Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Energy, Environment, Global Governance, Headlines

ENERGY: Cleaner Coal Technology Heats Up in Pakistan

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan, Dec 14 2010 (IPS) - As a dutiful new bride, Rubina Ikram moved into her in-laws’ home lugging a huge dowry that consisted not only of clothes, furniture and linen, but also a wide array of electric appliances – from a DVD player to a washing machine.

Three weeks after the wedding, however, the electric goodies are still in their boxes in the Ikrams’ two-room home in Karachi’s Lyari district.

“What’s the point?” asks Rubina’s mother-in-law, Kulsum Begum. “We never have electricity to run the machines!”

The Ikram home is among the 40 percent of Pakistani households connected to the national electric grid. But Kulsum Begum says, “We may well be living in the Dark Ages. Half the time the power is playing truant. On top of that, come winter and the supply of gas starts to show an attitude and refuses to flow steadily.”

It’s a situation that may help explain why Pakistan is seriously considering coal to solve its energy problems, even after the conclusion of a new climate change accord in Mexico in December. After all, of all the fossil fuels, coal is the dirtiest, with its use spewing out a toxic stew that includes carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and even mercury.

Just last April, the World Bank refused to finance coal exploration in Pakistan due to environmental concerns, saying it would promote renewable energy initiatives instead.

Mahfooz Bhatti, director of the Sindh government’s Thar Coal and Power Project, however, asserts that cleaner ways of extraction and power generation are possible “through coal gasification and use of supercritical technology” and abiding by international environmental and social safeguard standards”.

Kamran Kamal, senior business development advisor of Engro Powergen Ltd, explains that supercritical power plant technology uses less coal to produce more electricity. “This means lower carbon-dioxide emissions,” he says. “It’s affordable and economical and more importantly, meets World Bank emission guidelines.”

“That’s correct,” adds Prof Khalid Rashid, a physicist and environmentalist familiar with power generation technologies. “Supercritical plants and coal gasification plants are not as environmentally damaging as the conventional coal powered plants.”

“Supercritical power plants operate at a much higher temperature and boiler pressures and burn coal more efficiently,” he says. Every kilogramme of coal provides about 20 percent more electricity and in the process produces 40 percent less carbon dioxide, he adds.

In gasification, he explains that coal is oxidised to produce a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, called syngas. “The syngas is then used to heat the boilers to produce steam that runs the turbines to produce electricity with carbon dioxide reduced to about 30 to 40 percent, depending on the design,” he says.

According to Rashid, the global trend has been to build plants using these technologies and give up conventional coal-powered plants. Research by International Energy Agency (IEA) states that by replacing older power stations with more efficient plants, greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by 5.5 percent.

China, Germany, the United States, India, Greece, and South Africa use this technology for their latest coal plants, Kamal adds.

Engro Powergen, a subsidiary of one of Pakistan’s largest conglomerates, Engro Corp, is working with the government of the south-eastern province of Sindh to mine coal from Thar Block II in the Tharparkar desert and then generate about 1,200 megawatts of electricity from a plant set up there.

Lignite coal deposits that could yield as much as 185 billion tonnes were discovered in Tharparkar desert as far back as 1992 by the Geological Survey of Pakistan.

But Bhatti says that due to the “availability of cheap gas, non-availability of infrastructure, and institutional challenges for large-scale coal sector operations”, the country’s coal reserves remained untouched for almost two decades. The Sindh Mines Department says that Pakistan’s coal reserves have the potential to provide 200,000 megawatts of power – enough for the next 100 years, based on today’s consumption rate.

Many have likened these to Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves of 264 billion barrels, which amount to a quarter of the global total. But some call the comparison erroneous since coal cannot be traded like oil.

As it is, it will take up to six years before the Engro power plant can start to generate electricity. Still, Bhatti insists that once it gets going, the power to be generated by Engro from the Tharparkar deposits could meet Pakistan’s energy needs for the next half-century.

It will also save the country about one billion dollars every year, Engro says, based on its calculations. “According to Pakistan Energy Year Book 2010, Pakistan spends close to four billion dollars to import fuel for power generation. Given that our generation capacity is about 14,000 megawatts and about 35 percent comes from RFO (residual fuel oil), it translates to approximately 5,000 megawatts. Our first project will be 1,200 megawatts, which would be able to save about one billion dollars per year,” says Kamal.

The government’s plans state that Pakistan’s energy pie in 2010 would comprise 49 percent natural gas, 26 percent oil, 13.9 percent hydropower, 9 percent coal, 1.1 percent renewable, and 0.9 percent nuclear.

By 2030 it projects Pakistan’s energy generation to increase to 162,590 megawatts and to consist of 45 percent natural gas, 19 percent coal, 18.5 percent oil, 2.5 percent renewable, 10.8 percent hydropower and 4.2 percent nuclear.

The country now has a project that looks into underground coal gasification and sequestering carbon dioxide while generating 50 megawatts of electricity. The Pakistan Electric Power Co is undertaking a 1,200-megawatt coal project.

Kamal sounds exasperated by the criticism of coal, saying development cannot always be held hostage by environmental concerns. “If the rich countries of the world – also the biggest polluters – are so concerned about carbon emissions, perhaps they can set an example by closing down their coal- fired powerhouses and turn to clean energy,” says Kamal.

He says that coal remains the biggest source of energy in the United States, China, Europe, and even India next door, although they are trying to reduce reliance on it. Pakistan’s tiny carbon footprint reaches less than one percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, he points out.

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