The Coal Rush
On November 11, 2016, Pakistan ratified the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which is aimed at lowering planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Nonetheless, the government continues to develop various coal-based power plants of cumulative capacity of over 6,900MW (megawatt) to be completed by December 2020, in gross conflict with its commitment on climate change. Electricity generated from fossil fuels such as coal is the largest single contributor globally to the rise in carbon emissions, which is causing increase in the earth’s temperature, and the air pollution contributing to smog.
All the 6,900MW coal-based power generation capacity is coming under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) framework. The 1,320MW (2x660MW) Sahiwal Coal-fired Power project, the first of the CPEC Priority Energy Projects, was commissioned in July last year. First unit of the 2x660MW Port Qasim Electric Power was connected to the national grid in November 2017, whereas the second unit is scheduled for commissioning in June this year. The first 660MW unit of China Power Hub Generation project is likely to be commissioned in December this year, and the other 660MW unit in August 2019. A 300MW coal-based power project is being constructed in Gwadar. All the four power generating projects are based on imported coal.
The CPEC energy programme also covers development of power projects using indigenous Thar coal. These projects are: 660MW Engro Powergen Thar, 330MW Thar Energy, 1,320MW (2x660MW) Thar Coal Block-1 Power Generation, and 330MW Thal Nova Power Thar.
Currently, the first unit of 330MW of Engro Powergen is in advanced stage of completion, scheduled to achieve commercial operations in October this year, while the second unit of same capacity will be commissioned in June 2019. The other three projects, all Independent Power Producers (IPPs), are scheduled for completion by December 2020.
China, another signatory to the Paris Agreement among 195 nations, has halted in January 2017 its plans for developing 103 new coal-fired power plants valuing $62 billion in eleven provinces, with a combined installed capacity of more than 100GW (gigawatt). This was the latest move since China had decided in the past years, pursuing transitional shift towards clean energy, to close down all the existing coal-based power plants, and to put on hold or cancel new planned or ongoing projects, totalling 151 plants and projects with combined capacity of about 300GW.
Beijing is cited as an atypical case of promoting clean energy. Implementing Beijing’s clean air plan, the last coal-fired power station of 845MW capacity had ceased its operations in March last year, while three other coal-based power plants were closed down in the years 2014 and 2015. Now, Beijing has 27 power plants, all clean and renewable energy, of total installed capacity of 11,300MW.
In contrast, China’s new stringent standards for domestic coal-fired power plants to deliver clean energy do not apply to the export market. China is constructing or planning to develop more than one-hundred new coal-fired power generation plants in as many as 21 countries, ignoring serious concerns the world-over about smog and climate change. Besides Pakistan, these coal-based power plants are being constructed in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Egypt, Iran, Vietnam, and the African countries. Reportedly, the design and engineering was completed and plant machinery under production at different stages or readily available with the Chinese manufacturers as a result of cancellation of domestic orders in bulk, totalling some 55GW capacity. This technology and machinery is thus being directed towards the overseas market, though of outdated technology and outmoded plant modules. The Chinese banks have liberally given finances for these export projects, complying with state policy to support the ailing Chinese industry of coal-based power plant machinery.
Apparently, these developing nations, including Pakistan, are victims
to this strategy, which would greatly harm their economies in the shortand long terms. No wonder the coalfired power plants in Pakistan came on stream much earlier than normal gestation periods for such projects accepted globally. Unfortunately, the technology deployed in these power plants, whether commissioned, or currently under-construction or in planning stage, is not an advanced or state-of-the-art “clean coal technology”, in spite of repeated claims by the two sides. There are many clean coal versions of pulverised coal combustion technology that have been commercialised the world-over.
Efficiency of a power plant is inversely proportional to consumption of coal; higher the efficiency, lower the coal combustion. Thus, a highefficiency coalfired power plant sharply reduces the emission impact of energy generated from coal. The traditional subcritical technology, which achieves 33 percent to 38 percent efficiency, is obsolete, and, instead, the supercritical technology was deployed in recent past. Since the last two decades, however, the ultra-supercritical is known as the advanced technology. A supercritical boiler operates at temperatures over 565-C and at pressures above 250 bar, whereas ultra-supercritical boiler operates at more than 585-C temperatures and above 300 bar pressures. Supercritical power plant achieves 37-40 percent efficiency and the ultra-supercritical optimally attains 48 percent efficiency. Currently, research and development is ongoing in Germany to increase steam temperature to 700-C and above, which could achieve coal-fired power plant efficiency as high as 50 percent.
Sadly, the Gwadar Coal Power project is based on the obsolete subcritical technology. Likewise, all Thar-coal based power plants will use subcritical technology. Sahiwal Coal Power, Port Qasim Electric, China Power Hub and other projects will employ supercritical technology. None of the planned projects are likely to use the advanced technology of ultrasupercritical technology either. Also, none of these power plants will deploy the state-of-the-art Carbon Capture & Sequestration (CCS) technologies, which would remove carbon dioxide from the emissions and sequester (or store) it in the grounds or ponds.
The plants being installed in Pakistan are of the modules 330/300MW and 660/600MW, which are no more being constructed in the developing countries. For many years, a module of 1,000MW coal-fired power plant is globally considered technically viable and economically feasible, under the current conditions.
It is ironical that China itself plans in the years to come to replace the old-technology based coal-fired power generation capacity with ultrasupercritical technology that it has already mastered, having acquired it in the late 1990s from the western sources such as Alstom, Siemens and Babcock-Hitachi. Interestingly, all largecapacity coal-based power plants in China have installed ultra-supercritical power generating units. The Zouxian power plant of 4,400MW combined capacity in Shandong province operates two ultra-supercritical units of 1,000MW each since 2006-2007. The Shanghai Waigaoqiao coal-fired power plant of total 5,000MW capacity had commissioned two ultra-supercritical units of 1,000MW each in 2008.
Similarly, the Guodian Beilun power plant (5,000MW total capacity) in Zhejiang province had installed in 2009 two ultra-supercritical units each of 1,000MW. Likewise, Guohna Taishan power plant (Guangdong province) of 5,000MW total capacity operates two units of 1,000MW each, which were commissioned phase-wise in 2010 and 2011. Plant machinery for all these ultra-supercritical power stations was manufactured by the Chinese companies. Why, then, Pakistan has been deprived of the latest coal technology by China? It is anybody’s guess. There are other few coal-fired power projects in pipeline in Pakistan. Grange Power is establishing a 163MW imported coal based power plant in Arifwala (Punjab), which is scheduled to come on stream in September 2019. Then, the Lucky Electric’s 660MW plant at Port Qasim, Siddiqsons Energy’s 330MW power plant and 1,320MW Oracle Coal Fields plant, all scheduled for commissioning in 2021, will use Thar coal. Again, the design, engineering and plant machinery is being supplied by the Chinese companies for all these projects. There are about 120 Captive Power Plants (CPP) installed by the cement, textile, paper, chemical and steel industries, now mostly using coal as fuel, of capacity up to 50MW each, and many are in the pipeline. A typical 600MW coal-based power plant burns in the range of 1.68 million to 1.25 million tonnes of coal each year; depending on coal combustion technology deployed and coal characteristics.
Pakistan is thus set to remain dependent on coal for power generation for decades. One dreads to think of the horrific environmental impact in coming years, primarily of burning enormous coal for power generation, and the insensitive attitude of the government towards the issue, even to backslide on its global commitments on climate change.