Thai government gets tough over power use

News Desk in Bangkok/The Nation
Asia News Network

Bangkok (The Nation/ANN) - The Thai government is ramping up energy-saving measures encompassing both government units and private organisations to help avert a possible blackout due to a scheduled disruption in the supply of natural gas from Myanmar.

The moves will be announced today after an emergency meeting at the Energy Ministry, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra said.

The Cabinet yesterday approved in principle a policy encouraging energy-saving measures at state agencies, on business premises and in households, as the halt in natural gas delivery from Myanmar will mean the loss of 1,100 million cubic feet per day (mcfpd) from April 4-12. All government units have been told to keep electricity bills at 10 per cent of total expenditures, or face a cut in other expenditure.

The Energy Ministry has been assigned to monitor the daily use of power, petrol and electricity starting today and continuing into April, when Myanmar's Yadana gas field will be shut down for drilling-rig maintenance.

Energy Minister Pongsak Ruktapongpisal has been assigned to negotiate with Myanmar to try to postpone the maintenance by a few days to coincide with the Songkran festival, when power consumption by the industrial sector usually drops.

PTT senior executive vice president Chakree Buranakanon said the company, as a partner in the Yadana gas field, has negotiated with operator Total several times seeking a postponement of the shutdown. A delay of three or four days would ease the situation, he said, as power consumption usually declines during Songkran.

As a short-term measure, PTT plans to raise gas output from the Gulf of Thailand by 100 mcfpd during the period and to reduce natural gas consumption at its separation plants by another 100 mcfpd. Chakree expected that 350 mcfpd of gas remaining in the pipeline would be sufficient for natural gas-powered vehicles in the west of Thailand.

Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat) Governor Sutas Patamasiriwat admitted that power "brownouts" - drops in voltage in the power-supply system - were possible in the South and Bangkok during the period, without the high-voltage pressure from power plants in the country's west.

"The disruption will have severe impacts, as the shutdowns usually occur during the cool season. Yet, this time it is happening in the hot season, and it can't be delayed, due to the destabilisation of the drilling rig."

During the shutdown period, six power plants in the west will operate on bunker oil and diesel.

Former energy minister Piyasvasti Amranand said that as diesel and bunker oil are to replace natural gas, the public should not be held solely responsible for the extra generating cost. The gas-field operator should also be held responsible, he said. Piyasvasti suggested all parties cooperate in the energy-saving campaign, particularly shopping complexes, which he said should not set their air-conditioning systems below 27 degrees Celsius.

The general public should also be encouraged not to wear suits and to turn off some lights. For a long-term solution, Thailand should reduce its reliance on natural gas from 70 per cent of its power supply at present, and conduct further studies on nuclear and other alternative sources of power, he said.

During the Cabinet meeting yesterday, Deputy Commerce Minister Natthawut Saikua showed his enthusiasm for the policy when it was raised by offering to take off his jacket and asking other ministers to follow suit. Yingluck stopped them, however, saying such a practice could be implemented after official Cabinet approval was secured.

Three members of the government spokespeople's team wore short-sleeved shirts to set an example, after Cabinet approval was reached. Chief spokesperson Tossaporn Serirak later gave additional details about the policy, saying hospitals and airports would be exempt from the austerity measures.

According to the Energy Ministry, this summer, peak power consumption in Thailand is expected to hit 27,000 megawatts, higher than last year's peak volume of 26,700MW, due to economic expansion.

Looking beyond this short-term problem, Noppol Milinthanggoon, chief executive officer of Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding - two of whose power plants in Ratchaburi will be affected by the disrupted gas supply from Myanmar - was more concerned with Thailand's low "spinning reserve" and the delay in building large-scale power plants. He said these would pose a bigger problem to national security in the long term.

He said the spinning reserve - the unused capacity that can be activated in an emergency - is now as low as 2 per cent - or just 500MW - of the country's combined installed capacity of 27,000MW. Meanwhile, Egat forecasts power demand this coming hot season will increase 5 per cent from last year's peak of 26,700MW, recorded on April 26. "With the low spinning reserve, if any power plant falls, a power blackout would be very likely," he said.

The spinning reserve will remain low this year without the additional power supply. Facing strong opposition from local residents in Chachoengsao, Siam Energy in 2010 had to relocate its 1,600MW Bang Khla power plant elsewhere and could not start operations in 2013 as planned. According to a source at the Energy Ministry, the first 800MW should be fed into the system from June 1, 2015 and the rest from December 2015.

Noppol said the spinning reserve was low partly because hydropower plants have been unable to run at full capacity because of low water levels.