According to World Bank, 40% of the total electricity produced worldwide is from coal. Compared to this worldwide average, contribution from coal in Pakistan’s overall energy mix is only 7% and further only 0.1% is used in power generation. On the other hand China generates 79% of its power from coal while USA generates 45% and Germany 44%.
Pakistan with 185 Billion Tons of coal reserves is the 4th largest in the world and is definitely under-utilizing this huge resource. While Pakistan continues to rely on expensive imported oil for electricity production, indigenously available coal can provide a much cheaper alternative. According to a 2010 WAPDA report, Government intends to produce cheap electricity via coal and increase the percentage of coal based electricity to 18% by 2030.
Thar Coal which boasts of 175 billion tons coal reserve have a power generation potential of 100,000 MW consuming 536 million tons per year. These reserves are equal to 50 billion tons of oil which are more than the combined oil reserves of Saudi Arabia and Iran. The reserves translate to 2000 TCF of gas which is 42 times greater than total gas reserves discovered in Pakistan so far.
The coal in Thar though is of low grade and watery. Such kind of coal has not been considered economically viable to exploit in the past. The rising fuel prices in the international market and decreasing availability of gas have however, necessitated the need for coal power. Also with new technology watery coal can be dried out or be left underground and gasified directly. This has helped initialize various projects around the globe.
The Planning Commission is working on a similar project in Thar. The project aims to generate 100 MW power via underground coal gasification. According to Dr Samar Mubarakmand 50,000 MW electricity is already being produced around the world by the same technique. The Government of Sindh has assigned 6 Thar blocks to different companies for coal mining. Besides the 100 MW UCG (under-ground coal gasification), a 200MW Dadabhoy coal mining and power project in Jherruk, Sindh and 1,200MW Engro coal power project in Thar are also underway and are expected to be completed by December this year.
The government has, however, recently submitted a document to USAID citing lack of financing by the donors for the project in view of carbon emissions and environmental degradation. The inter-corporate circular debt is also proving to be a hurdle in the way of private sector investment in coal based power plants. Besides, there is a debate on the use of UCG technology as well since it is still in the research phase, with many experts skeptical about its success and viability. Also there is a need for effective transport mechanism of coal from these mines and transmission lines that can connect the generation plants to the national grid. All these issues need to be addressed by the government if it earnestly desires to switch to indigenously available coal based thermal power generation.
However, it must be noted that coal based power generation is not an urgent remedy, even if the UCG technology is discounted for the time being and imported coal is used for power generation. The existing thermal power generationplants using furnace oil would need to be modified to allow for coal based generation. These changes itself would take atleast 3-4 years.
Immad Alam is a Research Writer at Vision21