Thailand's bright idea: dim lights save energy

The lights are down low across Bangkok these days -- not because of romance in the air but because the government is trying to save energy. In an experimental move, Thailand is instituting sweeping power cutbacks to conserve electricity. The measures, though aimed at electrical consumption, dramatize the country's precarious energy position.

Beginning this week, the government is dimming Bangkok's once-bright lights from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Supermarkets and department stores are being forced to close at 6 p.m. for a three-month "trial period."

Nightclubs, bars, and floodlit sports facilities will be barred from opening until 9 p.m. Factories have been told to halt operations between 6 and 9. And TV broadcasts will be suspended between 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.

All this is calculated to save Thailand some 300 megawatts of power a day. The government says this is necessary because a droughts has lowered the level of water used to power the country's hydroelectric generating plants.

These steps are the first energy-saving measures to be implemented by the new government of Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda. They will likely test both how well the government can enforce such measures and how willing Thailand's people are to tolerate them.

Some observers say bribery could hamper enforcement. Others note that stiff opposition could cut the government's program short.

Already some businessmen are complaining. Several supermarkets report they may go out of business because much of their trade is done after 6 p.m.

But the government is trying to head off large-scale public opposition: Message parlors, movie theaters, coffee shops, and restaurants have been exempted from the cuts.

Still, the closure of bars, lighted sports facilities, and supermarkets until 9 p.m. is likely to anger many late-night shoppers as well employees whose hours are cut back.

The conservation program, though directly geared to the low water level for hydroelectric generating plants, is also symptomatic of the country's overall energy crunch. Soaring oil costs are hurting the country's balance-of-payments position.

To offset this, Thailand has stepped up imports of lower-cost Chinese oil. The country is also looking at the possibility of using Australian coal to generate electricity.

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