Renewable attraction

Eco makeover for Thai paradise

Katja Dombrowski, 15 Oct 14
The holiday island of Koh Samui, located in the Gulf of Thailand, is at risk of collapse. The government wants to prevent this with a renewable and partially self-sufficient electricity supply, a new development plan and a public transport system – and to use this green image to attract even more tourists to the island.

A power cut in high season – the ultimate disaster for a tourist destination. And this is what happened on Koh Samui in December 2012, due to a fault in the underwater cable supplying electricity to this popular destination for European tourists. The big hotels fired up their generators, but smaller establishments lost thousands of visitors. The blackout, which lasted almost four days and also affected the neighbouring island of Koh Phangan, cost the island at least EUR 250 million, according to the tourist board’s estimates.

The incident was grist to the mill of those who have long been arguing for Thailand’s electricity supply to be decentralised and made sustainable. Greenpeace Southeast Asia took advantage of the national and international media attention the blackout received to call for the introduction of wind and solar power to Koh Samui and Koh Phangan, to ensure greater energy security, lower carbon emissions and independence from the mainland.

Target: low-carbon island

In the meantime, another underwater cable has been laid. But sourcing electricity is not the only problem on Koh Samui, which at 227 square kilometres is Thailand’s third largest island. Last year the island, home to around 54,000 residents and about six times as many migrant workers, welcomed a record-breaking 1.7 million visitors. The water supply is tight, more than a third of waste water is pumped into rivers and canals, ending up in the sea, and the municipal waste incinerator is running at its full capacity of 140 tonnes a day: if the number of tourists continues to grow as planned, the island is at risk of collapse.

The authorities have realised this. To fend off an ecological breakdown and sustain tourism as the most important sector in the island’s economy, they want Koh Samui to become the first low-carbon island in the Asia-Pacific region. Following an application from Thailand, the Energy Working Group of the Asia-Pacific economic forum Apec selected Koh Samui in October 2011 to become a Low-Carbon Model Town for the region. The first pilot projects are to be implemented already this year.

Switch to renewables

Devised by a consultancy firm, the development plan focuses on reducing energy consumption, solving ecological problems and making electricity generation as well as transport more sustainable. Kamol Tanpipat, a project manager from the firm, explained the project’s people-oriented approach at a presentation in Bangkok, stating that it is important to improve quality of life for islanders and tourists – in economic terms too.

Energy is the most crucial aspect of this, according to Tanpipat, and in future half of the electricity used on the island – which currently averages at about 100 megawatts (MW), with a yearly rise of 20 percent – is to be generated locally from renewable sources. Solar energy is seen to present the best opportunities for the island, and not just with regards to electricity production.

If the island switched entirely to solar or heat pump hot water heating, the island’s electricity consumption could be cut by 60 to 70 percent, according to the policy review published in June 2013. Air conditioning, another big energy guzzler for the island, could be replaced with cooling systems that use sea or lake water – another area with huge potential for energy saving.

In addition to this, opportunities for wind energy have been identified, especially for small off-grid turbines in remote locations, but potentially also for bigger turbines in mountain areas or offshore. Small-scale hydropower, energy generation from waste, and tidal energy are also options for the island. Their exact potential, however, will need to be determined in further studies.

The review team has identified energy storage as a key factor and recommends pump water storage as a particularly good option for Koh Samui, given its elevations of over 200 metres. The development of smart grids is also on the agenda. There is further potential for carbon reduction when it comes to transport – until now, there has been no public transport on Koh Samui, but this is set to change. Project manager Tanpipat envisions an electric bus system, with solar-powered charging stations, operating along the 50-kilometre ring road that leads round the island. But as yet there are no plans for a low-carbon journey to the island: currently around 40 percent of visitors arrive by plane.

200,000 tonnes less carbon dioxide

The consultants also want to abolish the height restrictions for buildings on the island, where until now hotels have not been allowed to be over 12 metres high. This has led to the prevalence of resorts that are a good visual fit for the island scenery, but also require more land. In future, higher buildings are to be allowed in commercial zones.

Tanpipat says that the concept, which also includes measures for reforestation, energy-efficient town planning and building design, and for introducing ecotourism, could save 200,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide by 2020 and the same again by 2030 – half the emissions projected for the island until then if things go on as they are.

According to the feasibility study commissioned by Apec, the project will require investments of around EUR 623 million, with renewable energy sources incurring the highest costs. Thailand’s Ministry of Energy is financially supporting the tourist destination’s transformation into a low-carbon model town, with Apec funding studies and project planning.

It is clear that the project is designed to draw even more profit from tourism. Experts like the Australian Professor Alan Pears, who participated in an Apec workshop on strategy development for cutting the island’s carbon emissions, are advising the island to at least let visitor numbers stagnate, in the interests of sustainability. The island currently has about 400 hotels with 16,000 rooms, and had an occupancy rate of 73 percent in 2013 – a year that saw 37 percent more tourists than the year before. “Koh Samui should focus on quality of tourism experience, rather than large numbers of tourists, to maintain the natural assets that tourists value,” Pears stated in a press release from his university.

In spite of this, the concept envisages visitor numbers continuing to rise, with the new green image of the island also justifying higher prices: the cost of a night’s stay could rise by 30 to 50 percent. Samui became a destination for hippies and alternative thinkers in the 1970s, and now offers a wide range of fasting, yoga and other health and wellness experiences, so sustainability and ecotourism are likely to appeal to its clientele.

Time will tell if the true value of the concept lies in its marketing potential or its effectiveness. At the presentation in Bangkok, project manager Kamol spoke in favour of installing a windmill on the west coast, even though, in his own words, the location does not have good conditions for wind energy. He argues, however, that it would be an eye-catching symbol at the point where most tourists arrive by ferry. Another idea is for an electric bus, designed in “typical island style”, to replace the coconut tree as the emblem of Samui. This would serve as another highly-visible symbol for tourists of the new low-carbon Samui.

A windmill at the ferry dock and an electric bus on the ring road do not make a low-carbon island. But the writers of the feasibility study emphasise the importance of a suitable marketing campaign to accompany the concept’s implementation: Samui’s inhabitants, businesses and visitors all need to be made aware of the ecological problems facing the island and an eco-lifestyle needs to be adopted across the whole island, for the transformation cannot succeed without a lifestyle change by everyone involved.

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