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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Coal: waiting for a call

Coal: waiting for a call

By Dr M. Asif

THE key elements of the unprecedented energy crisis that has engulfed Pakistan include a massive gap between energy demand and supply, a receding share of indigenous resources in the total supply mix; energy insecurity, unaffordable energy prices for the masses, and enormous stress on the country’s fiscal system imposed by energy imports.

One of the appropriate candidates that can substantially help Pakistan overcome its energy challenges is coal.

In the electricity generation mix, coal can make a substantial contribution. The total coal reserves of Pakistan as reported by the Geological Survey of Pakistan (GSP) are estimated to be around 185bn tonnes. Of these, nearly 175bn tonnes are located in the Thar desert as discovered in 1992. In terms of quality, the coal found in Pakistan falls in a range between bituminous and lignite.

Vague estimates have been made on the scope of these coal reserves for meeting the country’s energy requirements. The GSP, for example, quotes these resources to be sufficient for meeting the country’s energy needs for ‘centuries’. Such an enormous amount of coal definitely holds great potential of bringing about a positive change in the country’s energy scenario for a considerably long period of time.

However, despite all these theoretical calculations and the projected rosy picture, the energy supply mix of the country has not yet seen any notable shift towards coal. All that coal has contributed so far is a mere 150MW in the total generation capacity of the country (amounting to over 19,000MW). The only purpose coal is being used for is to fire the brick-kilns — nearly 80 per cent of the total annual production (three million tonnes) is consumed by kilns. This implies that coal reserves in the country are virtually untapped.

In Pakistan, during the 1990s, thermal power found itself in the limelight. In an attempt to avert an approaching energy crisis, the government decided to take thermal generation on board. The private sector — termed the Independent Power Producers (IPPs) — was invited to invest in power generation. Subsequently, in a matter of four to five years, thermal power generation grew by multi-gigawatts. The whole IPP saga apart from its benefits also came under attack from numerous critics and for various reasons.

Without going into the controversies raked up by vested interests, it is crucial to take note of a related tactical error that unfortunately is set to have a lasting impact on the sustainability levels of the country’s energy system. It is the brutal use of natural gas for the purpose of power generation. Ignoring coal that has reserves to sustain power production for hundreds of years, the policymakers opted for natural gas that holds a humble reserve that promises production for 20 years.

The price of diverting bulk supplies of limited gas reserves with limited production capacity to the power sector is now being paid by household consumers. Gas is now in short supply for the most basic of needs, namely, the preparation of food. Extensive and infuriating gas disruptions have become a norm. Gas reserves are now set to run out much faster than otherwise would have been the case. In the presence of untapped massive coal reserves, this day in and day out burning of gas in power plants is not a very realistic approach.

Ironically, this is not only an unsustainable choice, it is also an uneconomical one. As per Wapda’s 2006 figures, the cost of production of electricity from gas was nearly double that of producing from coal. The respective cost for the two fuels has been reported to be equivalent to Rs2.4/kWh and Rs1.3/kWh.

Here it is important to cite some eye-opening features and global developments with respect to coal. Coal is an established and leading part of the world’s electricity mix contributing a staggering 40 per cent to the total generation. Other major shareholders are nuclear power (over 16 per cent), natural gas (15 per cent) and hydro (19 per cent). Like other technologies, coal has also come of age.

The time is past when coal power plants used to operate at 20 per cent efficiency. With technical advancements and improvements, the thermal efficiency of modern coal power plants has been greatly enhanced. Much higher pressure and temperature conditions for steam, coupled with advanced materials (i.e. usage of composite alloys in the highest temperature regions of the super-heater, re-heater, turbine and pipe-work) has allowed modern coal plants to operate at an efficiency level of over 35 per cent.State of the art coal plants in China have a thermal efficiency of above 40 per cent. In view of the ongoing research and development and best practised boilers and turbines, the European Union has set a target to develop the next generation of coal power plants with an efficiency level of 50 to 55 per cent. These factors will ensure a respectable share for coal in future global energy scenarios.

According to the latest EU and UK energy directives, by 2030 it is estimated that nearly 1400GWe of new coal-fired capacity will be built worldwide, with two-thirds of the new capacity in developing countries. Coal-fired power plants are expected to provide about 38 per cent of global electricity needs in 2030 — close to today’s share of global electricity supply needs. In terms of quantitative reserves, compared to other fossil fuel family members, oil and gas, coal has a major advantage.

According to the Energy Information Administration’s 2006 statistics, the reserves-to-production ratio both for oil and gas is estimated to be around 60 years worldwide, while the same ratio for coal is 200 years.

These credentials duly make coal a key player in energy markets of a large number of countries. China, for example, produces 75 to 80 per cent of its electricity from coal. The share of coal in the total electricity mix of various other countries is as follows: India 55 per cent, the US 50 per cent, Germany 48 per cent, Australia 45 per cent and the UK 33 per cent. Interestingly, not all of these countries are self-sufficient in coal.

Contrary to that, Pakistan with 185bn tonnes of coal lying in its own backyard is content with a share of 0.7 per cent in the electricity mix. In recent years, there were reports in the local media that a 1,000MW coal-based power project is being planned for which feasibility work has also been undertaken. But again, more recent reports suggest a deadlock over the project for one reason or the other — the usual story.

Our policymakers should realise that coal is abundant, indigenous and cheap and thus has a major role to play in the energy equation of Pakistan. It already has been unduly delayed for decades. Had timely attention been paid to coal, quite a few of the complications in the current energy scenario of Pakistan could have been avoided. The more the meaningful exploitation of coal is delayed the tougher the energy crisis will become.

The writer is a lecturer in renewable energy at the Glasgow Caledonian University, UK.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its an excellent piece of work, provides a good insight on possibilities of exploitation of coal in Pakistan. I wish if policy makers had a chance to look at it.

February 24, 2008 3:46 PM  

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