Monday, March 19, 2007

Thailand's Coal-Power Drive Sparks Health, Environment Outcry

By Beth Jinks and Suttinee Yuvejwattana

March 20 (Bloomberg) -- Suratin Maleehuan has seen cases of respiratory disease climb 70 percent in two years at the 30-bed hospital he runs near Thailand's biggest factory complex. He's horrified by plans to boost the kingdom's coal-burning capacity.

``The health problems are already too much to handle,'' said Suratin, a doctor in the town of Map Ta Phut in the east, where a third coal-fired power plant opened in October to help fuel more than 200 smokestacks. ``For sure when we have new coal plants, the problems will be more.''

A dead fish on the beach in front of the BLCP Power
Thailand's junta-appointed government is turning to coal to increase the country's 27,000-megawatt power-generating capacity -- the first addition in 23 years. It wants to have 40 percent of new supplies come from coal by 2015, up from 17 percent now.

Cutting the country's dependence on more expensive natural gas may not be easy because of health concerns like Suratin's. Protests by villagers from the southwest last month led the government to abandon plans for three coal plants by state-owned Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand Pcl.

A family hunts for mussels close to BLCP's plant
The plants account for half the coal-generating capacity the Energy Ministry wants to install by 2015. The ministry has not said whether they will be built elsewhere.
``In general, people don't seem to like coal-fired power plants,'' Energy Minister Piyasvasti Amranand said in an interview.

Thailand needs to diversify power sources to keep rates affordable, Piyasvasti says. Opponents say the damage caused by pollution will offset economic gains.

Smoke from the BLCP Power's coal-fired power plant
``It won't be cheap if you include the cost of life, the value to people who suffer heath problems from the toxic emissions from coal plants,'' said Maliwan Nakwirot, a spokeswoman for People Against Coal, which represents environmentalists and towns affected by coal-burning plants.

Bangkok Protests
The group has organized more than three protests in Bangkok since the overall coal plan was announced in November, she said. Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund both have written official letters to the government opposing the program.

Coal-fired plants emit sulfur dioxide, which causes so- called acid rain, and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to respiratory illnesses. Soot and other particles discharged can cause such effects as respiratory irritation and lung-tissue damage, with links to heart attacks, strokes and cancer, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

Piyasvasti scrapped three proposed coal plants last month after about 200 villagers traveled to Bangkok to protest for their Thap Sakae district.

Still, while Piyasvasti favors nuclear power as a long-term option, the country needs new sources in the interim, he said.

The government will tax new coal-power producers and give money to communities willing to accommodate the plants, Piyasvasti said. He's confident alternative sites will be found.

Myanmar Gas
Natural gas accounts for two-thirds of Thailand's power. The country produces 61 percent of that and pipes in most of the rest from neighboring Myanmar, Energy Ministry figures show. More than 90 percent of coal is imported.

Next month, the government plans to invite bids to add as much as 4,000 megawatts, a 15 percent increase in capacity, to the state-owned national grid between 2011 and 2013.
Thailand will need an extra 10,570 megawatts of electricity by 2015, the government forecasts. It wants coal and gas each to generate 40 percent of the new power. The canceled plants were to provide 2,100 megawatts.

Currently, in addition to natural gas's 66 percent and coal's 17 percent, fuel oil contributes 7.4 percent of power and hydro 7.4 percent. The remainder is imported from Malaysia or comes from diesel and alternative fuels such as solar power.

At Map Ta Phut, about 180 kilometers (112 miles) east of Bangkok, coal plants add to pollution from petrochemical factories, refineries and steelmakers.

`Difficult to Breathe'
``I feel weaker since moving here,'' said Winai Arsanok, 31, who arrived three years ago to take up fishing. ``It's difficult to breathe and I always have skin problems.''

The government controls most of the energy industry. Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand owns the national grid and generates 58 percent of power. It also has the largest stakes in Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding Pcl, the biggest publicly traded power group, and Electricity Generating Pcl, the second biggest, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

More reliance on coal will free up gas producers such as state-controlled PTT Pcl, Thailand's only Fortune 500 company, to increase exports.

``You're likely to be better off economically if you import coal and burn it in your power stations and export your gas,'' said Clyde Henderson, managing director in Sydney for the Pacific Rim at Hill & Associates Inc., a consulting firm that tracks coal and electricity needs.

``The environmental side is something for the government and people of Thailand to grapple with.''

Thailand can build modern coal-fired plants that cut some pollutants, Henderson said. While mercury and carbon dioxide emissions remain damaging, newer plants can generate more electricity for the same pollutant levels, he said.

Suratin, the 35-year-old doctor, isn't convinced. Modern technology won't guarantee health safety, he said.

``We should use renewable technology,'' Suratin said. ``It's worth the investment in the long run.''

To contact the reporters on this story: Beth Jinks in Bangkok at; Suttinee Yuvejwattana in Bangkok at

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