How Asia's 'first lady of coal' says she's working on a sustainable future

  • Banpu Public Company began operating coal mines in Thailand in 1983 and has since expanded around the Asia-Pacific.
  • CEO Somruedee Chaimongkol said the firm aims to make half of its earnings from green energy by 2025.
  • The company has established Banpu NEXT, which includes electric vehicles, renewable energy plants and electric ferries.

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  • BANPU-TH

Coal is one of the world's biggest polluters, with its transportation, storage and usage accounting for around 40% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, according to the United Nations.

One executive who says she wants to help reduce the Asia-Pacific region's dependence on the fossil fuel is Somruedee Chaimongkol, chief executive of energy firm Banpu Public Company. The company has operated coal mines in Thailand for almost four decades.

Sometimes known as Asia's "first lady of coal," Chaimongkol became CEO of the company since 2015 and established what she called a "greener, smarter" business plan for the firm the following year.

"Since 2010, we talk about transformation. And since 2015, when I succeed my predecessor as CEO, we start to implement on the greener, smarter [plan]. For the past five years, we spent $2 billion and 90% of [that went on] … a greener investment, such as gas, such as renewable energy, and energy technology," Chaimongkol told CNBC's "Managing Asia: Sustainable Future."

"[There are] a lot of mega trends happening — digitalization, decarbonization, decentralization — and that sped up Banpu to produce a new, greener, smarter strategy," she added.

Founded in 1983, Thailand's Ban Pu Coal Company Limited began its operations in the country's northern Lamphun Province and listed on the Thai stock exchange six years later. In 1993, it took on its current trading name, and in the following years expanded into other parts of Southeast Asia and China.

Last year it established Banpu Next, which encompasses its energy technology businesses including electric vehicles, renewable energy plants and electric ferries.

Banpu's 2020 annual report indicates that coal accounted for more than 95% of Banpu Public Company Ltd's revenue in 2020, a figure more or less in line with 2019. The same annual report shows that including the company's overseas subsidiaries, coal accounted for more than 80% of total revenue.

The company has been buying up natural gas assets in the United States for the last several years.

In March, the firm said it wants to make half of its earnings from "green" energy by 2025.

"We are adding more rapidly on the renewable generation in Japan, Vietnam and in China … And we have set up Banpu Energy Australia," Chaimongkol said.

Electric vehicles

The company also wants to create an energy "ecosystem" within Banpu NEXT, covering everything from energy creation and storage, to distribution and building charging stations for EVs. Chaimongkol said the division can generate "significant" revenue by 2025.

"Under Banpu NEXT, currently the major revenue contribution is still from energy generation from solar farm and wind farm. Going forward, we will scale up on … [the] energy technology," she explained.

One aspect of the new system is a tech platform that helps to manage fleets of electric three-wheel taxis known as tuk-tuks, as well as four-wheel vans. "What we are selling to our customer is selling the platform, selling the solution, managing … a fleet [and providing] … e-charging station[s]," Chaimongkol explained. In November, Banpu NEXT launched an electric powered ferry that will operate rides for tourists around the Thai island of Phuket, and in March it invested in Urban Mobility Tech Co (UMT), an EV ride-sharing company based in Bangkok.

Will Banpu ever exit coal mining altogether? Not in the next five to 10 years, according to Chaimongkol, as there will still be a demand from customers for it. But the company won't invest in new coal assets, she said, adding it will instead be pumping money into renewable energy and in doing so reducing the contribution of coal to the firm's turnover.

Chaimongkol said future business plans would "embed" sustainable policies and gave the impression she'd like to move away from her "first lady of coal" nickname. "Right now, Banpu is transforming and … our direction is towards a greener, smarter [plan]. But if [we] talk about leading the company, I would say Banpu is an energy company," she stated. Her leadership is about making sure managers of the firm's four divisions — minerals, gas production, conventional coal-fired power and Banpu NEXT — can focus on the "greener" strategy, she added.

Banpu has been selected as a member of the Dow Jones Sustainability Indices benchmark for seven consecutive years, which Chaimongkol hopes will appeal to investors. Companies are chosen following an assessment of ESG (environmental, social and governance) criteria.

"I hope that investor[s] will see this strong … commitment [to] being a conscious company. I hope that it will reflect in the value of the company going forward," she said.

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