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Clean energy can be produced even with coal

Coal power has acquired a bad image, perhaps less due to its pollution dimension and more due to the CO2 emission which produce greenhouse gases, causing climate change, in which Pakistan has been projected to be one of 10 worst victims.

Despite criticism of coal, hundreds of coal power plants keep operating in the world and more than 100,000 megawatts are being produced in India alone.

At present, Pakistan is planning to produce about 5,000MW in coastal areas and 5,000MW in Thar and may be 1,000 to 2,000MW in Punjab. In the medium to long term, the country may be doubling this number.

Whatever are the criteria, Pakistan’s contribution to greenhouse gases and climate change will be insignificant both in absolute or per capita terms. However, it has to be careful about pollution which will damage no one but its people more directly and immediately.

Abundant technologies are available, which, if applied, can produce clean electricity even with coal as many nations have started doing it, including China.

Health and environmental consequences of large-scale coal power production should not be ignored. Four main emissions namely particulate matter, Sox, NOx and Mercury are produced in coal burning. Bronchitis, eye diseases, lung problems, heart attacks and other diseases are the consequences. Smog and haze are the atmospheric consequences.

NOx and Sox are washed down due to rain, causing acid rains which affect agricultural productivity. Mercury pollutes water bodies and finds its way into human beings through food chain.

Pakistan has signed Minimata Convention which is aimed at controlling Mercury pollution as it spreads far beyond national boundaries.

How pollutants can be arrested

Particulate matter can be controlled by passing exhaust gases through Electrostatic Precipitator (ESP) which catches carbon and dust particles by static electricity phenomenon.

ESP equipment has to be highly efficient with efficiency rating of 95-99%. These devices have to be maintained rigorously, otherwise, these lose efficiency, resulting in dust emissions.

Sulphur and its compounds are absorbed by passing flue (chimney) gases through calcium and useful gypsum is produced as a result of the chemical reaction. Gypsum has uses in building and agriculture sectors. In technical terms, this is called Flue Gas Desulphurisation (FGD).

NOx is controlled either by installing special burners that produce less NOx. This is a cheaper and less effective method, more effective but expensive methods are using ammonia-absorbing flue gases in NH3, converting NOx into NH4NO3 or through catalytic converters, as are installed in cars to absorb NOx.

Mercury is often absorbed in FGDs, although there are specialised processes for it.

Particulate controls are being installed in all parts of the world, rich and poor. However, FGD has been less common and NOx treatment even lesser common and Mercury control the least practiced.

Even in the US, as recently as 2000, almost 50% of coal power plants did not have Sox control, hiding behind almost the same reasons as in Pakistan these days.

However, now, no coal power plant can be installed without FGD in any developed country. Existing plants either have to be closed down or retrofitted with these devices.

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Mercury control does not generally require specialised equipment and pollution control equipment employed for particulate matter (ESP), Sox (FGD) and NOx (SCR) capture Mercury as well.

Pollution control equipment

There appears to be confusion over installation of the pollution control equipment in the coal power plants that are being installed in Pakistan. In applications for generation licences, all the technologies are mentioned to be installed.

However, in Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs), the pollution equipment has been watered down. It appears that only ESPs would be installed for particulate control.

NOCs issued are also equivocal and general. For example, Sindh Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) mentions the requirements in general terms.

Punjab Environmental Protection Agency (PEPA) has issued an NOC mentioning ESP and Mercury control (even mentioning Minimata Convention membership of Pakistan) conspicuously avoiding Sox (FGD) and NOx (SCR) control equipment specifically.

However, one wonders, how Mercury would be controlled without these devices. Nepra accepts NOCs of EPAs without giving much thought about it and issues tariff without discussing or providing for environmental costs.

Nepra even does not examine the contents of generation licence while issuing approvals. Some interaction ought to be there between the two sets of agencies on such issues.

In Punjab cities like Sahiwal and congested and polluted cities like Karachi, Sox and NOx controls may be a must. How can one install large coal power plants (1,300MW) in these locations without such controls?

It is quite amazing that the EIA community (consultants and EPAs) manages to provide recommendations and conclusions convenient to the client. If the client does not like to install environmental control equipment like FGD and NOx controls, they prove with their complicated models that it is not required.

Jica and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have got EIAs done for their coal power plants in Jamshoro which require FGD and accordingly FGDs are being installed there. Responsible institutions like World Bank, ADB, IFC, etc therefore, mandate installation of environmental control equipment and do not approve of hiding behind loopholes.

These protections can, however, cost money both in terms of higher capital expenditure (Capex) and operational expenditure (Opex). But such cost is much lesser than the cost of bad health and worse environment, besides there are treaty obligations.

FGD used to be quite expensive when the market was smaller. FGD prices seem to have come down.

Alstom is installing FGD in India for 25 million euros for 500-600MW coal power plants. If we add $50-100 million in the 1,300MW coal power plant, it may not be a bad deal. After all, Nepra has approved a jetty capex of $300 million recently.

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A separate add-on component may have to be considered for SOX and NOx removal equipment, if and where it is installed. May be in Thar area, these may not be required.

We can learn from the bad experience of India. Environmental performance of the power plants, especially, of the coal power plants is very pitiable in India. Reportedly, more than 100,000 people die there due to particulate matter released by the coal power plants.

Chinese have all wherewithal to provide add-on environmental equipment. The traditional image of China insensitive to pollution should go away. Today in China, more stringent standards are being adopted than in the US and many deviant coal plants are being closed.

The new plants that are being installed are highly environmentally compliant and the cost is reasonable as well. If seriousness is shown by Pakistan, they would be able to implement those schemes here as well.

Tariff system

Clean electricity can be produced within existing tariff, if the tariff system is reformed reducing excessive payments such as 20% internal rate of return on Thar coal projects and 17% on imported coal and doing other refinements.

These excessive payments can be directed towards installing much-needed environmental equipment. As for reducing carbon footprint, high efficiency (45%) power plants enable one to do that and such enhancement pays for itself in the form of more energy production or lesser fuel consumption.

Fortunately, the Ministry of Water and Power has asked Nepra to reduce high returns which may create space for adding environmental cost in the tariff.

Concluding, the relevant agencies should get together under the leadership of the Ministry of Water and Power to remove the policy vacuum without waiting for public protest due to environmental deterioration.

Ali, Akhtar.  Clean energy can be produced even with coal. The Express Tribune, April 17, 2017.

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