Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Turning fuel crisis into opportunity

A fellow brethren recently asked me if I attended the Chevrolet Equinox hydrogen car test drive event held at Muang Thong Thani last month.

She then reminded the writer that in conjunction with the GM Auto Tech symposium, the Big Three automaker had purchased a full-page ad in this newspaper for its technological road show that concluded at Central World late August.

Ads are good for everyone at the end of the day.

Normally that blatant reminder wouldn't register a modicum of empathy had the print on the person's name card read out important-sounding titles that serve as obsessive shrines to one's ego in the realm of management, sales or PR.

But the fact that she was an ordinary reporter - just like me - made it burn like a slow-acting acid that gnawed away at my journalistic soul (forged 16 years ago somewhere in the vicinity of whatever's left at Bangna-Trat Km 4.5).

Obviously I had to go! Our national energy security road map is in dire need of a GPS system to guide the way; and full-page ads just might provide some insight into our alternative energy predicament.

His Majesty the King pioneered research in alternative energy long before global warming and depleted fossil fuels became "green" issues in Thailand.

Yet the haphazard chronology for the Thai motorist and alternative energy started with Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) for most metered taxis and a few who saw cost savings in cooking gas for their personal transport when crude pushed benzine over 20 baht per litre.

Past governments unfolded a series of grand manifestos on alternative energy initiatives such as gasohol E10, biodiesel, E20, Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), E85 and E100.

Yet our politicians are usually insulated from reality because the privileges purchased by money politics means that they don't have to impart wisdom required for its proper use by taxpaying citizens like you and me.

All that verbiage aside, I am glad I attended the event.

A sense of erudition wasn't delivered by the Equinox hydrogen car, but it was by GM's key man in Southeast Asia and Thailand, Steve Carlisle.

Mr Carlisle provided insights that turned the current foreseeable energy threat into an opportunity for Thailand's auto industry. He explained that these technologies can and should co-exist. They aren't abstract. It's real. It's now. You can touch it.

But it has to be a collective effort between the energy sector, automotive industry, government and other private institutions.

Thailand has evolved into a regional force for open dialogue in the area of alternative energy. But the presence of a specific solution to the exclusion of another, which the government has a tendency to advocate, will be detrimental to the whole.

You can't just drum up interest on E20 or CNG, provide excise tax incentives and shove it down the throat of every motorist and automaker; then turn a blind eye when supply problems emerge.

On the other hand, you can't afford to ignore diesel which dominates more than 65% of the vehicle population in Thailand.

Isuzu drove its point home by taking its D-Max pickup - for a 1,215km cruise at 90kph from Bangkok to the Thai-Malay border - on a single tank of diesel fuel!

The tremendous display of fuel efficiency aside, diesel and biodiesel should not be left out of the equation.

The Petroleum Authority of Thailand Plc (PTT) officially sold its first tank of E85 (ethanol 85% and benzine 15%) to a Volvo S40 on August 29 at its Bangna-Trat station - but time is needed before infrastructure and vehicle products catch up on availability of E85 fuel, and vice versa.

Thailand already has a more advanced dialogue on E85 than its Asean neighbours.

As the political brouhaha dances to the tune of musical chairs with key ministerial portfolios being re-distributed, the energy policies for CNG, gasohol and biodiesel must be laid out as a carefully planned diverse road map for alternative energy - that encourages local-assembly operations over pricy imports.

The obvious benefits for Thailand will be spelled out in the substantial difference in the amount of petroleum imported and emissions generated.

So that the air borrowed from our children is a bit cleaner, government coffers stay healthy and growth is sustained for the auto industry.

Alfred Tha Hla covers the auto industry for the Motoring section, Bangkok Post.

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