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The dangers of Pakistan’s coal revival

Updated May 12, 2016 01:38pm


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Last December, delegates from over 150 countries gathered at the UN Climate Summit in Paris to conclude an agreement on climate with the goal of limiting the rise of global temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius.

However, while the rest of the world is clamping down on coal, Pakistan is attempting to revive its fledgling coal industry with five new power plants scheduled to start producing electricity by 2018 and many more in the pipeline. These coal power plants will spew billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over their lifetime, further jeopardising the future of our planet.

Carrying coal in Pakistan ─ Nadeem Khawer
Carrying coal in Pakistan ─ Nadeem Khawer

Pakistan’s energy crisis

For the past several years, Pakistan has been entrenched in an energy crisis. While electricity supply is a meagre 12,000MW, electricity demand is around 19,000MW resulting in acute power shortage in the country.

A recent World Bank report found that over a third of the nation lacks electricity access and extended hours of load shedding are the norm, even in areas connected to the grid.

The Economic Survey of Pakistan estimates that the energy shortfall has resulted in financial losses of between two to three per cent of the national Gross Domestic Product. The energy crisis also threatens national security. Protests over electricity cuts often turn violent, resulting in loss of life and infrastructure.

According to Khalid Mansoor, Chief Executive Officer of Hub Power Company, the problem lies in the country’s electricity generation fuel mix which is heavily tipped towards imported oil. Because coal is absent from the fuel mix, he says, the average cost of power generation is very high.

The coal conundrum

Pakistan has the world’s seventh largest reserves of lignite, yet less than 0.1pc of its energy is generated from coal. Since the World Bank and other multilateral financial institutions have turned their back on coal, China has become Pakistan’s partner of choice for investment, construction and operation of these new coal-fired power plants.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a bilateral deal between the two countries under which the Chinese government and banks will financially support Chinese companies to build USD 45.6 billion worth of energy and infrastructure projects in Pakistan over the next six years. The power plants will initially run on imported coal and will later transition to locally mined coal.

Read also: ‘New construction projects threat to city’s existing green spaces’

From a climate perspective, Pakistan’s coal revival presents a grim picture. In 2010, one of the deadliest floods in Pakistan’s history inundated over a fifth of the country, killing two thousand people and displacing several million from their homes. In the subsequent years, heavy monsoon rains once again battered several Pakistani villages and towns.

The intensifying monsoon-induced floods appear to be part of an emerging pattern of extreme and erratic precipitation in South Asia, which climate scientists are attributing to climate change.

Last June, a lethal heat wave claimed over a thousand lives in the city of Karachi. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that heat waves will become more frequent and more intense in parts of South Asia as a result of the changing climate.

Despite the fact that Pakistan has experienced the negative impacts of climate change in the recent past, a lack of awareness among citizens, misguided energy and environmental policy and a desperate need for energy make it likely that the coal projects will proceed as planned.

Moreover, in a country where almost half the population teeters on the brink of the poverty line, environmental concerns are placed rather low on the priority list.

Ghulam Rasool, a resident of Muzaffargarh who was displaced by the floods of 2010, sums up the country’s collective apathy to the climate change issue, “Whether we die of poverty [because of lack of energy] or are carried away by the floods [caused by a changing climate], it is the same to us.”

An alternative strategy

A multi-dimensional approach is required to tackle Pakistan’s energy crisis while being mindful of the disastrous impacts of fossil-fuel related greenhouse gas emissions.

Short-term measures could include upgrading aging power stations to become more energy-efficient, minimising transmission and distribution losses through smart metering and improved system monitoring, as well as introducing demand management initiatives such as peak pricing to curtail peak demand.

In the long-term, Pakistan should aim to transition away from imported fossil fuels and focus on developing indigenous resources to meet its growing energy needs.

Historically, large hydro projects have spawned civil society opposition and politicians are therefore leery of developing the country’s vast hydropower resources. But hydropower could provide the long-term solution to meet Pakistan’s energy needs sustainably.

Pakistan has an estimated 50,000MW of hydropower potential of which only 6,600MW has been tapped so far. Hydropower potential could be harnessed to provide base-load power and be supplemented with technologies such as wind and solar to cater to peak demand. Nepal, for example, has a number of small run-of-the-river hydro projects which power communities without placing undue stress on downstream ecosystems.

Read more: Exploiting Abasin Kohistan’s enormous hydropower potential

The off-grid population could also benefit from the opportunity to ‘leapfrog’ directly to renewables via distributed generation without having to wait for central grid extension.

Small-scale systems using localised fuel sources such as biomass and animal waste could be used to generate power. Solar cell technology could also be used to power microgrids in off-grid communities.

Not only would this be cheaper than extending the centralised grid to remote locations but transmission and distribution losses resulting from transporting power over long distances would also be reduced.

Read also: $3bn invested in renewable energy sector in one year: official

Across Asia and Africa, private entrepreneurs are using mobile phones to top-up credit at smart electricity metres located in poor and remote communities The metres cut off power when the credit runs out.

These pay-as-you-go systems enable the poorest communities to purchase electricity on an as-needed basis, and the certainty of payment encourages private investors.

Pakistan has already experienced the mobile revolution and facilities like mobile money transfers and phone banking are used by a significant portion of the population. These existing facilities could be extended to pay for distributed energy services across the country.

To stimulate private sector investment, the government should provide financial incentives and streamline the approval process to expedite project implementation.

Nation-wide government-led initiatives to convert gas water heaters and diesel water pumps to solar would also accelerate the uptake of renewable technology and contribute to savings in the energy bill.

The cost of renewable energy is declining worldwide and Pakistan must use this opportunity to develop its vast indigenous renewable energy resource base to power a green economy.

This article was originally published on The Third Pole and has been reproduced with permission.


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Comments (25) Closed

bkt Feb 27, 2016 12:44pm

And yet, all the leading economic powers of the world, including neighbouring India have sourced their industrial progress on coal powered plants. The issue here is that what have these powers - USA, UK, France, Italy, Russia, China, Japan, Germany done right or wrong? What can we learn from them? Pakistan has a resource that can give it a boost in its efforts to develop so why should we turn our back on this? Global warming has caused the floods yes, but our share in the warming is miniscule, so why should we punish ourselves? This needs real answers not emotional appeals.

QURESHI Feb 27, 2016 01:08pm

We shouldn't go back to coal based energy. Have you guys seen the smog blankets in China's major cities resulting from incessant burning of coal. China through its censorship doesn't let these facts out, but their internal measurements, and that done by US embassy in china show PM2.5 pollutants at alarming levels of 950+ ppm, which is 5X the WHO safe level. Residents of these major chinese cities see blue skies only 50-100 days a year. Rest of the year it's covered with smog clouds. People use air filtering masks to traverse through the cities. We don't wanna go down that path with China.

wellwisher Feb 27, 2016 02:18pm

hydro electricity and coal fired boilers should get top priority today. Leave environment to rich nations who have become rich by using these two. When solar and wind energy becomes usable by storage batteries, think of them.

wellwisher Feb 27, 2016 02:19pm

@QURESHI --automobile and high density hsg is cause of smog in China

Zak Feb 27, 2016 02:27pm

@bkt Yes , Let the world worry about Global warming , we should only worry about future of Pakistan.

NHA Feb 27, 2016 02:34pm

The US energy strategy is mainly based on coal, gas, nuclear and hydro sources for electricity production, and liquid hydrocarbons ( diesel, petrol etc) for the automobile sector. This is the norm for all including Pakistan.

Technologies are there to catch carbon from the power plants and sink it for long ter storage deep in earth and sea.

akram Feb 27, 2016 02:39pm

I like the idea of off grid small scale ventures as the author has suggested. Balochistan is our largest, but poorest and most dispersed population. It make no economic sense to attach far flung areas to the grid at vast expense only to loose large amounts of electricity in transit. A small scale local generation via whichever source makes perfect sense, it will also develop into local industry creating more jobs for locals.

Cyrus Feb 27, 2016 03:11pm

Totally Pakistan's decision.

M.Saeed Feb 27, 2016 03:37pm

We need to be realist in our aims and objects for perusing any meaningful development without submitting to any sentimentality. We need to realize and accept facts. We have only a 0.07% of the world coal reserves and that too of a very low grade. Even accepting it as a viable source of producing power, we need to realize our international responsibilities about the following decisions:

Safe' climate means 'no to coal' About three-quarters of the world's fossil fuel reserves must be left unused if society is to avoid dangerous climate change.

To do everything possible to meet the goal of keeping temperature rise below 2C. Scientists say that without major curbs on the use of fossil fuels, 2C will probably be reached by 2050. They add that, politicians should focus on limiting humanity's total output of CO2 rather than setting a "safe" level for annual emissions. The UN climate process focuses on stabilizing annual emissions at a level that would avoid major climate impacts.

atheist Feb 27, 2016 04:10pm

China want to shift their coal based plant that's why they are more interested in Pakistan coal plant, it's cheap investment more profit business income source so they are investing in it outside his country.

M. Siddique Feb 27, 2016 05:26pm

Build the gas pipeline up to Iran border and fill the need of natural gas. Rulers never had the backbone to stand up for national interest and gave into phony international pressure.

M. Siddique Feb 27, 2016 05:28pm

@wellwisher Very soon there won't be any water left. Snow on Himalayas are melting fast due to higher temperature. So Hydro power is not a perpetual source of energy. Turn to wind energy.

eddied Feb 27, 2016 06:58pm

I would recommend that anyone who thinks coal is good should visit Beijing... the pollution is so bad it becomes difficult to see planes on the runway from the airport terminal...

Mohammed Khanzada Feb 27, 2016 07:16pm

i prefer my dark house and loadshedding

Abdulkarim Feb 27, 2016 07:59pm

@M. Siddique Well according to scientests the rate at which the glaciers in the north are melting at an alarming rate.But that alarming rate is on the timeline of a glacier scale.It means that if in ordinary time a glacier melts in 10000 years,it will melt in 500 years.That said,we are safe till atleast 2350.

Abdulkarim Feb 27, 2016 08:05pm

@M.Saeed May I inform you that our population is 2.7% of the world population while our emmisions are only 0.5% of the global emmisions.It means even after converting our whole energy mixture to coal,our emissions will still be only 1/5 the global average.So much for our international obligations.

Hyder Feb 27, 2016 09:37pm

Will any expert give us the numbers for CO2 emissions if we were to produce 10,000 MW from coal and what will it be as a percentage of gasses emitted by India and China. For over 50 years Pakistan power generation was based on Hydel so it is our right to now use the fuel which we have available locally

Sanjeev Kumar Feb 27, 2016 11:57pm

Dear friends, try out solar power is much cheaper now. True for small or large scale and also for on or off grid. So just try it .

Zubair Feb 28, 2016 12:50am

Pakistan should say bye bye to coal and welcome the solar & renewable clean energy It is cheap ,environment friendly and compatible with world climate change. .

Yes Man Feb 28, 2016 02:51am

While it may be ok to use COAL for energy and power generation, special attention must be paid to health of coal miners and coal worker, to prevent lung disease. Question who would look after poor coal workers? Who would provide them with safety training, safety equipments including dusk masks to protect again fine coal dust particles? It is important that authorities be fully involved to protect coal worker.

Waqar Feb 28, 2016 02:02pm

Pakistan can't afford to ignore coal, Rich nations should cut their massive CO2 emissions. Pakistan has low Forrest density and balance CO2 emissions by increasing tree plantation and call it Green on Black Revolution.

Akram Khalid Feb 29, 2016 03:47pm

Pakistan does not even come in the list of top 20 countries contributing to Global Warming where 5 leading countries are USA, China, Russia, Brazil & India. Pakistan will still not be among top 20 even if we generated electricity from coal source. We have been refused the right of access to civil nuclear energy. While hydro power is a good alternate but our water channels are controlled by India and therefore not at all dependable. Pakistan should therefore go ahead with its plan to use coal for power generation and revive its economy.

aly alp-ercelan Feb 29, 2016 04:34pm

@Akram Khalid sadly two mega nuclear plants are under construction on karachi coast.

Abdulla Hussain Feb 29, 2016 08:55pm

Pakistan should go all out to benefit from the vast coal reserve it has. India has been using coal for hundreds of years. Pakistan has to think about its benefit first, coal will really help Pakistan of the power shortage.

Faisal A Malik Mar 01, 2016 10:01am

I also once championed using Coal as the means to address Pakistan's enerygy crisis but this was foolish on my part. Wtih climate changes effecting everyone of us with each passiny year, we should focus on only developing Hydro power to address both power and water shortages that the country faces.

Solar and wind are high cost alternates to hydro power and should be only used where no other means are available.