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Thailand Braces for City Wide Blackouts

Thailand relies on gas for 70 per cent of its domestic power generation, a quarter of that from Myanmar.

Thailand relies on gas for 70 per cent of its domestic power generation, a quarter of that from Myanmar.

BANGKOK – Such is the reliance of Thailand on gas from Myanmar that scheduled maintenance at a plant in April may cause Thailand’s cities go dark at the hottest time of year, when power consumption is highest. If the country’s energy plans are anything to go by, the dependence will only get greater.

Between April 5 and 14, the French oil and gas company Total will close plants at the Yadana offshore gas field in Myanmar for annual maintenance, which will reduce the amount of natural gas supplied to the Kingdom by 25 per cent.

That will cut Thailand’s capacity for power generation by 6,400Mw to 27,000Mw in total, just over projected demand. Thailand relies on gas for 70 per cent of its domestic power generation, a quarter of that from Myanmar.

Former energy minister Piyasvasti Amranand is among those who have criticized the government for a lack of foresight. He told journalists that “suspension of gas delivery from Myanmar is not unusual, since operators have to carry out regular annual maintenance work. Thai officials know well in advance and should have prepared better for such an incident.” According to the deputy governor of the state-run Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, predicted power usage in April 2013 will peak at about 26,300Mw, leaving the national reserve at less than 800Mw.

Yingluck Shinawatra, Thailand’s prime minister, has assured the country that power cuts are unlikely. She has personally appealed to businesses and individuals to reduce their power usage during April. Total has been asked to postpone its shut-down by one day from its original April 4 schedule so that the shortfall coincides with reduced usage during a national festival. Meanwhile, EGAT has asked for a temporary increase in power supply from Malaysia and requested that domestic operators of oil and diesel-powered plants increase output.

Some critics of the Thai government have claimed officials are exaggerating the likelihood of power cuts to whip up public support for construction of more power plants. Bangkok senator Rosana Tositrakul accused the government of creating a “fake energy crisis” and “climate of fear”, according to local media. Indeed, last week, energy minister Pongsak Raktapongpaisarn warned that Thailand must build more coal power plants to cope with a rise in demand which is projected to reach 70,000Mw by 2030. He said that Thailand depended “too much on natural gas supplies which are being exhausted quickly”, adding that public opinion had prevented the building of new coal-fired power plants, dams or granting of new gas concessions.

Even if Thailand manages to stave off blackouts in April, the problems won’t end there. Natural gas supplies in the Gulf of Thailand are projected to run out in the next 12 to 15 years, yet the government’s Power Development Plan projects that 46 per cent of power generation in 2030 will be from combined cycle power plants, which usually run on gas, presumably to be imported from neighboring countries.

Myanmar’s supply of oil and gas is largely unknown as the territory remains unexplored by modern technology, although the CIA estimates that the country has around 50m barrels of oil and 283bn cubic meters of natural gas awaiting discovery. To put that in perspective, Thailand currently imports 26.9m cubic meters a day, which makes Myanmar’s estimated supplies enough to power Thailand for 30 years. Indeed, many multinational energy giants including Thailand’s PTT have surged into Myanmar in search of supplies.

Thailand’s official power generation plans have been labelled “a planning process in crisis” by International Rivers, an NGO, which published an alternative plan in 2012. The group claims that the official plans select “excessive amounts of controversial, expensive, risky and polluting power plants over cheaper, cleaner and safer alternatives” putting the plan “at odds with both Thai energy policy as well as the interests of the vast majority of Thai people.”

Thailand’s energy minister is aware that the country’s dependence on foreign gas supplies, particularly from Myanmar, is a potential threat to energy security. But to date, little has been accomplished to cope with the problem. Perhaps a series of blackouts during holiday season is just what’s required to persuade politicians to act.

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