Green power: Finding alternative ways to fuel the future

The government’s Renewable and Alternative Energy Development Plan 2012-21 is relying heavily on the agricultural sector to provide inputs for non-traditional fuels. To meet the aim of having 25% of energy consumption from renewable sources by 2021, the state has put in place targets of 9m litres per day of ethanol and 5.97m of biodiesel, plus 25m litres per day of second-generation biofuels. Short-term goals for ethanol included producing 3m litres per day between 2008 and 2011, followed by medium-term targets of 6.2m litres per day through 2016, and finally 9m litres per day by 2017. Targets for production of biodiesel, known as B100 diesel, were set as 1.35m litres per day in 2008-10; 3.02m in 2011; 3.64m in 2016; and 5.97m in 2021.

PROGRESS: Though progress has been made, these goals have so far proven overly ambitious. Challenges include the fact that alternative fuels are unable to compete with cheaper gasoline and natural gas. Ethanol fuel, which is produced primarily from sugarcane-derived molasses and cassava plants and contains 99.5% ethanol content, averaged production of around 1.4m litres per day in 2011 for an annual total of 509.61m litres, according to data from Department of Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency. This is a substantial increase from the average of 370,000 litres per day in 2006. Despite these gains, slack demand for the product has resulted in output that is far below the sector’s total capacity of 3.07m litres per day.

As of February 2012 there were 19 ethanol plants, ranging in capacity from 25,000 to 230,000 litres per day. An additional six plants were in various stages of development, and are due to add another 2.22m litres per day of production capacity by the end of 2012. These include the massive cassava chip-fuelled PTK Ethanol project being constructed in three phases at the Nakorn Ratchasima site, which will have a total capacity of 1.2m litres per day, as well as the 400,000-litre-per-day Ubon Bio Ethanol plant in Ubon Ratchathani.

SUPPLY AND DEMAND: Sourced almost exclusively from palm oil, biodiesel production has similarly surged in recent years and now has a capacity of 6.46m litres per day, although demand is currently around a quarter of this, at 1.71m litres per day.

However, demand continues to grow and has increased each year since 2008 when consumption averaged 1.22m litres per day. Production capacity of the 16 B100 plants range in size from 50,000 litres per day to 1.4m litres per day, disregarding the smaller 4000-litres-per-day production of the Bangkok Produce facility that converts used cooking oil into fuel. The largest of these are the 1.4m-litre-per-day Pathum Vegetable Oil plant and the 1.2m-litre-per-day Siam Gulf Petrochemical facility.

CHALLENGES: In addition to price competition with traditional fuels, biofuels are also facing food competition. With food producers eager to purchase additional supplies of sugar, palm oil and tapioca, the industry and government must balance energy security, environmental protection, food supply and manageable prices. One solution is using advanced technologies and methods of extracting biofuels more efficiently and from a wider variety of less desirable food crops. “For the second generation of biofuels, we will continue to try to make it on an industrial scale, for instance producing biodiesel from algae,” Tevin Vongvanich, the chief financial officer of PTT Exploration and Production, said. “Ethanol from cellulose technology will allow Thailand to take advantage of our agricultural products to produce biofuels more efficiently, while not competing with the food chain. We are also looking at ways to use biogas as means of powering natural gas vehicles, rather than just hydrocarbons gas.”

In addition to the biofuels, biomass-fired thermal power plants were the largest single alterative energy contributor as of mid-2011, according to data from the Metropolitan Electricity Authority and the Provincial Electricity Authority. As of June 2011, a total of 716.1 MW of biomass power generation was installed, the majority powered by sugarcane bagasse, followed by rice husks, woodchips and other agricultural crops.

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The Report: Thailand 2012

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