EA has become a giant renewable energy developer by taking a cautious approach to business
An electric bus developed by EA is scheduled to debut by the end of 2021.
Sun Tech Palm Oil Co may not be as widely known as Energy Absolute Plc (EA), but they share the same origin.
A palm oil-based biodiesel and glycerin manufacturer and liquefied petroleum gas trader, Sun Tech Palm Oil was the former name of EA. The renaming marked a significant step for the company in becoming a giant renewable energy developer in Thailand.
While the old name vanished, the business mindset of the executives remained.
They continue to look for dim prospects in sunrise businesses, driving EA to diversify into a range of businesses from renewable power generation and energy storage system (ESS) development to a venture in electric mobility.
This way of thinking prompts EA not to overemphasise the negative aspects of a business, which would make it seem too cautious. Rather the company wants to prepare itself to deal with any unwanted events, said Amorn Sapthaweekul, deputy chief executive of EA.
“It’s similar to the sentiment of parents who are afraid their children will put their fingers into a power socket, so they find ways to prevent an accident,” said Mr Amorn.
Looking at worst-case scenarios is among the factors that led EA to venture into new businesses, changing its image from a biodiesel and glycerin manufacturer to a leading clean energy developer.
Its new biodiesel plant with a production capacity of 800,000 litres a day is in Prachin Buri’s Kabin Buri district.
The plant started operation in 2009 and promised a good return as the alternative fuel is widely accepted by Thai motorists.
Mr Amorn, EA’s deputy chief executive.
However, EA foresaw uncertainty for the business in the future.
“New players entered the market, causing us to face a decrease in profit margin or even losses in some months,” said Mr Amorn.
“We thought of the worst-case scenario. If the business collapsed, what would we do then?”
Another concern in the biodiesel business is oil price fluctuations. Global oil prices skyrocketed above US$100 per barrel in 2007 and kept soaring to $140 per barrel in early 2008, before collapsing to $30 per barrel in the second half of that year.
EA decided to look for a new business opportunity when energy policymakers in 2009-2010 encouraged investors to participate in renewable power generation programmes, starting with solar and wind farm development.
Participants were given investment privileges, including an adder tariff.
An adder tariff is an incentive allowing companies to sell electricity produced by clean fuels to the state grid at higher prices for a certain period of time.
EA benefitted from this policy and expanded its business by raising funds through listing on the Stock Exchange of Thailand.
From an eight-megawatt solar farm and an initial public offering at a price of 5.5 baht in 2013, EA continued to grow.
The company now owns three solar farms with a combined capacity of 278MW and two wind farms with capacity of 386MW.
The intermittent nature of solar and wind energy, meaning sunlight and wind are not available on a regular schedule for electricity generation, caused EA to consider a new business venture, this time embracing battery development.
The company determined the business prospects for solar and wind power are dismal unless EA has a system to store electricity.
“We started looking for an ESS production facility because this technology could maintain a stable power supply,” said Mr Amorn.
EA was attracted to Taiwan-based Amita Technologies.
He admitted investment in the Taiwanese company was costly, but it laid a strong foundation for ESS R&D.
EA decided to invest in Amita Technologies and gradually bought more shares until it held a 77% stake in the company, becoming its largest shareholder.
The goal is to have a new source of revenue from stationary battery production because relying solely on the renewable power generation business is inadequate, said Mr Amorn.
“Renewable energy may no longer be a sexy business because of a price war among energy developers,” he said.
Mr Amorn predicted the renewable energy industry will not draw as many investors as previously due to fiercer competition.
The government reduced tariffs and cut prices to attract customers, but there is a low return on investment, he said.
Since 2019, EA has suspended expansion of renewable power plants and focused on battery and EV businesses, with the company spending more than 12 billion baht on new development projects.
The idea to diversify into electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing came as EA saw a new opportunity in the EV industry, which is supported by the government and fuelled by carbon emission reduction campaigns worldwide.
EA also found EV development can happen quicker than stationary battery production.
The company decided to set up an EV assembly plant in Chachoengsao.
Car designs and an EV charging business model were announced in 2019.
Again EA saw some unpleasant prospects that caused the company to fine-tune its EV business direction.
The business seemed to be going smoothly when EA received orders for 5,000 EVs for taxi drivers. The delivery date was set for 2020, but it was delayed mainly because of lockdown measures during the pandemic.
The company also learned it cannot compete with Chinese EV manufacturers in terms of costs in the passenger car segment.
Eventually EA executives decided to adapt car designs for use in delivery services, manufacturing mass transport vehicles including ferries, which debuted late last year, and buses, said Mr Amorn.
The company is scheduled to launch electric buses and deliver them to private bus operators in Bangkok later this year.
EA also developed and patented the “Parallel Charge” fast-charging system for EVs used in public transport.
Charging time is only 15 minutes for an 800-kilowatt-hour ferry battery.
“This will be a technological breakthrough causing a significant shift towards battery-run vehicles,” he said.