Spearheading the solar energy sector in Thailand, Dr Wandee Khunchornyakong Juljarern, chairwoman of renewable energy producer SPCG, is a force to be reckoned with. The 59-year-old single mother of a daughter, Woracha, has a quiet determination and a can-do attitude that has seen her succeed in a pioneering energy business since she came out of early retirement in 2009.
Dr Wandee worked in the conventional energy production sector for most of her professional life before deciding to call it a day when she turned 50 in 2006. However, chance and circumstances resulted in a change of plan just three years later. “It was the period when the Thai government announced a policy to buy back solar energy from the private sector. I already had experience of the power generation industry and a personal interest in renewable energy, which prompted me to think about establishing a solar farm. As it was something very new to the country, my biggest challenge was convincing a bank to finance us—no mean feat when we estimated that we would need upwards of US$800 million to complete the various stages of the project. I visited 10 different banks, each on multiple occasions, to repeatedly explain the project and why I believed it would work. I’m happy to say that in the end K Bank agreed to help with startup funds.”
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Did she ever think of giving up? “It was a very tiring process and I was working 20-hour days, which was a shock to the system considering not long before that I’d been enjoying my retirement,” laughs Wandee. “But no, we had to press on. I had to do everything myself because we didn’t have any employees. Even my daughter helped with the PowerPoint presentation we gave to the banks. We became even busier when the project finally kicked off in April 2010 because as part of the financing agreement with the bank we had to monitor our power output stringently. We didn’t have the 200 million baht state-of-the-art monitoring room that we have now, so each day I would have to call the solar farm personally to get energy output figures.”
Gratifyingly, just three months into the project it became obvious that the hard work was paying off. “The first solar farm in Korat was producing 30 per cent more power than predicted and so we knew we were on the right track,” Wandee explains. “The next phase was to expand solar operations but K Bank advised us it would be better to find a partner like the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank.” After four months of flying back and forth between Hong Kong and the Philippines, she successfully convinced the World Bank to invest in the project. “A good partner is the key to success. When you have a big institution putting its trust in you, other investors will follow. We also received a grant from the Thai government’s Energy for Environment fund.”
Today Thailand has a roadmap for the production of 6,000 megawatts of electricity throughout the country. Something of a local godmother figure in renewable energy, Dr Wandee remains active with the business but finds time for roles as president of the National Council of Women of Thailand and the president of fundraising of the Ruamchit Normklao Foundation (for Children and Youth) under Her Majesty the Queen’s royal patronage. She has also received professional recognition for her pioneering work, including the Momentum For Change award from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “In the past Thai governments didn’t have a policy or a business model for solar energy. They didn’t realise that solar energy could be part of the nation’s energy security—but they do now.”