Thailand turns to bioenergy

Thai farmers harvest rice at a field in the Takbai district of Thailand's restive southern province of Narathiwat on March 17, 2016. (AFP Photo/Madaree Tohlala)

Members states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have turned to renewable energy as the most sustainable way to ensure energy security. The shift to renewables can be expensive and arduous. However, thanks to the geography of this region, Southeast Asian nations are not short of options when it comes to generating energy form a myriad of sources ranging from solar and hydro to wind and bioenergy.

In recent times, modern bioenergy has been at the forefront of renewable energy development in the ASEAN region. Modern bioenergy differs from traditional bioenergy. Unlike the latter – which is derived from sources like charcoal and fuelwood that is used by rural communities and contribute to air pollution – modern bioenergy relies on the concept of deriving energy from biological waste products. For example, agricultural waste, recycled greases and animal waste.

While Indonesia and Malaysia are two countries that dominate this sector due to advancements in the palm oil industry, Thailand is fast catching up.

For a long time, Thailand has been dependent on imported energy to sustain its domestic demands. Between 2000 and 2011, imported energy accounted for more than 60 percent of the total commercial primary energy in the country. To break away from this reliance on foreign sources of energy, the government there has adopted a string of policies. One of which is the Alternative Energy Development Plan (AEDP) which aims to kill two birds with one stone by increasing the share of indigenous energy and ensuring that it is derived from renewable sources.

Under the AEDP, bioenergy plays a crucial role in terms of electricity generation and meeting demands for energy in the transportation sector. Energy from biomass, biogas and municipal solid waste are expected to increase twofold (3,630 MW), fourfold (600 MW) and twelvefold (160 MW), respectively.

Currently, bioenergy in terms of biogas, biomass and those derived from other waste products represent a significant slice of Thailand’s renewable energy mix. Among all ASEAN states, Thailand has the largest share of bioenergy for industrial and transportation use. In Thailand, the main sources of bioenergy are agricultural and municipal waste due to the fact that its economy is heavily reliant on the agricultural sector. Each year, there is an estimated 80 million tons of agricultural waste from sugarcane, corn, cassava, rubber and rice, just to name a few.

Many of the users of bioenergy in Thailand are small and large-scale industries. In 2015, biomass accounted for 5,990 ktoe of heat for industry – an uptick of 15.5 percent compared to the previous year – translating to close to 60 percent of the renewable energy used in the country.

Sugar mills in Thailand utilise bagasse – the residue pulp of sugar cane after its juice is extracted – to produce thermal energy for the distillation process. In some mills, the steam from the bagasse combustion is used to drive steam turbines for power generation. Waste from Thai oil palm mills is also commonly used to produce thermal energy for the sterilisation of fresh fruit. Besides that, it is also further processed for electricity generation. Wood waste and black liquor from pulp and paper mills are also converted for use as fuel in the production of thermal energy and electricity.

In terms of the transportation sector, Thailand has the largest share of liquid biofuels use in the ASEAN region with the renewable energy share reaching 11 percent for gasoline and 6 percent for biodiesel. In 2015, production of biodiesel accounted for 36 percent of the final demand for palm oil – 41 percent was consumed domestically whereas 12 percent was exported.

The biofuel industry in Thailand is set to grow from here on. Biofuels are slated to substitute 44 percent of oil consumption in 2021. In 2015, the country produced 66.9 million litres of biofuel per day. The Thai government is looking to quadruple this to 253 million litres of biodiesel and bio-ethanol per day by 2036. This translates to renewables accounting for 25 percent of fuel demand in the future.

Thailand’s potential in bioenergy cannot be underestimated. It has the necessary resources and good policy framework in place to fully capitalise on this opportunity. It irrevocably stands to be a role model for other countries in the region looking to turn to bioenergy in the future.