law.

All these positions are expected to be filled within a month, after which the study will begin.

It's a good sign that energy analyst Manoon Siriwan mentioned the attempt of the panel to avoid past mistakes, saying the study would be open to input from the communities themselves. He must keep his word.

It's necessary that those involved in the new study learn from past mistakes. They must respect local people's right to better development choices. They must also do all they can to ensure transparency, otherwise the resistance will continue.

The new panel must not commit any wrongdoing that will upset the public. Instead of developing a questionable energy project or projects at the expense of locals, it is important that policymakers recognise the need to move beyond coal, and do their best to explore alternatives and make a decision that is based on sustainable development principles.

With the threat of climate change, several countries in the world have abandoned -- or are doing their best to abandon -- coal and embraced alternative energy sources. This would be a good example to follow.

It has long been common knowledge worldwide that there is no such thing as "clean coal". Thailand's energy policymakers must also be aware of this.

The public has been thorough in their arguments and have left policymakers no reason to remain so steadfast in pursuit of the filthy choice.