Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Coal – the answer to Pakistan’s energy crisis?

Published Apr 13, 2012 11:44am


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

Untapped coal reserves may be the answer to Pakistan's energy crisis. Policemen guard a local electric supply company's office after it was hit by protesters in Lahore last month. – Photo by AP
Untapped coal reserves may be the answer to Pakistan's energy crisis. Policemen guard a local electric supply company's office after it was hit by protesters in Lahore last month. – Photo by AP

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan must turn to coal – both from its own large untapped reserves and from imports – to fuel power generation beyond the next decade if it is to ease the energy crisis which is capping economic growth, trade and industry sources said on Friday.

The sixth most heavily-populated country globally, with over 170 million people, it has been plagued for years by power cuts and, unless new sources of generation can be developed, will see power demand outstrip supply for years to come.

Yet it has one of the biggest, barely-touched, single coal reserves on the planet – the massive Thar coalfield in the northern Sindh province with 175 billion tonnes of extremely high water-content, low energy coal.

This kind of low-grade, watery coal is found in abundance in other countries, such as Indonesia, the world’s biggest exporter, but it has not been economic to exploit in the past.

But high oil and gas prices, rising coal prices and new technology to dry out watery, gaseous coal or leave it in the ground but extract the gas from it instead, has prompted projects around the world.

The Thar lure The Pakistan government this year declared the Thar coal fields as a Special Economic Zone, with tax breaks and incentives to lure investors to develop coal gasification and mining as part of its strategy to fill the energy gulf.

“In five years, coal’s contribution to the energy mix will reach 10 to 12 per cent. It’s minor at the moment,” said Najib Balagamwala, Chief Executive Officer of Karachi-based trader Seatrade.

“The private sector is considering coal-fired plants very seriously, as there’s margin there,” he added.

Pakistan’s power supply-demand gap.
Pakistan’s power supply-demand gap.

Pakistan’s energy mix has changed in recent years from mostly hydro to thermal, consisting of domestic gas and imported fuel oil, according to a report by the Asia Development Bank this month.

The supply-demand power gap at peak hours reached over 5,000 MW in financial year 2011, the ADB report said.

“The need for coal to fuel the rising demand for energy in Pakistan is well understood,” said Shahrukh Khan, Chief Executive Officer of Oracle Coalfields PLC, which is developing mines in Sindh.

Of the 10 coal blocks in Thar, four have been drilled and explored by Oracle, Cougar Energy, SECMC and another un-named gasification project company, according to the Government of Sindh website on Thar.

Two Chinese firms are also looking to build gasification and coal mining projects in Thar, industry sources said.

Oracle was granted a 30-year mining lease for 66 square kilomentres of Block VI of the Thar coalfield on Wednesday.

The high water content of Pakistan’s domestic coal makes it tricky to mine and transport long distances economically but mine-mouth power plants and coal gassification projects to capture and extract gas trapped in coal seams without mining it are much more viable, industry sources said.

Imports to rise

Pakistan has been a relatively small but steady importer of thermal coal for several years which, like India, shifted to South African and Indonesian material after China slashed exports in 2007, but imports will start rising next year, traders said.

A Pakistani buyer bought the country’s first cargo of high-sulphur US coal last week, a move which reflects growing import needs and the desire to diversify sourcing, they said .

Thermal coal imports are likely to increase by 1 million tonnes to 4.5 million tonnes in 2013 and 6-7 million by 2017, most of which will be consumed by the cement industry but a rising portion by independent power producers, Balagamwala said.

There are several large coal-fired power plants under construction and more being converted from fuel oil, such as Karachi Electric Supply Company’s (KESC) joint venture with Hong Kong-based Bright Eagle Enterprises (BEE).

“Conversion to coal is the only sustainable option,” a KESC official said on Thursday.

Imports of low-grade coal are likely to be part of the near-term solution with the development of Thar a longer-term prospect, one industry source said.

“Pakistan has a pressing need for energy and low grade coal will do in place of higher price furnace oil, but who may import this and at what price, also on what terms will be interesting to watch,” one industry source said.

Some converted plants are co-firing coal with biomass from rice husks or waste car tyres and blending imports with local coal but the need for more imports will remain as more independent power plants spring up and sugar, textile and steel mills switch to coal at their captive plants.

There are also a handful of private, coal power plants under construction which will increase the country’s need for imports and, once Karachi and Gwadar ports are expanded, larger vessels can be berthed which will make importing more economic.

“Gwadar port in Balochistan province is more suitable. Karachi port is also possible but it is fully used,” the industry source said.


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

Comments (20) Closed

samad Apr 16, 2012 01:31am
the issue with renewable technology is not about cost but storage. fossil fuel plants provide you energy whenever you want, renewables only provide energy when they can. this can only be bridge by having on grid electricity storage solutions. there is a really interesting development on this front using liquid metal batteries by a professor from MIT. they"re experimenting with using magnesium, salt and antimony for developing their liquid metal battery. i urge you to have a look on
himidik. Apr 13, 2012 05:54pm
this country must now request u.n. for help for now we developed habit of looking over the borders for somebody to give us 'loaf of bread' - pity isnt it.
Asim Apr 13, 2012 08:09pm
Most viable option to solve crisis right now is the gasification of coal at Thar, because the nature of the coal available atTthar render it somewhat less feasible to transport and produce energy by alternate method. cost assocaited with transportation make the enegy expensive. current energy crisis call for immediate and sustainable solution, in the face of increasing oil prices and depreciationg exchange rate gasification of domestic coal is better option.
cautious Apr 13, 2012 09:23pm
Thar Coal is probably the most misunderstood resource in Pakistan. While the deposit is large it's mediocre coal who's BTU content is too low to even pay for offsite transportation. It sits under a 100 meters of water which makes std mining impracticable requiring you to use coal gasification which still in the experimental stage. The author mentions various operators like Oracle who are drilling in the Thar Coal fields but that's misleading - these are shell companies who own leases, have no operations, and are themselves trying to hype the benefits of Thar Coal to get financing - with no takers.
IZHAR BUKHARI Apr 16, 2012 10:08am
A Single Thar Coal Reserve Of Sindh is about 850 Trillion Cubic Feet, Which is More Than Oil Reserves Of Saudia & Iran. These reserves estimated at 850 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of gas, about 30 times higher than Pakistan 's proven gas reserves of 28 TCF. Just 2% usage of Thar Coal Can Produce 20,000 Mega Watts of Electricity for next 40Years ,without any single Second of Load Shedding. and if the whole reserves are utilized, then it could easily be imagined how much energy could be generated.
Alchemist Apr 14, 2012 01:12am
Its a well known fact that todays energy crises stemm from the immature and shortsighted policies of Pakistan's energy sectors in the past when energy production was based on expensive imported furnace oil etc instead of indigineous cheaper sources of water,, coal and gas.In the present energy crises Coal may not be the only option to fullfill the huge deficit in energy production and consumption, however it will be the most positive and imediate step, any govet ever taken meet the energy challenges of today.In addition to coal , still eploration of more viable and cheaper options will remain the most earnest need of the time for Pakistan.
ali Apr 14, 2012 03:56am
Agree. Coal seems to be the only solution of our energy needs. Coal can be imported now and all the thermal power plants should be converted on coal until we are able to mine our Thar fields, maybe in next 50 years. The conversion process should not take more than a year. However care should be taken not to import high sulfur content coal as coal is very pollutant and high green house gases emittant. Actually most developed countries are trying not to use coal to generate energy and instead reverting to natural gas.
Sikander Apr 14, 2012 08:53am
Really not looking forward to the environmental disaster this will invite. Pakistan is a nation that has very little wiggle room in terms of environmental degradation. One river system, one irrigation system, with the population generally living and working along that one river system. Investments have to be made to make sure that the new plants are set-up for less emissions, along with investments in green technology for a sustainable and successful energy policy.
Cyrus Howell Apr 14, 2012 09:50am
Coal, solar power and LED home lighting would together be a solution. China's electric plants are coal fired. They were building two every week. Now, at least one per week during this economy. Home owners or villages in Pakistan with enough money to install solar power could sell adequate amounts of electricity to their neighbors or their community. Wind generators could also be used to sell electricity to neighboring villages in places where there is lots of wind. Solar, Wind or electric plants can power their own electrical grid locally and produce A-C current.
Cyrus Howell Apr 14, 2012 09:57am
"An avalanche that buried more than 120 soldiers in a Himalayan region close to India has put a spotlight on what critics say is one of world’s most pointless military deployments: two poverty-wracked nations engaged in a costly standoff over an uninhabitable patch of mountain and ice." Associated Press Well, how about a Wind Farm up there providing electricity instead of spending on the military? The army could protect the wind farm, and have electric heating and cooking and hot water.
Shurli Apr 14, 2012 12:17pm
Sorry to add, that neither did the writer, nor the editor, did proper job before, publishing this article which is a very good piece of literature and scientific knowledge written for the generation preceding my father. Now when we have the capability to harness sunlight, and the sunlight is abundant in Pakistan, why not go for the clean source, and phase out the pollutants, which can be used for many other beneficial things, which would be non polluting (less green house emissions). At the moment the commercially available solar cells are 5-6% efficient. CSIRO- Australia, and some European scientists, have increased the efficiency to 16%, although not available commercially at the moment. I know of another effort claiming to improve the efficiency at-least 45%, if not 80%, still in its infancy. Why not investigate these technologies.
Shawez Apr 14, 2012 08:17pm
Well firstly, there are some firms who have started producing and commercializing solar cells with upto 14% efficiency rates. However the problem with solar is still the massive investment needed to implement a solar-energy dependent economy. Coal is cheaper for the short run and good for developing countries because of the smaller investment amounts needed. Even IDCs like Sweden, Japan, US, UK, Canada are not implementing solar-energy in their energy mix because of its extremely high costs and low ROI. Until the prices go down significantly, or the efficiency increases to around 40%, the investment is not viable!
Chimpu Apr 14, 2012 09:04pm
Non conventional power from solar and wind has proven to be very expensive, hence coal is the way to go. Worldwide now, natural gas has also been hailed as the main fuel for next 50 years.
Irfan Baloch Apr 15, 2012 12:45am
The writer must write how many billions of gallons of water will b needed each day for such a project. Water is already in short supply in this region. In Sindh we might as well rename River Indus as the Dry Indus. We need energy desperately it should be our top priority. But do we need Coca Cola or Pepsi or other soft drinks. It takes more or less 6 liters of water to make one liter of these soft drinks. In Pakistan water for agriculture is in short supply people are deprived of clean drinking water. In many parts of Balichistan acquiring water for ones daily needs takes 4 to 6 hours each day on a motorbike. I say go for coal for our energy needs but shut these plants soft drink plants and use that water. People are forced to buy bottled water because tap water is not safe for consumption any more. It will be a matter of time when we have to go to oxygen bars to breath clean air and pay a hefty sum in the process. We have got to set our priorities straight and manage the affairs if the state better. But can we expect that from these leaders. The only thing they manage well is their bank accounts.
Meekal Ahmed Apr 15, 2012 02:24pm
thermal coal imorts? how are we going to finance this? we cannot go on importing. I realize this is a short-term solution. But we need something more concrete and lasting. To those above talking of other forms of energy, we should expoit all possible sources. I think one problem is that people are making a heck of a lot of money and want things to stay that way.
An Keqiang Apr 19, 2012 07:24pm
After 50 years, how will you do you have run out of your coal?
Hajra Apr 27, 2012 04:27am
CLEAN energy should be the focus on the minds of the policy makers for the upcoming generation and that wont happen till there is serious effort put in by the government, private sector, and the public pressure. ENOUGH with justifying coal and other dirty energy projects. Time to move towards something sustainable is NOW. As one the the comments above asks: What will happen after 50 years when there is no more coal? You cannot expect to meet the needs of a growing population through a resource which is ultimately finite in nature.
An Keqiang Apr 19, 2012 07:33pm
Try to develop alternative and clean energy is the only way to deal with the current energy crisis. The alternative and clean energy such as hydropower, wind power and solar energy can provide cheap electricity the nation needs badly and furthermore protect environment. To explore your Thar is the last choice. If the current energy policy is modified and understood by all Pakistani nationals, no-loadshedding days definitely will come.
Khurshid Rashid Apr 20, 2012 10:11pm
Clean coal thermal technology is the way to go for Pakistan; this would mitigate environmental problems rightly pointed out above. A combination of local & imported low sulfur coal feedstock may be the solution. Gasification projects are billion dollar projects for producing power; not economic unless they co-produce chemicals.Have produced several feasibility reports on this and found unfeasible. Probably, best option may be to produce methanol from coal and use a 10% methanol blend with local gasoline. This will alleviate the import of crude to some degree. This is a new out of the box solution. One last option is to produce synthetic natural gas from coal ( with a calorific vale of 950 BTU/IB) using gasification technology; economics may be tough as capital cost is very high; needs to be checked out.
Mubashir Jul 07, 2012 02:47pm
We are thankful to Allah who has given us the Thar coal treasure. I hope that the present sind government and federal government should give as many funds as possile for development of power so that we get energy with minimum cost and with least import bill for oil and gas. I appreciate present government for his good work by Qaim Ali Shah and coal board for trying their best to solve the energy crises and also get means of increasing funds for Sind ,I hope the Sind government to employ maximum efforts in this regard because Allah help those who help themselves