The Dark Side of Green Energy

The view from Bhorn's window in Pichit is as picturesque as one can find in rural Thailand. The Nan River flows majestically by with water headed to the gulf of Thailand 300kms to the south. Mango and banana trees line the banks with expansive verdant green paddy fields beyond. Unfortunately, for the past four years Bhorn and her neighbors have not been able to enjoy the view or fluttering breezes, forced to tightly board up all openings to seal their homes and families from ash they believe is causing their skin and respiratory aggravation.

Less than a kilometer from their houses, Bhorn claims, sits the source of their problems. It's Thailand's most celebrated renewable energy plant. The 22-megawatt rice husk-fuelled power plant owned by A.T. Biopower is the country's first to be certified under the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism for carbon trading.

A.T. Biopower is just one of many small power plants to come on line in the past decade as Thailand follows the global trend to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. The country's current goal is to generate 20% of the nation's electricity from renewable sources by 2022, a target similar to those set by the EU, UK and Australia.

Bhorn says she's unfamiliar with new energy polices but has become increasingly familiar with environmental changes occurring in her neighborhood since the A.T. Biopower plant came on line in 2005.

The farmer talks about the reduction in her rice yields that began immediately after the power plant became operational and a nearly invisible layer of ash fell upon her fields. "While my harvest has nearly returned to normal, health problems from the dust have become persistent. Residents, especially children have developed skin rashes and breathing difficulties, which is why we've closed up our windows and doors," Bhorn says.

Her Hor Krai community is not alone. Problems and concerns over social and environmental impacts from biomass power plants have become commonplace over the past few years. Supakij Nantaworakarn, a renewable energy researcher with the Healthy Public Policy Foundation, estimates that protests against biomass projects have been widespread, occurring in at least 20 Thai provinces, many of which are on going.

"Renewable energy, notably the readily available biomass, is good for Thailand but the government has to ensure investors carry out their projects responsibly," Supakij says. "Community's skepticism looms, for example, when investors consistently build 9.9-megawatt plants to avoid the environmental impacts assessments required by law for any power plant exceeding 10 megawatts in capacity."

However, he concedes, as the A.T. Biopower power plant in Hor Krai, Pichit, demonstrates, completing an EIA does not assure there will not be problems. Once approved project owners operate with little government oversight.

Rice husks contain silica, which is known to cause silicosis, the world's most common occupational lung disease among unprotected workers. Silica concentrations in rice husk ash can range from 85 to 90 percent. China's Harbin University concluded in 2006 that rice husk ash can cause silicosis, a lung disease usually found in mine and rock quarries workers.

A.T. Biopower's CEO, Natee Sithiprasasana, says he is not aware of public health problems from his operation. He acknowledged an incident with a broken ash filter during the power plant's first year, but other than that, the plant's tri-partied advisory committee including representatives from the company, local community and the government, has not received any other complaints.

A.T. Biopower maintains an environment and health insurance fund earmarked for members of Hor Krai community, but Bhorn is unaware of it. "Even though the fund exists, I don't think it's accessible to us. We are just poor villagers. We have no means to prove that our health problem comes from the dust. I once asked a doctor but he said it's difficult to make the link," she explains.

However, Dr. Somkiat Siriratanapruk of the Public Health Ministry's Bureau of Occupational and Environmental disease, states that it's possible to establish the link. Villagers should file complaints with his office, so he can dispatch staff to measure airborne silica concentrations and x-ray villagers' lungs to determine if their respiratory symptoms are consistent with silicosis.

Natee stresses the company's social and environmental commitment, investing in expensive US incineration technology. He also points out that in 2006 the company was recognized by the Ministry of Energy for "Excellence in Environment and Community Management".

But some residents question the company's form of community management. Back in 2003, many Hor Krai residents were concerned about the potential impacts A.T. Biopower's plant might impose on their community. One shop house owner recalls how a protest was launched when they first heard about the project. The movement disbanded quickly, he notes. Leaders gave up and "disappeared". "I don't really know why they abandoned the fight."

His answer lay 50 km away in Nakhon Sawan's Tambon Nam Song where A.T. Biopower planned to build another rice husk burning plant. Suraphol Pan-ngam, spokesman for the anti-power plant Nam Song Conservation Club, recalls being contacted by one of the ex-protest leaders from Hor Krai asking if some "compensation" might encourage him to give up his opposition to the power plant. "We knew right away that people related to the project wanted to buy us off, making the power plant look even more dishonest and disgusting to us," Suraphol says. The Nam Song protests persisted nonetheless, and A.T. Biopower ultimately withdrew its project application in October 2007. Hardship from his community's seven-year struggle makes Suraphol sympathetic to other communities facing similar projects. One of the latest is being led by Sodsai Srangsoke, a health activist and resident of Khamsangsai community in Ubon Rachathani Province. She and hundreds of her fellow residents are protesting a 9.9 megawatt rice husk burning power plant proposed by Bua Sommai Co., Ltd. propose in the center of their community.

Upon hearing the company's intentions last year, Sodsai began to research Bua Sommai and found that it operates one of the Northeast's largest rice mill in Roi Et and holds a small shares in the adjacent 9.8-megawatt Roi Et Green rice husk power plant. Accompanied by fellow villagers she traveled to Roi Et city last year to meet with residents familiar with Bua Sommai facilities to learn about what may lay in store for their community.

In house after house residents showed them the rice husk dust and ash on their furniture and floors, a problem the Khamsangsai visitors were told has persisted for many years. Many residents complained of breathing difficulties that they are convinced are the result of Bua Sommai's rice mill and power plant facilities.

Roi Et Provincial Industry Officer Prayoon Jirajetsadaporn, who has been presented with these concerns many times, has promised to examine the complaints, but the dust and ash continues to fall. Bua Sommai's general manager Piraporn Somsup told the villagers only if doctors agree that their health problems are the result of the company's rice mill, the company will provide medical treatment.

However, there is no tangible action offered by Piraporn to address the dust or ash problems, other than to state that the "company has invested heavily in dust capturing technology" for the new biomass plants presently under construction.

A more widespread problem is also emerging from the proliferation this new form of energy generation. In many communities the increased cost of rice husk has affected many farmers and brick makers, both of whom use extensive amounts of this raw material. In the past two years alone the price of rice husks has increased from Baht400 to Bath900-1,500. Additionally, many rice husk users are now traveling substantial distances to obtain the husks.

A.T. Biopower CEO, Natee, feels the tremendous increase in the cost of rice husks may bring an end to rice husk-fed biomass plant construction in some regions. This supposed waste commodity with ample supply, is now reaching a price point that is deterring investments in new plants. He says that his decision to abandon the company's proposed project in Nam Song, was in no small part to a belief that the region has reached the saturation point.