Asean and coal

The Phnom Penh Post - - OPINION - Han Phoumin

COAL, the most abun­dant and re­li­able en­ergy re­source, will con­tinue to be the dom­i­nant en­ergy source in power gen­er­a­tion to meet the fast-grow­ing elec­tric­ity de­mand in the emerg­ing economies of the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions (Asean). Be­tween 2015 and 2040, the share of coal in power gen­er­a­tion is ex­pected to in­crease from 32 per­cent to 42 per­cent, whereas the share of gas in power gen­er­a­tion is pro­jected to drop from 42 per­cent in 2015 to 37 per­cent in 2040.

The in­creas­ing use of coal for power gen­er­a­tion in Asean coun­tries will lead to wide­spread con­struc­tion of coal-fired power plants, which, with­out the use of the best avail­able clean-coal tech­nol­ogy (CCT), would re­sult in in­creased green­house-gas and car­bon-diox­ide emis­sions. The seem­ingly re­laxed ap­proach to global emis­sions taken by the US govern­ment led by Don­ald Trump may have the un­in­tended ef­fect of en­cour­ag­ing wide­spread con­struc­tion of less-ef­fi­cient coal-fired power plants in power-hun­gry emerg­ing Asean and the rest of the Asian economies. Pol­icy ap­proaches must be re­viewed, there­fore, so emerg­ing Asia can af­ford CCT and al­low for more sus­tain­able green growth.

The dis­sem­i­na­tion of CCT tech­nolo­gies for the clean and ef­fi­cient use of coal in the East Asia Sum­mit (EAS) re­gion is of press­ing im­por­tance. A study con­ducted by Eco­nomic Re­search In­sti­tute for Asean and East Asia (ERIA) on the strate­gic use of coal in the EAS re­gion con­cluded that the ap­pli­ca­tion of in­ef­fi­cient tech­nolo­gies and in­ef­fec­tive en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards and reg­u­la­tions would lead to a waste of valu­able coal re­sources. The study ex­am­ined var­i­ous tech­nolo­gies (ul­tra-su­per­crit­i­cal [USC], su­per­crit­i­cal, and sub­crit­i­cal boiler types), com­par­ing their ther­mal ef­fi­cien­cies, in­vest­ment costs, main­te­nance costs, fuel con­sump­tion, and car­bon-diox­ide emis­sions. It found that the use of highly ef­fi­cient tech­nolo­gies such as USC would pro­vide bet­ter eco­nomic re­turns in any coal price sce­nario ($60/tonne, $80/tonne and $100/tonne), and that the elec­tric­ity pro­duced by USC plants is cheaper and more af­ford­able than the elec­tric­ity pro­duced with su­per­crit­i­cal or other con­ven­tional tech­nolo­gies.

Al­though USC tech­nol­ogy is one of the best op­tions to raise plant ef­fi­ciency and re­duce car­bon diox­ide and lo­cal pol­lu­tion, such as ni­tro­gen ox­ides and sul­phur ox­ides, many de­vel­op­ing Asian coun­tries still can­not af­ford this tech­nol­ogy be­cause its up­front in­vest­ment costs are higher than those of su­per­crit­i­cal and con­ven­tional tech­nolo­gies. For ex­am­ple, some South­east Asian coun­tries have just re­cently started to use coal-fired power plants; but plant ef­fi­ciency is only about 32 per­cent, very low com­pared with USC, which could raise plant ef­fi­ciency up to 45 per­cent. In emerg­ing Asean, ad­di­tional ca­pac­ity of coal-fired gen­er­a­tion is likely to be built us­ing this type of low-ef­fi­ciency or sub­crit­i­cal plant.

This raises the ques­tion: How do we help de­vel­op­ing Asia af­ford the CCTs that are ur­gently needed? Con­struc­tion of plants with con­ven­tional or sub­crit­i­cal tech­nol­ogy will be com­mon among emerg­ing coun­tries in Asean such as Myan­mar, Lao and Cambodia if they are un­able to ac­cess USC tech­nolo­gies and sup­port from de­vel­oped coun­tries is in­suf­fi­cient.

Clean-coal tech­nol­ogy such as USC tech­nol­ogy in­volves larger cap­i­tal in­vest­ment than su­per­crit­i­cal or sub­crit­i­cal tech­nolo­gies. The higher up­front cost of CCT such as USC has been an is­sue for de­vel­op­ers and in­vestors. Low­er­ing th­ese costs is nec­es­sary and can be done through pol­icy frame­works, such as at­trac­tive fi­nan­cial/loan schemes for USC power plants or through strong po­lit­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions that can pro­vide pub­lic fi­nanc­ing for CCTs to emerg­ing Asia, and in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion frame­works to en­sure the de­ploy­ment of CCTs, as they are cru­cially im­por­tant for abat­ing green­house gas emis­sions. Fail­ing to re­duce th­ese costs would mean fall­ing pub­lic fi­nan­cial sup­port for CCTs in emerg­ing Asia, re­sult­ing in the re­gion’s use of nonOr­gan­i­sa­tion of Eco­nomic Co-op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment fi­nanc­ing or other forms of fi­nan­cial sup­port and, thus, greater use of low-ef­fi­ciency power plants.

Some coun­tries in Asean, par­tic­u­larly Thai­land, have been em­bark­ing on CCTs by re­tir­ing their con­ven­tional coal power plants and re­plac­ing them with ul­tra-su­per­crit­i­cal coal power plants. But in Thai­land the govern­ment was faced with huge protests from com­mu­ni­ties against coal-fired power plants be­cause peo­ple had ex­pe­ri­enced their neg­a­tive ef­fects in the past. Thus, seek­ing pub­lic ac­cep­tance on cleaner use of coal through CCT tech­nolo­gies will be cru­cial. Peo­ple are scep­ti­cal of the new tech­nolo­gies as they as­so­ciate any use of coal with strong pol­lu­tion. Ex­pe­ri­ences in de­vel­oped na­tions such as Ja­pan could pro­vide good ex­am­ples for achiev­ing pub­lic con­sen­sus on coal use by show­ing how CCT uses coal more ef­fi­ciently, that it is much cleaner than con­ven­tional plants, and that emis­sions from plants us­ing CCT is very close to that of gas-fired power plants.

Fi­nally, com­mu­nity par­tic­i­pa­tion is es­sen­tial. The pub­lic should de­mand that lo­cal au­thor­i­ties choose tech­nolo­gies that are en­vi­ron­ment-friendly and sus­tain­able for their com­mu­nity. In many cases, a lack of pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion may lead to lo­cal pol­lu­tion reach­ing un­ac­cept­able lim­its and harm­ing the com­mu­nity. Such lo­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion will only be mean­ing­ful when lo­cal peo­ple are well in­formed about the po­ten­tial im­pact of the tech­nolo­gies cho­sen. But in­sti­tu­tions in emerg­ing Asia may not pay much at­ten­tion to such lo­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion. Ac­tive or­gan­i­sa­tions are needed, there­fore, to in­crease aware­ness about the harm that can be done by less-ef­fi­cient coal-fired power plants.


A Green­peace ac­tivist holds ban­ners in April 2001 dur­ing a protest against two pro­posed coal­fired power plant projects in south­ern Thai­land. Seek­ing ac­cep­tance of a scep­ti­cal pub­lic on cleaner use of coal is cru­cial.

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