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Thailand makes green push with floating solar hydropower project

A wide variety of solar panels float on the shimmering waters of a reservoir in the northeast Thailand, symbolizes the kingdom’s pursuit of clean energy as it strives for carbon neutrality by 2050.

The immense installation, which covers 720,000 square meters of water surface, is a hybrid system that converts sunlight into electricity during the day and generates hydropower at night.

The Sirindhorn dam project in northeastern Ubon Ratchathani province, touted by authorities as “the world’s largest floating hydro-solar farm,” is the first of 15 such farms Thailand plans to build by 2037.

The kingdom is stepping up its efforts to get rid of fossil fuels, and at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow last year Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha set the target of carbon neutrality by 2050, followed by net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2065 .

The Sirindhorn dam farm, which came into operation last October, has more than 144,000 solar cells, covering the same area as 70 football fields, and can generate 45 MW of electricity.

“We can claim that 45 megawatts combined with hydropower and a solar and hydroelectric power management system will make this the world’s first and largest project,” Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) deputy governor Prasertsak Cherngchawano told AFP.

The hybrid energy project aims to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 47,000 tons per year and support Thailand’s goal of generating 30 percent of its energy from renewables by 2037, EGAT said.

– Green shift –

But achieving these goals will require a major overhaul of power generation.

Thailand is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels, with 55 percent of power coming from natural gas last October, compared to 11 percent from renewables and hydropower, according to the Energy Policy and Planning Bureau, a division of the Department of Energy.

EGAT plans to gradually install floating hydro-solar farms in 15 more dams in Thailand by 2037, with a total power generation capacity of 2,725 MW.

It took nearly two years to build the $35 million Sirindhorn project — including Covid-19 heists caused by solar panel delivery delays and technicians getting sick.

Most of the electricity generated by the floating hydro-solar farm goes to the Provincial Electricity Authority, which distributes power to homes and businesses in provinces in Thailand’s lower northeastern region.

– Tourist potential –

In addition to generating power, officials hope the giant solar farm will also be a draw for tourists.

A 415 meter long “Nature Walkway” in the shape of a sunbeam has been installed to provide a panoramic view of the reservoir and floating solar cells.

“When I heard that this dam has the world’s largest hydro-solar farm, I knew it was worth seeing with my own eyes,” tourist Duangrat Meesit, 46, told AFP.

Some locals have reservations about the floating hydro-solar farm, with fishermen complaining they have been forced to change where they cast their nets.

“The number of fish caught has decreased, so we have less income,” village chief Thongphon Mobmai, 64, told AFP.

“But the local population must accept this mandate for community development that the state envisions.”

But the power generation authority insists the project will not affect farming, fishing or other community activities.

“We only used 0.2 to 0.3 percent of the surface of the dam. People can use land for agriculture, habitation and other purposes,” says Prasertsak of EGAT.

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