Powerful smog

Rooting for coal-fired plants is going to hit the people’s pocketbook and the lungs big time – simultaneously

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Earlier this month the PM2.5 levels in Lahore went beyond 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter, which is 30 times more than the safe limit. PM2.5 are the atmospheric particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers and used to measure the air quality of a given area.

Since smog dominated many areas of Punjab, Lahore’s Air Quality Index plummeted below that of New Delhi. It is said, breathing in New Delhi air over the past few weeks is akin to smoking 50 cigarettes a day – one can only imagine the number of cigarettes everyone based in Lahore had been smoking till Tuesday’s rain gave everyone respite.

The carbon dioxide emission in Pakistan was 140 metric tons of CO2 (MTCO2) equivalent. It reached 347 MTCO2 in 2011 and 405 MTCO2 in 2015. It is projected to go beyond 550 MTCO2 within the next 24 months. At the same rate it could touch 4,621 MTCO2 by 2050 – a 10-time hike in the ‘number of cigarettes’ then.

However, almost simultaneously, the twin cooling towers of the 1,320 megawatt Sahiwal power plant have come into the smoglight.

Until recently, coal only had a 1% share in power generation in the country at a time when it was over two-thirds in India and China. And it seems that to make up for lost time Pakistan is going back in time.

More than half of China’s $62 billion CPEC investment is in energy projects, which includes coal-fired. Over the next decade and a half, $15 billion is supposed to go into building a dozen coal plants in Pakistan.

This means that by election time next year, the Sino-Pak energy collaboration – spearheaded by the Sahiwal power plant – could add another 6,000 megawatts to the national grid.

With an average energy demand of 19,000 MW, against 15,000 MW generation – meaning a shortfall of 4,000 MW – this figure obviously is massive.

While the demand touches 20,000 MW in summer it could touch 50,000 MW by 2025, as the population – only two-thirds of which have access to electricity as things stand – increases with time.

 When the world is shunning coal…

Hence, the Water and Power Ministry has reiterated that at least 12 coal power projects have been planned for the next 15 years, which means that around 75% of Pakistan’s planned power hike will come from its coal reserves, of which it has 175 billion metric tons.

Last month, Hubco Coal Power Plant signed a $1.5 billion loan contract with a consortium led by the China Development Bank. The construction of the project, that has a 1.32-gigawatt capacity divided between two coal-based power plants, has begun in March.

Similarly, half of the work on Thar Coal Block-II project has been completed and it is expected to start functioning by August 2019. Thar Coal Block-II too will have a capacity of 1.32 gigawatts but will be divided into four mine-mouth power plants of 330 megawatts each, mining 7.6 million tonnes of coal per year.

Pakistan currently produces 3.5 million tonnes of coal, importing another 4.5 million tonnes. 61,444 metric tonnes of these come from China, wherein 2015-16, bituminous coal – which exacerbates pollution – replacing non-agglomerated coal.

And so while the rest of the world is either shunning coal or at the very least incorporating latest technology to curtail pollution, Pakistan in the year 2017 is mulling to counter its energy crises through bituminous.

 The least the powers-that-be can do

While Pakistan’s renewable potential has been discussed in this space, upping the ante on coal has more than ‘just’ environmental ramifications. The dependence on coal, which produces power at a higher cost has meant that average tariff for the industry is $0.13 per kilowatt-hour, a cent higher than India and four more than Bangladesh.

Furthermore, with the multi-pronged crises in the Middle East set to push oil price further upwards, the tariff would further increase in synchrony.

If Pakistan can’t afford to say no to coal – which it can’t – it can at the very least incorporate the environmental checks that are now commonly practiced around the world. Furthermore, there should be a focus on local coal – the cost for power generation from Sahiwal power plant, for instance, is spiked by the coal that has to be transported from hundreds of kilometers away. In this regard, the 7.6 million tonnes being dug every year for Thar Coal Block-II, would make it more feasible.

If Pakistan has to pay a cost in the shape of smog for our coal ventures, the least that the powers-that-be can do is make it affordable – both in terms of money and health.

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