Distributed energy in Thailand and the Pacific Northwest

This is an excerpt from a profile on Thai energy activist Chuenchom Sangarasri, which appeared in the Bangkok Post. Apart from mentioning the success of renewable energy efforts in Thailand, the article also has an interesting passage about the catastrophic failure of nuclear energy programs in the Pacific Northwest region of the U.S.

Vasana Chinvarakorn:

“One initiative she pursued with her colleagues during her tenure at EPPO was to facilitate the adoption of a programme to buy power from ”very small-scale power producers”, also known as ”net metering” or ”VSPP”. Her husband, Chris, with help from a specialist friend, also stepped in to help draft the first versions of regulations in this emerging sector. Eventually, in May 2002, Thailand became the first developing country to issue a law allowing VSPPs, originally referring to those who produce no more than one-megawatt of renewable energy, to resell the electricity back to the national grid.

Again, Chuenchom added that her goals have always been to promote broader access and an alternative structure and approach in the field of energy _ one that is more democratic, less centralised (it is estimated that about seventy percent of electricity can be lost during transmission through the national grid), allowing participation by consumers and villagers themselves. In December 2006, the government amended the 2002 regulation by increasing the ceiling threshold for potential sellers to under 10 megawatts. This has led to an explosion of renewable energy development in Thailand. The VSPPs have since been flourishing; as of June of this year, 1,265 very small power producers have proposed selling a combined 6,300 megawatts to the system.

It’s not all perfect, however.

”Several large biomass power plants are having a considerable environmental impact and are facing community opposition,” she noted. ”Work needs to be done by project developers to involve local communities in the decision-making process from the beginning. Also, work needs to be done by policymakers to target environmental review requirements more precisely on power plants even if they squeeze under the current 10-megawatt threshold of environmental impact assessment requirements.”

Chuenchom continues to explore new channels to influence policymakers. With funding from the US-based Blue Moon Foundation, last year the Palang Thai group organised a one-week ”study trip” where they invited several key players in the energy field _ four then-recently appointed Energy Commissioners, a handful of executives from electricity and natural gas utilities and National Energy Policy and Planning Office, Democrat parliamentarian Alongkorn Pollabut, and representatives from some NGOs and media _ to visit the US states of Oregon and Washington.

Why the trip? According to Chuenchom, the Pacific Northwest region can offer so many invaluable lessons to Thailand both in regard to past mistakes and how citizens have since learned to make their state-wide energy management more sustainable, democratic and efficient. It was also to be the very first overseas excursion for some members of Thailand’s Energy Regulatory Commission upon taking their new positions since the relevant law went into effect last year, as well as a forum where they could interact with their counterparts from another country and with different sectors across the board.

For Sarinee Achavanantakul, Thammasat lecturer in business and finance and editor of OpenOnline, the study trip was eye-opening in that the US examples show how the concept of ”energy efficiency” (EE) can become a viable and serious choice of investment on the same par as other conventional plans, and not an ”afterthought” as has been the practice in Thailand.

”Whenever they make a plan about building a power generator, they try to include every possible cost into their accounting _ construction expenditure as well as the cost of potential social and environmental impacts for current and future generations. Some choices might appear cheap now, but when taking the future costs of, say, the disposal of radioactive waste into consideration, they might become too expensive. On the other hand, what seems costly now, for example establishing solar- and wind-powered energy sources, might be in fact much cheaper in the long run.

”The bottom-up and decentralised approach also enables representatives from low-income sectors to take part in the decision-making process, to provide information on what low-powered housing is like.”

Such an integrated resource planning process does not come out of a vacuum. Chuenchom said during the 1970s and 1980s, the state governments of Oregon and Washington were at a similar stage as Thailand is now: Planners had projected a tremendous rise in power demands and up to 27 nuclear reactors were thus slated for construction. The ambitious scheme fell in a spectacular flop, however, largely due to delays, drastic cost over-runs, and high interest rates. The electricity rates then skyrocketed by up to 500 percent; there was a severe drop in demand; and the failed projects prompted the largest bond default, at the time about $2.25 billion, in US history.

In the end, only one nuclear plant was completed; four others in varying stages of completion were shut down or ”mothballed” at a colossal cost to rate-payers in Washington and Oregon.

”The rate-payers in the region became extremely irate,” described Chuenchom. ”They staged protests and finally a law was passed which stipulated that from then on every energy policy must be the ‘most integrated and cheapest’ possible, and secondly, that energy efficiency must always be the first priority.

”Moreover, another law in Oregon dictates nuclear reactors will be built in the state only when the government can find permanent solutions to the waste issue (and even then, a citizen referendum is still needed to authorise the construction).”

Chuenchom and Sarinee recall seeing the gruesome rows of thick concrete pipes containing spent plutonium surrounded by armed around-the-clock security guards. For the ”waste”, if stolen, could be reprocessed (”enriched”) and turned into deadly atomic bombs that have similar, or even more destructive capacities than those that ravaged the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

For Chuenchom, that is a telling scene. She said her past critiques of Thailand’s energy management have come from the ”left side of the brain”, the use of arguments and technical reasoning, but when it comes to the nuclear issue, she wants to do a campaign warning the public of its danger from a mother’s stance, appealing to common sense.

”As a mother, I want to be able to give my children the good things I have had the opportunity to enjoy. And I see nuclear energy as something that completely goes against the principles of peace, sustainability and justice that I believe in.

”It is a technology that is based on risk, can induce war and other violence, and block freedom of thoughts. It will leave behind a host of problems _ such as radioactive waste _ to the younger generations. I thus take it as my responsibility to ensure a safe and clean future for my children.”

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