Toward More Democratic Power Planning in the Mekong

We talked to Witoon Permpongsacharoen, Director of the Mekong Energy and Ecology Network (MEE Net), about power planning in the Mekong region, and better alternatives to large hydropower dams. MEE Net works to address the social and environmental problems arising from the rapid growth of the electricity sector in the region.

What is the current context for energy planning in the Mekong region?

In the current system, they start by looking at energy demand forecasts and from this, create a Power Development Plan. Energy forecasting is based on GDP growth forecasting. However while energy projections are made for a period of 20 years, GDP projections can only be made for a maximum of three years. No one can predict GDP growth for 10 years, which makes the forecasting system problematic as you are betting on continued exponential growth. In reality we are facing more uncertainty in terms of economic growth, which will not rise exponentially, but rather fluctuate up and down over the next 20 years.

However, forecasting and power development planning are used to promote growth and investment, and a higher forecast means greater investment. This is the attitude that we are facing, and a common problem with a centralized planning system. What it means is that there is a growing gap between demand projections and reality.

Growth is based on peak demand, meaning the highest demand that occurs in a year. In the case of monsoon countries such as those in the Mekong region, the hot season creates peak demand when people are using air conditioning. Peak demand can last for just two weeks. In Thailand, within 60 hours the demand can increase by 2,000 MW. The rationale behind taking the peak as your demand figure is to ensure there is coverage during these times. But that high level of demand is needed for a very limited period.  

Added to that is a “preserve margin,” a percentage to create a cushion. In the past, Thailand had a 25% preserve margin, now it is 15%, however there are always those trying to push it back up to 20%. On the surface 15% may not look like a lot, and when your total capacity is still low, i.e. 10,000 MW, then 15% is only 1,500 MW extra. However when you are dealing with a total capacity of 30,000 MW, the preserve margin becomes 4,500 MW. The biggest power plant in Thailand is 2,000MW, so even if the whole plant were cut from the system, you will not need a 15% preserve margin.

What these examples demonstrate are the problems with the statistics of energy planning, which leads to inflated demand and over-projections.

Is there an alternative approach to consider?

If you can make energy consumption more efficient, it is better for the economy.

Using an energy efficiency approach, there are many ways to respond to peak demand periods – for example, by asking the end-use consumer to manage the demand. If there are 10 factories which together need 2,000 MW and if you know that during a certain week, this peak will occur, then you approach them to discuss ways to manage their consumption during this period: for example, limit operations or use standby power. You could offer financial incentives. So rather than building new capacity to manage two weeks of peak demand, you improve management of the current installed capacity.

This seems like the logical solution in Thailand where the majority of consumption comes from industry that is owned by less than 20 families. If you can take representatives for these companies, sit them in a room, it should be straight forward to communicate and deal with the peak demand in a different way. But that is only if you want to. This initiative would need to come from the energy industry.

However the energy industry is a business. EGAT – The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, is a business and they are still looking at how they can best increase their investments and increase their income.

How do politics figure into energy planning?

While forecasting is one aspect of energy planning, there are many interests that become a driving factor in energy development and demand. In the Mekong, the energy industry is a centralized monopoly, in which a small number of experts are responsible for decision-making in a system which lacks transparency and accountability.

In order for energy planning to improve, the process and energy sector need to become more democratic, and more transparent.

We cannot necessarily change from a centralized, to a de-centralized system, but we should be working towards an open system. For example, giving people the freedom to be producers as well as consumers, through initiatives such as rooftop solar. These decentralized systems can be backed up by the centralized grid. But what is happening at the moment is more “top-up” rather than full reform of the system. Small-scale initiatives are not reducing the capacity figure. We need all of this to be under the same system and plan.

How can the system be made more democratic?

This question of the democratization of the energy sector is complex, and related to other political problems, when we talk about political democracy, it is often focused on elections and voting. But in Thailand the energy sector accounts for one-third of the economy, so if we can make the electricity sector democratic, then maybe we can make other sectors democratic and finally have a political democracy.

The challenge is how to get the public participate in these issues. For example, when we campaign against destructive dam projects, if only dam-affected people are fighting the dams, we may stop the project, but this will not necessarily create societal change. So how can we get consumers to care? This is why MEE Net has been working to introduce the concept of “know your power,” which aims to create a more participatory process within power policy planning. Ultimately the question is how can we make people see what they can do to be a part of the solution and how we can work together to create a democratic and transparent energy sector.

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