With up to 2,700 hours of sunshine a year, the “land of smiles” Thailand has much to be happy about.
Not only is its year-round tropical climate a magnet for tourists, its ever reliable rays have the potential to provide a near-inexhaustible source of energy.
Bright though the future of solar power appears to be in the country, the sector is showing signs of stalling and Thailand has fallen behind its neighbor Vietnam, which is now the biggest solar energy producer in Southeast Asia. While Vietnam produces seven times more than Thailand’s 2,249MW-capacity across its operational and planned solar plants, according to the Stimson Centre think tank in Washington, it pales in comparison to China, the world’s largest solar power producer.
Critics blame the lack of progress on errors in government policymaking; rural areas have found themselves largely bypassed by the solar revolution, while even in cities, individual households have found that installing solar panels simply doesn’t pay.
Into this mix has stepped an unlikely – and to many, unwelcome – savior: the Royal Thai Army, which announced in January that it would carry out a feasibility study, in partnership with the state-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat), into the construction of a 30,000MW solar farm on military land in the western Kanchanaburi province. The capacity, if achieved, will be more than double Thailand’s solar energy target set for 2037.
However, whether the powerful military is helping things along or getting in the way is a matter of debate. The cabinet is yet to approve the plan, amid wider concerns from critics who accuse the military meddling in the government’s affairs.
Military influence in politics is a long-standing concern in Thailand, where there have been 12 coups since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. (The most recent coup, in 2014, was led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who has since become the country’s prime minister – initially through appointment by an unelected military-dominated national legislature, and later through re-election in the disputed 2019 general election).
Those who see the army’s solar plans as overreach warn that once the army gets a slice of the solar pie it could monopolize the sector and gain not only huge revenue but also greater political influence – an idea that sits uncomfortably in a country that over the past year has been rocked by pro-democracy protests. One of the protesters’ tenets is that the military’s influence in the country is undermining its democratic ideals.
Critics of the army point to how 30 firms recently met Thai Army Lieutenant General Rangsi Kitiyanasap, President of Royal Thai Army Radio and Television Channel 5, to seek clarity on the rules surrounding entry into the solar sector. Significantly, they say, the meeting took place at Channel 5 headquarters and not the Energy Ministry.
As independent energy researcher Chuenchom Sangarasri Greacen put it in a recent opinion piece in the Bangkok Post, “the overreach by the military in conceiving the mega solar farm project appears to be a new low.”
However, Rangsi defended the army’s proposal in an interview with This Week in Asia, saying the solar farm would help Thailand transition from fossil fuels to renewables in the long term, and help the economy recover from the pandemic in the short term.
Rangsi also said that Thailand’s Alternative Energy Development Plan 2018-2037, which envisages growing the solar sector to 12,139MW, might have set too low a target.
“China and Vietnam are increasing their solar capacity, which would affect the costs of Thai exports and manufacturing. Energy plans must be flexible enough to accommodate change,” he said.
One aspect of the controversy relates to the status of the land the solar farm will be built on, and whether it will remain under the military’s control
In March, the army had said that if its plan was approved it would transfer the land to the relevant government agencies to operate the solar farm.
Kanda Naknoi, an associate professor of economics at the University of Connecticut, was among those who took issue with this.
“A sensible public policy would be to transfer the land holdings for solar projects to the Department of Energy, and let the Department of Energy manage the land and projects. National defense does not require the army taking part in solar projects. I hope the technocrats and officials in the ministry fight more loudly with the military on this front,” Kanda said.
Where did things go wrong?
Thailand, Southeast Asia’s second largest economy after Indonesia, adopted the use of solar energy over a decade ago and had been an early leader in the sector.
But solar power still only provides a tiny fraction of Thailand’s overall power production. Natural gas accounts for more than half of electricity generation and coal almost a quarter.
Thailand is expanding its solar energy sector. The Sirindhorn Dam floating solar farm began commercial operation this month and is touted as the world’s largest hybrid power generation project. Covering 300 acres, roughly the area of 150 soccer pitches, it features a series of seven solar platforms floating on a reservoir that have the combined electricity generating power of a 45MW capacity solar farm and a 36MW hydropower plant, enough to power 23,000 air conditioners at once.
It is the first of 16 floating solar energy projects Egat plans to complete by 2037. Together, they would contribute almost a quarter of the 12,139MW solar energy target outlined in the 2018-2037 plan.
“We can see that the Thai government has recently doubled targets for floating solar,” said Courtney Weatherby, a researcher at the Stimson Centre, adding it was “likely that the renewable energy targets will be increased and potentially guarantee power purchase agreements for solar installations inside Thailand,” when the power plan was updated in 2022.
“The Thai government, and the world in general, are pushing for a more rapid reduction in carbon emissions through clear plans to move towards carbon neutrality,” she said.
To drive the switch to solar the Thai government has been trying to encourage public participation. Under the 2018-2037 plan it envisages power producers other than Egat ultimately accounting for three-quarters of all domestic power generation.
As part of this drive, the state-run Metropolitan Electricity Authority has introduced an initiative to buy back electricity from residents in the capital who install solar panels that feed into the grid.
Decharut Sukkumnoed, a former economics lecturer and director of a policy group Think Forward Centre said due to solar panels, his electricity costs “went from 2,200 baht [US$66] a month to 200 baht”.
However, the buy-back program, introduced in 2013, has failed to have the impact the government had hoped for, with critics saying the incentives are too low to offset the costs of installing solar panels. Dechrat said he spent 200,000 baht for the devices that could produce 5 kilowatt-hours of electricity from solar a day. At this cost, he expects his return in seven years, a time frame he conceded might not work for every household or budget. He suggested that the most affordable investment for solar panels should start at 50,000 baht in order to produce 1.5 kilowatt-hours of electricity per day.
Siripha Junlakarn, a researcher at Chulalongkorn University’s Energy Research Institute, said while the buy-back programme had helped Thailand lead the region initially, “unsuccessful policy implementation” had allowed Vietnam to leapfrog it.
However, Siripha said solar panels were becoming more affordable, partly due to established supply chains backed by Chinese firms like LONGi Solar.
Economist Decharat suggested the government divert the subsidy used in the buy-back scheme “into a fund to support households and places in rural areas like hospitals or schools to buy and install solar panels”. This would promote power diversification and reduce dependence on large scale power plants, he said.
“Any place should be able to invest in solar energy. For renewables, the smaller the investment, the better it is.”
This story is supported by the Mekong Data Journalism Fellowship jointly organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the East West Center. It was originally published on 27 October 2021 in the South China Morning Post and has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Banner image: Thai Buddhist monks at a solar power plant about 60km from Bangkok, Thailand / Credit: EPA.