Holding back the sun: Thailand, solar energy and the “base load myth”

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The Mekong Eye, Bangkok, Thailand

Thailand’s Energy policymakers recently announced plans to allow the private sector more access to promote solar power in the Kingdom. But restricting the program to just 100 MW of roof-top installations runs counter to emerging advice from within and experience from abroad, that solar power— and renewables generally — are the way forward. Instead, critics say large, unnecessary energy projects at home and in neighboring countries are now driving Thailand’s energy policy. Many analysts say Thailand can now make the transition to solar and other renewable energy sources.

At the core of this transition is debunking the myth of what’s known as “base load.” Base load power sources need to produce enough energy at a constant rate to meet the minimum amount of power needed over the course of a day. A base load source of power needs to be reliable and consistently available. However, electricity demand fluctuates hourly. Peak production is in the afternoon when offices, air conditioners, and factories are in full operation. While during the wee hours of the morning, things are cooler and quieter. To meet these needs, base load power plants run all day long , while other power sources just supplement supply when electricity needs rise. Traditional fossil fuel plants have long been used to service this base load, and Thailand’s experience is no different. But advances in demand management and the ability of solar in particular to meet the high demands throughout the day can reduce the need for these fossil fuel plants.

“A country cannot abolish [the base load of coal-fired power plants] suddenly, but many, including Germany, have gradually shifted their base load power plants to renewable energy sources,” said Dr. Decharut Sukkumnoed of Kasetsart University’s department of economics told The Bangkok Post recently. “I believe Thailand can do that too. We just need to be open to new options.”

Thailand’s 2015 Power Development Plan, however, calls for a doubling of energy generating infrastructure capacity over the next two decades, with 3/4 of it fed by fossil fuel plants. The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand is leading efforts to build a controversial base load, coal-fired power station while the government is now acknowledging a willingness to sidestep social and environmental regulations to get such projects built.

This myth of base load plants was a major topic at the world’s annual energy summit in Houston Texas earlier this month. Even China is pointing out that its base load thermal plants are operating at only 50% capacity. China energy experts claimed that such projects should only be used to supplement what renewables may not be able to provide.

According to Renewable Economy, although the “base load” mindset is widely held, it is also widely discredited by the data:

The “base load” mindset, though, is a pretty big and powerful hurdle. Across the world it infests incumbent utilities, the coal and nuclear lobbies, conservative politicians, energy regulators, and many in mainstream media, who are clinging to the concept of “base load generation” as the last resort to try to ridicule wind, solar and other technologies.

In Australia, which has more coal generation as a percentage of its energy supply than any other developed country, this perpetuation of this idea has reached fever pitch, particularly with the imminent exit of the large coal-fired power station in South Australia.

But according to Tim Buckley, from the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, the idea of “base load” generation as an essential part of the energy mix is becoming redundant, and turning into a myth dreamed up by the fossil fuel industry to protect its interests.

“It’s as dangerous as the marketing term of “clean coal” and the idea that coal is “good for humanity”,” Buckley says.

New data bears this out. In China, thermal power plant utilisation rates (capacity factors) declined from 56.2 per cent on average in 2014 to a record low of just 50.9 per cent in 2015.

“This highlights coal is not ‘base load’, even in China,” Buckley says. “It is the marginal source of supply. Coal-fired power plants aren’t designed to run only half the time, but that is what is happening in China, and increasingly that is occurring in India as well.”

Thailand’s 2015 Alternative Energy Development Plan reveals the nation’s immense solar potential of 42 GW. This exceeds the entirety of the nation’s current generating capacity by 7GW. The public is interested in aiding in a solar transitioning, but it’s clear that solar is not getting the level of support necessary even to meet the PDP’s limited projections. Thailand’s 2015PDP only intends to grow solar from its current 4% to just 9% over two decades—and total renewables to just 20% by 2036. In contrast, electricity from coal power plants, will increase to 25% of energy production and imported hydropower to 20%.

Solar power is certainly advancing in Thailand, but it is largely doing so on its own inertia, perglobal trends, fighting a continued bias toward large-scale thermal and hydroelectric power installations.

Throughout the Mekong region, analysts have been urging governments to move towards solar and other renewable sources of energy. For example in Cambodia, a report commissioned by Cambodia’s National Council for Sustainable Development (NCSD) with funding and support from Pact/Mekong Partnership for the Environment and USAID (supporters of The Mekong Eye), examines the potential for improving Cambodia’s power supply technology mix, and the potential for boosting solar.

To date almost all investment in the Cambodian power sector has been hydropower and coal-fired power plants. The report, Switching On- Cambodia’s Path to Sustainable Energy Security, argues that a dramatic reduction in the cost of renewables means Cambodia should increase investment in (non-large hydropower) renewable energy. It recommends that the Cambodian government clarify laws on renewables – such as rooftop solar power – to supply electricity.Thailand and its neighbors have a tremendous opportunity to shift to solar and other renewable energy sources. Overcoming barriers such as “the base load myth” will help spur on this change and allow cleaner sources of energy to eventually dominate the power mix.