Small town way to producing power

NAKHON RATCHASIMA - Think of a thermal power plant and the mind conjures up images of blazing heat, roaring engines and soot. But scenic reservoirs?

That’s the picture at least at Tonghua, a rice mill in northeastern Thailand which operates a small-scale, 7.7-megawatt facility that generates electricity from the 170 tonnes of rice husk it accumulates every day.

Located in Bua Yai district among the paddy farms in Nakhon Ratchasima province, it is a bright spot in the energy scene wracked by controversy after officials warned that the country could face partial blackouts next month due to the routine maintenance work on gas pipelines from Myanmar.

Tonghua is one of more than 300 small power producers in the country which generate electricity from renewable sources like agricultural waste, solar energy and wind. The power they produce makes up about five per cent of total electricity consumed Thailand right now, but there are plans to grow this sector.

These small plants are supported by energy purchase agreements, subsidies as well as a shorter-than-normal approval process.

The scheme has its downsides: Because plants smaller than 10 megawatts in capacity were not required to go through lengthy environmental impact assessments prior to construction, some operations have drawn complaints of polluted water and foul smell from immediate neighbours.

Over at Tonghua, managing director Suthep Wiroadpaisit runs the plant with a mixture of big city business sense and small town goodwill.

Before plant was built in 2006, the Bua Yai-born businessman, whose family has been operating there  for five decades, gathered surrounding villagers to explain his plans and field any questions they had.

“They were worried about water,” he told The Straits Times. “It’s dry here, so they were afraid the plant would use up the district’s water.”

In response, he dug several reservoirs on his 2-million sq m property, enough to hold 3 million cubic metres of water. Rimmed with pleasant greenery, the reservoirs fill up in the rainy reason, and the water is slowly processed before use.

“I make my own water, like Newater!” he says proudly, before declaring that he is an enthusiast of Singapore’s environmental policies.

The resource-constrained city state recycles water for its drinking needs, and brands this product Newater. Mr Suthep has personally been to Singapore’s Newater visitor centre and carefully studied the water treatment process documented there.

Since his plant began operations in 2006, he has had a handful more meetings with neighbouring villagers, addressing questions like how the filters he uses keep ash from blanketing the surrounding district. The going has been fairly smooth, he says.

“That’s the culture upcountry – we help each other,” he says. “It’s not like in Bangkok, where we may not know each other even though we live side by side.” tanhy@sph.com.sg