Will Thailand Choke on the Tailpipe of Bangkok’s Eco-Hubris?

The Mae Moh coal burning power plant in the northern province of Lampang. Photo: Watanyou Intachai / Flickr

Green – not army but eco – is en vogue. Electric vehicles have been buzzing in the headlines, with Deputy PM Somkid Jatusripitak saying the country will become a hub for electric vehicles, or EV, and the Energy Ministry pushing plans to reduce taxes on EVs to spur adoption.

But while the Bangkok elite talks about how green it will be with a shiny new Tesla or BMW i3 EV, are they actually saving the planet? Thailand’s mid-20th century energy mix – namely fossil fuels such as coal – could mean the green brigade’s misguided idealism will make things worse.

A Bloomberg report on Tuesday concluded the benefits of EVs depend on where they are used — the energy sources in play.

“In places that use low-carbon energy sources like renewables and nuclear, electric vehicles dramatically reduce emissions,” it read. “There’s less of a difference in regions where most of the power comes from coal, like China.”

The electricity needed to charge a zero-emission vehicle still needs to be produced somewhere, and that somewhere usually means burning fossil fuels. Countries with a heavy reliance on nuclear energy such as France (over 90%) came out with huge improvement. Germany, a country with a reputation for excess daytime energy because of solar production, only saw CO2 output reduced by roughly a third.

China, which does have a well-known problem of coal-fired smog, put out more CO2 per kilometer than Germany, but EV use reduced it by 40 percent. Japan is a paradox. Though EV use brought down output, electric cars there are getting dirtier as more gas-fired energy plants replace nuclear, post-Fukushima.

But what of Thailand?

Back in January, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha used Article 44 of the interim constitution, aka the absolute power clause, to fast-track construction of two new coal plants: the 2,200MWh Theptha plant in Songkhla and an 800MWh power plant in Krabi. He also exempted them from environmental and health impact reviews.

Well, to be fair, Dear Leader exempted every power plant already planned through to 2036 under his long-term power roadmap, as well as biogas and waste-to-gas plants (not all bad, one may argue). It so happens that 2036 is the same year the same energy master plan sees 1.2 million EVs on Thai roads.

The idea of commissioning dirty coal-fired power plants to charge clean EVs must be worthy of some award.

Last month the Energy Ministry announced how EVs would save the country transport-energy related costs. However, those were immediate costs rather than those born of long-term environmental impacts. And although there don’t seem to be any published studies on EV carbon emissions under the country’s power mix, we can make some extrapolations.

In the UK, according Bloomberg, an EV “emits” just over 80g/km of CO2 from the power plants. The UK energy mix still has a substantial basis in carbon fuels, mostly natural gas.

In Q1 this year, the UK energy mix was 25.1 percent renewables, 18.7 percent nuclear and over half from various fossil fuels. In Thailand, domestically produced clean energy accounts for 8 percent with another 7 percent of imported hydro energy. To oversimplify, England’s energy is 43.8 percent clean vs. 15 percent for Thailand.

Using rough back-of-envelope calculations (wrongly treating all fossil fuels as the same), Bloomberg’s hypothetical EV would emit 142g/km if the non-carbon energy was removed from UK figures. In Thailand, with 15 percent renewables, the equivalent CO2 emissions would be 120.7g/km.

That is not bad, but it far from zero-emission, as the green brigade would like to have you believe. The real problem for anyone thinking of buying an EV is that a diesel Mazda 2 boasts just 89g/km of carbon emissions.

Yes, let that sink in. In Thailand, a 780,000 baht Mazda is arguably cleaner than a 5 million baht Tesla EV because of the country’s carbon fuel-heavy energy mix.

Both figures are best-case scenarios, before air-conditioning, traffic and bad driving take their toll.

But, but, but – one might argue, EVs remove the pollution from overcrowded Bangkok and put it at the energy plant where it can be dealt with properly. Yes, the residents of Rayong’s Map-ta-phut district who are dying from respiratory illnesses from the gas-fired power plants would undoubtedly agree with that argument, if they could still speak out at all, what with all the coughing.

We all need to do our part to save the world. But we need to save the world by actually saving the world instead of further damaging it with make believe. That path starts with informed debate and dialogue, not dismissing naysayers as troublemakers and overruling environmental protection laws with diktats in the name of efficiency.

For Thailand, it starts with cleaning up our energy and focusing on the big picture that is best for our children, not the bottom line of state enterprises.