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There is no question that clean energy has merits. Among many sources, biomass power plants are championed as the most appropriate choice for Thailand — a country with abundant farm waste such as rice husks, and organic waste from sugar mills and palm oil factories.
The massive amount of biomass sources enable the country to boast high potential biomass energy — between 4,000 to 7,000 megawatts per year. The amount should reduce the country’s dependence on fossil-based energy, a major cause of global warming.
Therefore, it’s perplexing to see the slow progress of this kind of environmentally friendly energy. Business operators and activists blame flawed policy for the lethargy.
Lack of zoning and public participation as well as a clause that exempts small-scale plants, those with less than 10 megawatts of capacity, from environmental impact assessment (EIA) studies, are among the major flaws.
Without EIAs, local people are opposed to biomass projects like those in Nan, Chiang Rai, Chachoengsao and other provinces.
Federation of Thai Industries vice-president Natee Sithiprasasana said local resistance is the outcome of structural processes in project development.
“It is a very tough question why local communities still resist renewable energy projects,” he said. “But what is happening is that we lack real public participation. And we need to realise that public participation is not a public relations issue that focuses on praising a project for how good it is.”
Mr Natee said the country still lacks mechanisms and processes that bring community and business developers to the table to discuss, exchange information and decide about projects at their early stages, long before investors buy land and seek concessions from the state.
“Companies need to find land and infrastructure first and foremost,” said Mr Natee, a developer of a doomed coal-fired power plant in Prachuap Khiri Khan.
“Many projects are made confidential because they fear community residents will protest or land prices will go up. The authorities do not come to help. They just state their energy demands and we need to find land and other infrastructure. Private companies are left to fight against community residents.”
Local community resistance is the tip of the iceberg of problems that hold back the biomass energy business in Thailand. Several developers have started selling off their biomass businesses.
Their reasons are mostly business-related, or due to a lack of materials caused by the fact that there are too many biomass plants concentrated in the same area.
Investors in biomass, especially early pioneers who do not have their own farm waste by-products, lament that farm waste is harder to find and costs are unpredictable.
Mr Natee said massive policy reforms are needed make the biomass energy industry survive and thrive.
“Biomass power plants are risky and highly competitive energy projects compared with other energy sources like wind, solar or fossil fuel that are more secure in terms of supply and price,” he said.
“We need to deal with biomass fuel which varies in terms of humidity and calorific value. Supply is inconsistent and now biomass power plants that do not have their own farm waste need to compete against one another to secure supply.
“Factories struggle to stock up on farm waste. The price of rice husks can swing from 400 baht to 1,200 baht per tonne. Those factors make it hard for investors to survive.”
He also urged authorities to revise subsidies given to biomass projects. Biomass power plant investors in Thailand get different contracts and various subsidy rates in comparison with mainstream energy sources.
No matter what the reasons are, Mr Natee says it is time for authorities to make financial subsidies equal for biomass energy investors.
Suphakit Nantavorakarn, an economist with expertise on renewable energy and someone who has heavily researched the matter, agrees that the policy on renewable energy needs to be revamped.
Currently, there are small biomass power plants are allowed to be located in communities, posing a risk of air pollution. No matter how small a biomass power plant is, even a micro-scale one that produces only one megawatt, it is still subject to an EIA. Land zoning must also be established to ensure certain distances between the plants and communities. Biomass is not without pollution.
As a renewable energy source, however, the government should consider giving financial incentives to biomass power plants that play by the rules and use clean energy, he said.