Pakistan’s minister for water and power, Khwaja Asif, apologized to the nation this month, admitting the government’s failure to restore electricity and alleviate the misery of the people.
Pakistan has an installed electricity generation capacity of 22,797 megawatts (MW), but production stands at 12,000 MW. With temperatures soaring well above 40 degrees centigrade across the country, demand has swelled to 19,000 MW.
The minister said the decision to carry out planned power cuts was taken due to the problem of “circular debt” which has reached Rs 300 billion (US$ 3 billion). “Circular debt” is a cash-flow problem in the power sector caused by the non-payment of bills by the private and public consumers and delays in subsidies. As a result the power companies can’t pay the oil companies and the entire energy supply chain is affected. This has led to fuel shortages and power outages.
The government is now turning to the dirtiest of fossil fuels – coal – in its pursuit for low cost power generation, much to the consternation of environmentalists.
Prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s government has approved 10 coal-based power plants, with a total generating capacity of 12,000 MW in different provinces across the country (double the country’s total current energy production). A large number will be funded and operated by Chinese and other foreign companies. The government also has made preliminary plans for public oil plants to switch to using coal.
Pakistan’s electricity shortages have reached crisis point. Though 70% of households are connected to the national grid, few get uninterrupted power. Outages can go last from up to 10 hours in urban centers to 20 hours in rural areas.
Due to a chronic lack of planning, the energy sector has failed to meet growing demand. For years experts have said Pakistan’s lopsided energy mix needs to be revisited. 31% of Pakistan’s energy is generated by oil, 50% by gas and only 6.6% by coal, according to the 2012 Pakistan Energy Yearbook. In contrast, China and India respectively produce 63% and 47% of their electricity from coal. Reliance on oil and gas has led to high electricity prices for consumers. At the same time the country has been slow to harness hydropower, nuclear and renewable energy.
When the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) came into power in May 2013, its leader Nawaz Sharif promised to eliminate the scourge of power outages within two years. The party put the power crisis second after the economy on its list of priories.
Currently coal is imported from South Africa, Indonesia and Australia. But Pakistan has its own untapped reserves. The 200 billion tonnes of coal discovered in the Thar desert in Sindh province over twenty years ago, have so far remained unexploited. Experts argue it is better for Pakistan to exploit these deposits rather than import coal from overseas. “This coal is volatile and highly combustible and can be burnt at source which will be less polluting,” said Tahir Dhindsa, an energy expert with the Islamabad-based think tank the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI).
But energy expert, Arshad H. Abbasi, is not convinced. He believes the government is ignoring the huge impacts on climate change, environment and human health. A 2011 study by the Harvard Medical School Centre states that a typical coal-fired plant generates about 3.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. The study details all the adverse aspects of coal on human health and the environment from the time it is excavated to its transport and until it is burnt.
Abbasi proposes that hydropower could solve Pakistan’s energy woes: “Building dams, big or small have unnecessarily been politicized and for the most part, I blame the international anti-dam lobby for that,” he said.
“We have perennial rivers so why are we not going for that?” he asked.
Dhindsa also agrees hydropower is a better option. “It’s dirt cheap. The power from Mangla Dam costs no more than 0.0025 cents per unit and that from a thermal plant as much as 14 cents per Kwh. It only requires an initial investment, after that it’s free. And that water can be used for agriculture,” Dhindsa told thethirdpole.net.
Pakistan could generate more than 50,000 MW of electricity if it set up big and small hydropower projects but currently it is tapping less than 7,000 M.
“Mis-governance and corruption” are the two main reasons why coal takes precedence over hydropower, said Dhindsa.
“Hydro projects take a much longer time to take off and the elected government’s tenure lasts just four years; on the other hand, taking kickbacks from setting up coal power plants can begin in just six months.”
Learning from China and US
In 2012 coal consumption in South Asia was around 685 million tonnes, with 98% used in India, a large part of which is used for power generation.
Abbasi pointed out that coal-based power plants are the biggest polluters. “They cause trans-boundary fog in winter and change weather patterns, including monsoon rainfall etc.”
He said it has been proven that glacial melt was triggered by burning coal. At the same time, he said the fog witnessed in parts of Punjab on the Pakistan side, was the direct result of coal-generated power plants in India. He lamented that Pakistan refuses to learn any lessons from its neighbors.
China and the US burn as much coal as the rest of the world put together. They have agreed to share information on clean coal power generation technology.
China is persuading the US and other developed countries to set up financing mechanisms to help poorer nations cut emissions and adapt to climate change, but the US has been reluctant to make a commitment. The overarching goal of the next climate summit, the 21st Conference of the Parties on Climate Change, to be held in Paris in December 2015, is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius above current levels. China has also pledged to reduce its emissions per unit of GDP by 45% from 2005 levels by 2020.
With Pakistan going for coal in such a big way, will it be pressured to drop these projects?
Dhindsa does not think so as the big polluters piggy-backed their development on coal. “So they should not now raise eyebrows on Pakistan for doing the same,” he said. “In any case, what Pakistan would be emitting would be just a pinprick on the elephant’s back.” At the same time, said Dhindsa, Pakistan must opt for cleaner coal technology for a smaller carbon footprint.
“There are now technologies available that remove all the soot and the chimneys emit ‘white smoke’ corresponding to pollution free cloud-like gases so it is no longer considered dirty if proper technologies are applied,” said Pakistan’s former science and technology minister, professor Atta ur Rahman. He also emphasized that Pakistan must develop an indigenous capacity to plan, commission and install power plants.
But if coal has to be used, Abbasi said, plants must be made efficient. “Higher efficiency translates into less consumption of coal for generating a single unit of electricity, reducing carbon dioxide emissions, releasing less mercury etc., and thereby costing the consumers less.”
This article was first published in thethirdpole.net. Click here to go to the original.