Cleaning Beijing
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Dr. Farid A. Malik |

As smog enveloped the Chinese capital this weekend, state news agency Xinhua reported the closing of the last large coal-fired power plant in the city. Beijing has become the country’s first city to have all its power plants fuelled by natural gas. It is a part of the 2013 five-year clean air action plan. Huangneng plant is the fourth to be closed and replaced by gas thermal power centers.

The World Health Organization (WHO) limits of PM 2.5 (harmful particulate) levels of 25 micrograms per cubic meter in a 24 hour period were far exceeded (200 to 330 micrograms per cubic meter) causing serious environmental degradation. President Li repeated his pledge to target coal-burning. He said, “We may not be able to control the weather but we can adjust our behavior and our way of development. Blue skies should no longer be a luxury, nor will they be.”

While the oil fired IPPs were a PPP disaster, the coal-based plants may prove to be PML (N) debacle, like the Nandipur power project that has failed to meet its designed output.

China produces 65% of its power from burning coal. The USA is not too far behind. In China, the Shenhua Group Corporation Ltd. is the largest state utility that is responsible for power generation. It is an empire with headquarters in Beijing which I had the opportunity to visit in September 2013 for a briefing by its president Zhang Yuzhou. It is responsible for the entire process starting from mining, transportation, storage, logistics, power generation, and research and development. The group has its own railway network and shipping lines. Despite huge investments and extensive infrastructure, China is backing off from coal-burning.

Read more: Will CPEC force China to trust Pakistani Politicians?

India remains the only defiant country as far as coal combustion is concerned. All civilized nations have understood the environmental sensitivities of the 21st century. Most international funding bodies including the World Bank and IMF have not funded any coal combustion-based power project after the Kyoto Protocol and now, after the Paris Moot in 2015, it is curtain time for this outdated approach to power generation.

Where is Pakistan Headed?

Even at the current low rates of oil, the price of LNG is higher compared to local gas supply. When the price of oil goes up, this imported gas will be out of reach of the local industry.

China has started to export its outdated coal-based plants together with financing. Out of the ten national coal combustion plants, six have Chinese technology and CPEC funding. The two 660 MW power plants at Thar were able to obtain funding under the same approach. Mining has now started at Block-II by a joint venture called SECMC (Sind Engro Coal Mining Company). Perhaps the biggest disaster of all is the Sahiwal plant, which, in my opinion, will run only for three months on coal. Its logistics and environmental impact will prove to be unmanageable. Punjab Government will then be forced to convert the boiler to gas.

While the capital of China is moving away from coal, the heart of Pakistan is falling the very same pit. The approach is mind boggling. After running out of gas the country needs a 21st-century clean fuel, not the obsolete coal combustion plants from the People’s Republic.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its associated projects come both with opportunities and threats. The project loans have to be returned with interests, there are no free lunches. Ad hoc, short-sighted decisions are not in national interests. While the oil fired IPPs were a PPP disaster, the coal-based plants may prove to be PML (N) debacle, like the Nandipur power project that has failed to meet its designed output.

Read more: CPEC: Conspiracy Theories of Success & Failure

Not too far from Jamshoro at Lakhra, there is three a 50 MW coal-fired plants operated by WAPDA. Coal is mined and then sent to the plant where Chinese boilers, manufactured by Deng-Fong, are used to generate steam which then drives the power turbines. Due to a mismatch between the fuel and the plant, there are serious operational difficulties which have not been overcome despite several years of running. Our Chinese friends should be tasked to fix Lakhra Power Plants before embarking on new ventures.

Perhaps the biggest disaster of all is the Sahiwal plant, which, in my opinion, will run only for three months on coal. Its logistics and environmental impact will prove to be unmanageable.

Above-ground gasification is an established process to convert coal into a clean fuel. Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) is still an untested and not commercially viable technology which should not have been tried in a shallow, watery deposit like Thar. Now that digging has started in Block-II at Thar, all options should be considered including the production of Synthetic Natural Gas which can substitute the imported LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) from Qatar and is about 40% less expensive. Even at the current low rates of oil, the price of LNG is higher (Rs. 946/ mm-BTU) compared to local gas supply (Rs. 700/ mm-BTU). When the price of oil goes up, this imported gas will be out of reach of the local industry.

Will Pakistan Stay Silent?

In the 21st century environmental considerations have to be taken seriously which, unfortunately, the present government is not considering. Attending a clean energy conference in Istanbul in 2015, I ran into a ruling party MNA from Lahore. Over a cup of coffee I told him about the conference in which it was reported that with the current rate of global warming, half of the living species would perish by the end of the century. I requested him to lobby against the coal-fired plants but instead, he came out with a straight answer saying, ‘Why should we not’. Our common friend intervened, “they have their kickbacks worked out that is why they want to pursue these projects”.

Read more: Are Indian fears about CPEC related to Kashmir issue?

While the capital of China is moving away from coal, the heart of Pakistan is falling the very same pit. The approach is mind boggling.

It is time to revisit our coal strategy as we are moving in the wrong direction. While the world is moving against coal combustion, we are importing the same to burn it. Countries rich in coal are looking at producing Synthetic Natural Gas, while we have signed a binding contract with Qatar to buy 1.3 tons of LNG every year for a period of 20 years at a varying price of Brent.

Why no voices are being raised? Where are the opposition, courts, and intelligence agencies? What are they waiting for? How will this insanity be countered? The dossiers prepared on LNG kickbacks should be leaked like the disputed Dawn leaks.

Dr. Farid A. Malik is Ex-Chairman, Pakistan Science Foundation and is a prominent technical and management expert in mining, materials, engineering and high-tech industry; he is a regular columnist with The Nation and Pakistan Today. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.

Dr. Farid Malik is a prominent technical and management expert in mining, materials, engineering and high-tech industry; he is a regular columnist for The Nation and Pakistan Today. He is ex-Chairman, Pakistan Science Foundation.

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