THE coal excavated here from one of the world's great open-pit mines is of such low quality it is sometimes referred to as "dirt that burns." But for American companies peddling "clean coal" technologies, it represents potential "pay dirt."
Like many developing countries, Thailand is poised to substantially increase its use of coal to generate electricity. This could mean increased emissions of carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse" gases that threaten to warm the earth's climate.
At the same time, international and domestic environmental groups are pressing power authorities here to hold such emissions down.
Hoping to bridge these two worldwide trends, representatives of American companies and the United States Department of Energy (DOE) came to Thailand and other Southeast Asian nations in June on a trade mission to promote clean-coal technology.
Coal accounts for 70 percent of the globe's recoverable fossil fuel reserves, and is already the source of 44 percent of the world's total electric power. This percentage is expected to increase substantially, given the fuel's advantages of widely distributed reserves and relatively stable prices.
But whether clean-coal technology soon becomes a US export remains uncertain.
Officials at the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, the main state power agency, acknowledge they are under new pressure to curb emissions. But their approach seems to be one of gradually adopting increasingly sophisticated technology rather than any quantum leap.
The more advanced clean-coal technology "is not proven yet," says Charmon Suthiphongchai, the agency's deputy general manager. And once it is proven, "we still have to see if it will be economically viable for us."
At present the agency is installing more conventional technologies, such as scrubbers, to trim emissions.
POLLUTION-CONTROL standards are likely to grow tighter over time, various officials say, with impetus coming from multilateral development banks such as the World Bank, which plays a significant role in financing power projects in the developing world.
"It's only a matter of time before you see this [American clean-coal] technology here," says Jack Siegel, the DOE's principal ambassador for clean-coal technologies, who took part in the trade mission. "This is a big-time market."
Thailand's consumption of coal is expected to rise five-fold in the next 15 years to keep up with the rising demand for electric power. Coal use is projected to grow from 10 million tons in 1991 (22 percent of fuel supplies for electricity) to 36 million tons in 2006 (64 percent of fuel supplies). The country will need to spend $25 billion just in the next 10 years on new plants.
Developing countries in general will require an average of $100 billion annually for capital expenses in their power sectors for the next decade, the World Bank estimates. An increasing portion of this is expected to go for coal plants.
The DOE hopes by marketing clean-coal technology to recoup some of its $5 billion investment - the agency's largest technology development effort. To maintain America's world-leading position in this field, the DOE funds conceptual research, pilot plants at university and national labs, and full-scale commercial demonstration plants jointly with private companies.
The technology boosts efficiency - from conventional plants' typical 33-percent rate to about 55 percent with current systems. This means less fuel is used to generate the same useful energy, reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide.
The US trade mission is part of a "growing emphasis within the US government on exporting American environmental technology, goods, and services," explains Robert Driscoll, president of the US-ASEAN Council for Business and Technology Inc., which led the trade mission.
A $17.5-million, six-year Association of Southeast Asian Nations Environment Improvement Project is expected to be up and running this fall.