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Thai delegation examines alternatives to nuclear power in Germany

06 March 2012

Originally published at Siam Voices on March 5, 2012

Note: This article was originally published in German on February 9, 2012 and written for the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, the political foundation affiliated to German Green Party.

The Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011 has raised doubts over the security and reliability of nuclear power once again and showed that even in a highly advanced country like Japan such accidents can happen.

Shortly thereafter, the German Federal Government reversed a recently made decision to extend the running period of nuclear power plants and, as the world’s first industrial nation, wants to end its dependency on nuclear energy by 2022. Meanwhile in Thailand, the plans to build such nuclear power plants was still openly considered to meet the increasing energy demand, where natural gas is the main source to generate electricity, followed by coal and imported electricity from neighboring Laos and Malaysia.

More important is the development of alternative energy sources. But only 1.6 per cent of the country’s electricity comes from renewable energy. That is not enough, say environmental activists and experts for alternative energy. In a cooperation between the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin and the regional office in Bangkok, a Thai delegation of experts on renewable energy and energy market regulation traveled to Germany to learn more about the energy turnaround and the challenges that comes with it.

Petra Zimmermann, project coordinator for Southeast Asia at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, says: “The aim of this trip was to inform the members of the delegation as much as possible about the challenges of Germany’s energy turnaround and the implementation of the transition, especially on the legislative level.”

On the program were meetings and panel discussions with proponents (such as the Federal Association for Wind Energy, Greenpeace and the Citizens’ Group of Asse) and critics (German Atomic Forum) of the energy turnaround.

Civil movements brought in the change

One of the most crucial lessons is the involvement of civic society in the turnaround. “At first I thought that the Federal Government themselves took the initiative – very progressive,” says Rosana Tositrakul. The Thai senator was a long-time environmental activist and now tries to path the way for renewable energy on the political level. “But now I see that it was civil movements that pressured the stakeholders,” she adds.

Santisukh Sobhanasiri, another Thai veteran activist and now an advisor to several Senate committees, agrees with her: “The work of citizens’ groups seems to be more systematic and steady. They succeeded to work together with the policy makers and in the end brought in the change.”

Many delegates lament the lack of cooperation. Boonyuen Siritam works as the head of the Provincial Power Consumers Commission of Ratchaburi Province in favor for the people’s participation in the regulation of the energy market: “We cannot wait for politicians until they have passed some bills, because there is no green, environmental party. But we need green citizens, with whom we can work together on a legislative initiative.”

Her colleague Wanun Permpubul from the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s regional office in Bangkok recalls some citizens’ movements, especially from the South, which have been successful in the past, but on a national level not all are equally effective. Nevertheless, she sees great potential for alternative sources of energy, such as solar cells. “The more important it is that more people are involved to give the push into the right direction and to make a change in the energy policy possible.”

However, it also needs a rethinking in society, says Lieutenant Commander Borpit Thossatheppitak of the Royal Thai Navy’s research and development department. “Here in Germany, people are being made aware of the environment from very early on. For example, kids in school learn about such things like waste separation and that stays on over the course of their lives. Thailand has still a lot to catch up in that regard.”

Another hurdle in Thailand for an energy change is politics and the legislation when it comes to energy issues. “It has always been difficult to work with the Thai government, no matter who was in power,” says Saree Aongsomwang, general-secretary  of the  Federation of Consumer Protection.

Local energy supply as a role model

Also on the program was a visit to the town of Dardesheim in the state of Saxony-Anhalt, central Germany, which gets its energy from 33 nearby wind turbines at the Windpark Druiberg - it produces more energy than the 1000 inhabitants consume within a year.

Boonyuen sees this kind of energy supply for small communities as an ideal role model for Thailand and goes even one step further: “The goal of our organization is that villages are able to supply themselves with energy from local, renewable sources – independent from energy companies, who would take away the properties of the residents to build a power plant on it.”

One point of concern is that after the nuclear phaseout this very technology could be exported abroad to build nuclear power plants elsewhere. Thailand recently had several offers from China, Norway, France and especially South Korea.

In the end, Thailand’s nuclear ambitions were for now pushed to 2026 after heavy criticism in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. “We hope that until then Thailand will not go the nuclear route,” says Senator Rosana at the end of the week-long delegation trip.

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist currently based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith and on Facebook.

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