In conversation with
Mr Prachai Leophairatana In Interview
CEO | TPI Polene Public Company Limited
FDI Spotlight: What would you identify as the inspiration for your journey in becoming the leader in the waste to energy market in Thailand?
Mr. Prachai Leophairatana: I think for me the biggest inspiration is the fact that we must go back to nature. We have a duty to protect and preserve our environment. My original venture into waste to energy production actually came as a by-product of my others businesses. TPI Group was originally the largest petrochemical company in Thailand until the Tom Yum Koong financial crisis greatly weakened our position in the petrochemical market. This was the reason why we placed a much greater emphasis on the construction materials market after 1997.
Following our shift into the construction materials market, we experienced substantial gains in the industry and success with the innovation of the solutions we provided to our clients. Even though we had worked our way up to becoming the 3rd largest cement producer in Thailand, we were still not satisfied. As for every tonne of cement we produced, 40% of what we generated was CO2 that was emitted into the atmosphere (only 60% of the end product is cement). Although this output was an industry standard at the time, we were not satisfied with the level of inefficiency and the negative environmental impact caused. It was from this point onwards that we started our own waste heat recovery plant by converting the heat emission from our cement plant into clean energy. It was not long after that moment that we realized that if we could leverage the waste from our own activities into clean and green energy, then the potential to do that on a large scale for the benefit of the nation was too big and too important – an opportunity to pass up. Since then we have been working tirelessly on the creation and integration of waste to energy, also known as refuse-derived fuel (RDF) power plants across the country. Through a combination of our own waste heat recovery power plant – 70MW, our own RDF plant and our own RDF power plant – 80MW, we currently produce 150 MW. We are currently constructing an additional 290MW, comprising RDF power plant 70MW, coal fire power plant (150MW) and coal-RDF power plant 70MW, which is expected to be completed by the end of 2017. After completion, our total installed capacity will reach 440MW. All the electricity that we produce, will be sold to TPI Polene PCL and Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT).
It is our objective to be the first 100% carbon neutral industrial company in Thailand.
FDI Spotlight: How significant a role can RDF energy play in the energy mix of Thailand?
Mr. Prachai Leophairatana: In order to establish how big a contribution RDF energy can play, we must first give a better understanding of the process it takes for RDF energy production. The base component required for RDF energy is the municipal solid waste (MSW). MSW by layman’s terms is household waste. In order to substitute coal, currently, we are converting 4000 tonnes of MSW a day into 2000 tonnes of RDF a day that can then be converted into electricity. In order to have the RDF required to facilitate this daily transformation, we have a vertically integrated processing plant that currently produces and stores up to 100,000 tonnes of RDF. We are always looking to improve our own performance so for next year we are now increasing our RDF production capacities so that we will be processing 6000 tonnes of MSW a day turning it into 3000 tonnes of RDF.
One of the arguments against RDF is that MSW and in particular, household plastic wastes can be used to create bio-plastic. This is true, MSW can be converted into bio-plastic but it is not economically viable. The difference in cost of production between plastic and bioplastic is enormous and furthermore, the life expectancy of bioplastic is too short for it to be efficient. Standard plastic packaging is too cheap, too versatile and too long-lasting to be overthrown by bio-plastic for the mass market. So the solution is converted into RDF once this plastic has finished its use and become waste. With the burgeoning middle class not only in Thailand but also across the region, the consideration on how to sustainably use this waste is more important than ever.
Another reason why RDF energy production can play a more significant role is the fact that unlike solar energy which has challenges when it comes to energy storage of the electricity produced in daylight hours, RDF can run 24 hours a day thus acting as a base loading power source for the every growing national energy demand.
RDF energy creates a level of societal and community engagement that does not exist with other energy sources. Members of the local community can go out and pick up plastic helping to clean their streets, beaches and forests. They can then take the plastic they collect to a waste storage facility and earn money on what they collect. In this way everyone can play a part in sustainable development.
It is worth pointing out that despite these advantages I have mentioned, it is not a walk in the park by any means. Having worked in the petrochemical and construction materials industry for over 35 years, I can safely say that our RDF facilities have the highest level of innovation, ingenuity and complexity that I have ever encountered in my career. It is therefore essential to best use the economies of scale so that the projects can be successful. This is why we are always insisting on the government to open up larger licenses for the creation of new RDF power plants for commercially viable players, like us. In the waste to the energy business, it is important to set up bigger power plants so as to leverage the economies of scale and avoid industrial bottlenecks. If the only licenses that are being released by the government are for as little as 8MW plants, then waste to energy will be confined to be a corporate social consideration and not play a larger role in the country’s sustainable energy roadmap. We are making sure that this is not the case.
FDI Spotlight: What is your definition of innovation?
Mr. Prachai Leophairatana: For me, innovation is the process of transforming ideas in a fresh way to tackle challenges that exist in the environment around us.
For example, in order to prepare the 100,000 tonnes of RDF for our RDF power plants facilities, we must first sort the MSW that we receive into plastics and organic waste. The plastics get prepared and processed in the RDF plant. The organic waste, on the other hand, is transformed by our microbiology department through the process of bio-fermentation into probiotics for the agri-business sector. This is imperative to us to leverage and use all the resources that are provided to us.
The benefits of probiotics in the livestock industry are numerous. The most relevant benefits for me are that probiotics, much like in humans are proven to aid digestion, and when given to livestock as part of their feed, it also aids in digestion and the processing of nutrients in their food resulting in a much higher yield from the livestock, as much as a 20% increase in yield in many cases. Furthermore, the probiotics can act as a preventative for widespread diseases and infections, which are quite common in the livestock sector. If the farmer’s animals are healthy with a strong immune system, they are less likely to get sick preventing stock loss and a risk to humans. Because of Thailand’s many years as a leader in the global food and agribusiness industry and our research findings made in the microbiology department, we are bringing in some of the best minds in agricultural research from around the world to work together on implementing innovation to solve some of the challenges faced around the world. One such case is that through our research into livestock epidemic prevention, we have developed a probiotic that stops Early Mortality Syndrome (EMS) in its tracks, which has been widely affecting avion livestock species around the world. The faster we can reach out to international markets, the greater the potential for aid can be.
FDI Spotlight: What is your message of confidence to the international community to come to Thailand for investment?
Mr. Prachai Leophairatana: We are in the prime location geopolitically within this region. Most of our neighbours in the surrounding countries need to pass through Thailand to reach other markets. In this way, I can see Thailand continuing its economic development as the regional gateway for many years to come. With the perfect balance of livability, investment appetite and location, Thailand has the best feng-shui in this part of the world.