Maintaining just 60 beds, the Kaengkoi Hospital already spends roughly 400,000 baht (USD13,000) each month on electricity bills. As Vice Director, Thanin Sooksagniam sought better solutions to mitigate this financial burden. His answer awaited on the rooftop of the hospital.
Along with six other public hospitals, the Kaengkoi Hospital became part of the pilot project for Solar Fund. Solar Fund is a coalition of 15 non-governmental and civil society organisations working to promote and expand clean energy. Established in 2018, the group uses crowdfunding donations to help install and maintain solar panels across Thailand.
After the first successful campaign, the group’s 2021 mission is to provide clean energy to seven educational institutions.
However, because of current energy legislation and a centralised system, Thais are faced with various “sun-blocking policies” which inhibit them from generating their own solar power and restrict the growth of the renewables market. Solar Fund seeks to change that.
“We live under the same sun, but we don’t have equality in accessing it,” said Itthaboon Ongwongsan, Solar Fund’s coordinator.
“Currently, Thailand does not have any funds to support the installation of solar panels for small-scale citizens, compared to many countries which offer subsidies,” Ongwongsan said. “Instead, they provide financial assistance for motorcycles, luxury products or fuel-engine cars,” he added.
Up until 2014, in order to install solar panels, homeowners were required to obtain a permit from the Ministry of Industry and operate as a business. Another law requires high-level engineers to conduct the installation, resulting in costs generally too high for most individuals.
“Solar is a competitive industry,” said Manuel Cocco, Energy and Climate Senior Advisor at GIZ, a German agency that provides services in international development cooperation. “It is actually more competitive than fossil fuels if you do it at a large scale.”
But in Thailand, the price ratio of solar power poses an issue. While the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) sells electricity for 4 baht (USD0.13) per unit, it buys energy back for only 1.7 baht (USD0.06).
This is particularly unprofitable for individuals under a net billing system. Net metering allows individuals to directly offset their electricity purchase with the amount they generate. On the other hand, net billing charges consumption and generation separately. This means that individuals buy at a higher cost than they sell.
On top of that, Thailand’s 20-year Power Development Plan introduces renewables only in the second decade. This means that revisions are made every two to four years, pushing the implementation of renewable projects later in time.
The Office of Energy Regulatory Commission did not respond to requests for comment.
A brighter solution
“When we protest against coal-fired power plants, we also need to offer an alternative,” said Chariya Senpong, Climate and Energy Campaign at Greenpeace Thailand, one of the members of Solar Fund. “The Solar Fund is tangible and people can see evidence of its feasibility,” Senpong added.
Through crowdfunding, Solar Fund has raised almost eight million baht (approx. USD264,000) to install solar panels in seven hospitals nationwide, helping each save up to 240,000 baht (approx. USD8,000) a year. Many of the hospitals have continued to carry on their own fundraising campaigns and installing solar panels by themselves.
Donations are used to fund the design, installation and maintenance of the solar panels. The panels have an average lifespan of around 20-25 years. The money hospitals save from electricity expenses is then spent on hiring more staff, buying more equipment or improving health services and facilities.
“This allows individual citizens to get involved by using their money to create justice in our energy laws,” Senpong said.
In their next campaign, Solar Fund aims to raise enough money to install solar panels in seven vocational schools. Their purpose is to not only help lower expenses on electricity and introduce a new income stream to improve school facilities. Solar Fund also offers training and employment for its engineering students.
In contrast to coal-fired power plants, the expansion of solar energy would create more dispersed and long-term employment.
“As we stop buying from the monopoly of energy giants, their revenue will decrease and that will shake the system,” Senpong said.
However, Sengpong believes the COVID-19 pandemic crisis and the ongoing economic recession will make the public hold on to their money and thus less likely to donate. Due to the nature of crowdfunding, Solar Fund might take longer to meet their financial targets.
“If you put together a revolving fund for the first solar rooftop project, you would already help finance the second project,” said Cocco. “Then there shouldn’t be any need for donations.”
According to a 2020 report by the International Energy Agency, solar power is now the cheapest electricity.
While solar panel waste poses an issue, Cocco explained that the benefits largely outweigh the pollution created by fossil fuels.
“The important part of this initiative is the advocacy and regulatory change,” he said. “These organisations could make the public push EGAT or the Ministry of Energy to change their regulations. If this occurs, companies that only installed solar panels for [big companies] will start doing it in all kinds of houses because there is the possibility of selling.”
Solar Fund’s long-term target is to install solar panels in one million houses, 8,100 public hospitals and 31,000 schools nationwide in five years. Solar Fund also aims to establish net metering for at least 74,000 homes.