The Hidden Cost of Thailand’s New Power Development Plan

Decision makers responsible for energy tend to ignore the lives of the locals, such as in the case of this fisher who make his living with natural resources from the Mekong River.
Decision makers responsible for energy tend to ignore the lives of the locals, such as in the case of this fisher who make his living with natural resources from the Mekong River.

A version of this blog was originally published in the Opinion section of The Bangkok Post

The National Energy Policy Council on May 15 approved Thailand's new Power Development Plan (PDP 2015), which lays out Thailand's energy and investment plans for the next 21 years, from 2015-2036. A few weeks earlier the Thai Ministry of Energy organized a public meeting in Bangkok to present the Plan.

Incorporated into this PDP for the first time is an Alternative Energy Development Plan and Energy Efficiency Development Plan. However, despite these measures, the final Plan shows that Thailand still plans to double its installed energy capacity over the next 20 years, to reach 70,410 MW by 2036. The key to much of this growth lies in plans to import significant amounts of electricity from projects in Laos and Myanmar. While these decisions may be driven by political interest and the push for economic growth, the hidden cost of Thailand’s plans and the implications for Thai people and the Mekong region are alarming. 

One of the key concerns raised by academics and civil society is that the reserve margin, which is set to be 15% minimum, has exceeded the appropriate level. In this Plan, Thailand will build up a reserve energy capacity as high as 39%. This leads to a critical question: Why does Thailand need so many new power plants, including coal-fired, nuclear and large hydro, when we are not going to use almost half of them? 

New power plant projects in Thailand, particularly coal-fired, nuclear, and hydropower projects, have faced strong opposition from local communities especially related to their social and environmental impacts. Stronger laws and regulations as well as growing public awareness within Thailand are likely significant factors in the inclusion, in PDP2015, of new sources of energy, through imported electricity from Laos, along with Myanmar and Yunnan Province in Southwestern China. By September 2015, imported hydropower will account for 7% of Thailand’s installed capacity. This source will increase to 10-15% in the first decade of the plan and then to 15-20% in the second decade. This includes some committed projects; the controversial Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong River, and the Hongsa coal-fired plant in Laos. 

Listening to the presentations during the public meeting, I felt so frustrated. While Thailand moves forward with its development plans over the next two decades, it’s become clear that the invisible costs of proposed projects have been ignored under the guise of cheap electricity. When one considers the social and environmental costs of many of these projects, they suddenly become a lot more expensive and bear significant implications for the region’s future.

Along with the Xayaburi Dam and Hongsa Plant, Thailand is helping to build hydropower dams throughout the region at a rapid speed. On the Salween River in Myanmar, there are at least two major projects; the Hat Gyi Dam in Karen state, and Mong Ton Dam (formerly known as Ta Sang), which Thailand is involved with. While these overseas projects may look like cheap and clean sources of energy in the PDP portfolio, they conceal devastating impacts that have yet to be considered.

In the Salween, an immediate and significant impact of the dams is on ethnic groups in the war-torn Karen and Shan states. There is already indication that on-going peace processes in Burma will be disturbed if the dam is built. Since October 2014 there have been reports of militarization and on-going military offensive in the area surrounding the Hat Gyi Dam site, just 47 kilometres away from the Thai border in Mae Hong Son Province.

The Mong Ton Dam in Shan state, will create a large reservoir inundating homes and farmland of some 300,000 people who were uprooted from central Shan state during the massive forced relocation policy by Burmese military since 1996-1998. Some of those who refused to move to the relocation sites fled across the Thai border or live as Iinternally Displaced Peoples in the jungle. If the Mong Ton Dam is built, permanent refugees, who were swept from their homelands, risk becoming another over-looked cost of cheap electricity. 

It’s time we recognize the transboundary social and environmental impacts of our projects being built in neighboring countries. Thailand must begin to consider its extraterritorial obligations when investing in large infrastructure projects abroad.  I said, when I had a chance to speak before the directors and decision-makers in the plenary at the meeting. 

A good example of this is a case currently under review by Thailand’s Administrative Court, filed by villagers in North and Northeast Thailand against five Thai government agencies, including Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), who are involved in the Xayaburi Dam. The case calls for recognition of the project’s transboundary impacts on communities in Thailand and the responsibility of Thai state-owned companies operating abroad to comply with Thai law. This case could set an important precedent for the responsibility of Thai companies in overseas investment. 

Energy experts have long held concerns about the state of Thailand’s energy planning process, which is characterized by persistent over-forecasting of energy demand leading to over-investment and an increased economic burden on consumers. It has also always been a very closed process with little transparency or engagement with the public.

In 2012 Thai energy experts Chuenchom Sangasri Greacen and Dr. Chris Greacen published an alternative Power Development Plan for Thailand which was presented to the Ministry of Energy, along with representatives from EGAT. The report, which analyzed the last PDP – PDP 2010 – found that future power demand was overestimated by 13,200MW over 20 years. The authors found that Thailand could meet its future energy needs without any additional hydropower imports and without additional investments in coal and nuclear power. The report also sets out a series of recommendations to improve accountability in the PDP planning process and help ensure that power sector planning in Thailand is in the public interest. To reach this goal, significant changes will need to be made in the governance structure overseeing the PDP process and in the planning methodology.

With a more accountable, transparent, and participatory energy planning process that incorporates all hidden costs, we will not need to exploit the region’s heritage – the Mekong and the Salween rivers. 

While options are available to replace destructive hydropower dams, our rivers are irreplaceable.  

Tuesday, May 19, 2015