The first ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member state to institute the equivalent of a feed-in tariff (FiT), more solar power capacity has been installed in Thailand than in any other of the 10 ASEAN members. That’s a diverse group that, along with Thailand, ranges from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines to Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. Thailand’s solar and renewable energy potential far exceeds what’s been installed to date, however. Thailand has the one of the largest, and the most diverse, bases of renewable energy resources of any ASEAN nation, according to national and international assessments, which means there’s plenty of room for growth. Political instability in the wake of the military takeover of the government in 2014, a shifting, uncertain energy policy environment and a large surplus of natural gas and coal-fired power generation capacity installed during a period of large-scale utility grid investment and rapid expansion all cloud the outlook for solar and renewable energy growth and development , however. So do environmental concerns, most prominently air quality that seasonally reaches unhealthy, very unhealthy or even worse levels of particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) in Bangkok and other Thai cities.
Utility-scale solar power farms account for nearly all the solar power capacity that has been installed in Thailand to date — well above 90 percent according to one study. Similar to an FiT, a “solar adder” fueled the rapid growth. Authorities abolished the solar adder in 2015 amid concerns about over-investment and over-expansion that would leave the government in a fiscal hole, as it did in Spain earlier this decade. Government review of projects was put on hold, which has resulted in a backlog of solar power projects awaiting approval. In the meantime, Thailand’s Ministry of Energy shifted its focus to developing a policy framework and approving solar and renewable power projects that demonstrate grid parity. The Thai government and power industry have also experimented with using small-scale solar, as well as hydro and biomass, to electrify off-grid communities and improve lives and livelihoods in agricultural and remote areas. Poorly conceived and executed, and poorly coordinated with other, much larger natural gas generation and grid expansion initiatives, a small, initial solar home systems-based rural electrification program failed to much media attention back in the early 2000’s, Noah Kittner, senior researcher in the Group for Sustainability and Technology at ETH Zürich and a former visiting researcher at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University’s Energy Research Institute, recounted in an interview. Memory of the initial program’s failure persisted nonetheless, leaving solar with a bad reputation in Thailand. Conditions didn’t really start changing for the better until the fourth quarter of 2017 when the Energy Ministry ended a decades-long restriction prohibiting households and commercial buildings from selling electricity generated by on-site solar power and other distributed energy systems to Thailand’s two state-run distribution utilities.
Can growth of solar and other environmentally friendly energy resources make a substantial contribution to alleviating poverty and realizing Thailand’s sustainable development, rural and national electrification, international greenhouse gas reduction and climate change goals all at the same time? “It really depends on policy objectives and designs,” Sopitsuda Tongsopit, Energy Policy Analyst at University of California Davis’ Policy Institute for Energy, Environment, and the Economy, its Institute of Transportation Studies and a partner at the Creagy Company Ltd., said in an interview. Tongsopit also led the Thailand Solar PV Roadmap Initiative, a project that Kittner contributed to, as well.
“Thailand in the past has experimented with targeting low-income customer groups for off-grid solar, but the failure of this program was well-documented in the literature and has not yet been learned by politicians. During the Yingluck (Shinawatra) administration (ended in 2014), there was also a solar farm program announced to increase income for agricultural cooperatives, but the design of the program did not result in income redistribution as the policy intended,” Tongsopit told Solar Magazine.
Thailand Energy Strategy 4.0 That said, residential and commercial-industrial solar power systems are becoming more common in Thailand, Kittner pointed out. More broadly, straightforward economics, more specifically ongoing declines in the installed costs of both solar energy and advanced battery-based energy storage systems, is leading Thailand’s energy authorities to refocus on implementing policies, rules and regulations that can spur growth of distributed solar and other local, renewable energy resources. “Thailand’s 4.0 Energy Strategy is trying to promote electric vehicles and solar. I would pay attention to energy storage technologies, as well,” Kittner said. “I think we will see more focus on distributed applications in urban areas,” he continued. “Local self-consumption is becoming more and more attractive in Thailand. Grid power demand peaks at around 2-3 PM, which coincides with peak solar power generation…Solar could provide more on-demand generation to meet those peak loads.”