Does Pakistan Need More Coal Plants?

Last month, an agreement was signed between the Punjab government and Chinese company Hauneng Shandong for construction of coal fired power plant in Rahimyar Khan.  Under this agreement, the Chinese company will set up two coal power plants of 660 megawatt each in Rahimyar Khan. These plants will run on imported coal.

Pakistan has launched an ambitious coal power development plan. By 2025, over 8,000 MW of coal based electricity is expected to be added into the national grid. The first coal power plant in Sahiwal was commissioned last month. Another one, at Port Qasim, is at an advanced stage of completion. List of planned coal power projects are given below:

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 4.32.17 PM

There are other proposals for smaller coal power plants being promoted by local entrepreneurs to be installed at Port Qasim. Except for Thar based plants all coal power plants are to be fired by imported coal.

Environmental Impact of Coal Plants

Air pollution from coal-fired power plants includes sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter (PM), and heavy metals, leading to smog, acid rain, toxins in the environment, and numerous respiratory, cardiovascular, and cerebrovascular effects. A 1000 megawatt (MW) coal-fired power plant produces approximately the same amount of global warming as 1.2 million cars.

Pakistan is one of the 10 most climate-affected countries of the world, as indicated by its ranking in the Global Climate Risk Index. Studies and assessments undertaken by the National Disaster Management Authority show that “extreme climate events between 1994 and 2013 have resulted in an average annual economic loss of almost $4 billion.

Our current contribution to global greenhouse emissions is less than 1%. Even with the planned coal power addition, our contribution to GHG and climate change will be insignificant both in absolute or per capita terms. However, that doesn’t mean that we do no need to care about the climate change issue as ultimately any addition in the emissions would harm us directly or indirectly.

There are ways to minimize these adverse health and environmental impacts. Pollutants can be arrested at source by installing appropriate equipment. High efficiency can reduce CO2 production.

We must learn from the bad experience of our neighbors, India and China. Environmental performance of coal power plants in India is quite low. Reportedly, 120,000 people die each year in India due to air pollution from coal power plants. Until, recently, there were no environmental standards for coal power plants. A limited number of coal plants installed have only particulate matter controls. SOx and NOx controls are not there at all.

Emissions from coal plants in China were responsible for a quarter of a million premature deaths in 2011 and are damaging the health of hundreds of thousands of Chinese children. The level of air pollution in cities like Beijing and Shanghai are off the index, that tracks air pollution.

Rather than repeating their example we should learn from it. India has now introduced corrective environmental legislation on coal power plants, which has initiated a round of Flue Gas Desulfurization (FGD) installations and other controls through retrofitting projects.

Similarly in China, more stringent standards are being adopted. The new plants are highly environmentally compliant with reasonable costs. Pakistan must push the Chinese companies, installing coal plants in Pakistan, to use the same technology and schemes here.

Is the world moving away from coal?

At the moment there is no explicit ban on coal power. However, in the wake of Paris Climate Agreement, new coal power plants installation would meet resistance from institutions such as World Bank and ADB which are not accepting any new financing applications for coal power projects.

Coal is being abandoned, generally, and in Europe in particular. No new coal power plant is going to be built in the region. UK is planning to close its last coal power plant by 2025, replacing it with cleaner sources, such as gas, to meet climate commitments. France is also planning to shut down all its coal-fired power plants by 2023

However, in South East Asia, including Japan and Korea, there is still some momentum for coal. Japan has not yet shunned coal plants and has over 40 coal power plants in active planning and schedule for next ten years. Similarly, India and other developing countries, such as Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam will not be able to totally shun coal power.

The figure below shows where coal-fired generation capacity is concentrated. As seen, India and China will continue to have the highest installed capacity.

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 5.42.07 PMSource: World Coal Association Analysis

Do we need more coal plants?

Two imported coal power plants, one in Sahiwal and the other in Karachi, each of 1320 MW, should have been enough to meet the emergency. Additional coal plants should only be planned and installed in Thar. It costs 4 US cents of foreign exchange to produce one unit of electricity on imported coal and thus one coal plant would result in an annual import bill of 400 million USD. Pakistan cannot afford to grow its economy on imported fuel.

A new report called Beyond Coal: Scaling up clean energy to fight poverty has dismissed claims that developing countries need coal to catch up with the developed economies. With the increase in efficiency of renewables, reduction in their costs (renewables are projected to overtake coal and natural gas power), and improvement in storage technology, we are looking at a future where we no longer have to depend on thermal power plants for meeting electricity demand of a country. As opposed to the conventional view that renewables can’t meet base load demand, large scale integration of renewables is increasingly becoming a possible option even for developing country like Pakistan.








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