Thar coal – Pakistans hope for energy self-sufficiency
By Amjad Agha
RECENTLY IT has been reported that the Planning Commission has decided to stop further financing of Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) Project at Thar, since no encouraging results are forthcoming. This project is the brainchild of Dr Samar Mubarakmand, who has been working on it for the last couple of years. This news has been given lot of coverage by the media, and a wrong impression is being created as if the Planning Commission has rejected the Thar coal. It is surprising that so far the Planning Commission has not clarified their position. Obviously the objection pertains to underground gasification of the Thar coal and not the mining of the huge deposit of coal.
Thar coal deposits are the largest resource discovered in the country, which can provide the much-needed solution for generating a large amount of electricity for many many years at an affordable price. The estimates indicate that 135 to 175 billion tons of lignite coal can be obtained from the deposit, which can produce thousands of megawatts of electricity for decades. Thar coal can be obtained by open cast mining similar to the method being used all over the world. The UCG is a method of converting unworked coal – coal still in the ground – into a combustible gas, which can be used for power generation. The UCG is at present not extensively used commercially, but research is going on to make it commercially attractive. However, the open pit mining of coal is the normal method being used, and most of the coal is being obtained in this manner. The UCG method is still in the research stage and if found suitable for Thar coal, it will be useful and economical. Therefore, Dr Mubarakmands project may be curtailed but should not be stopped until it reaches final outcome.
The open cast mining of Thar coal is the project, which the nation has been keenly awaiting, but for some unknown reasons the work on it has still not started. Couple of months ago an article Thar Coal and Energy Security by Muhammad Younus Dagha was printed in a local English newspaper. Dagha is the secretary coal and energy Sindh. In the article, he had stated that final arrangements have been completed by Global Mining Company of China for Block-1 and another by Sindh Engro Coal Mining for Block-II. The mining on these projects shall reportedly start by June. Are these dates still valid? The public is desperately waiting for any good news about electricity. The Planning Commission should immediately clarify its statement on Thar coal and inform the public about the real status on start of mining.
In my recent paper Electricity Crisis and Circular Debt, it was explained that the real cause of the electricity crisis in the country is the faulty fuel mix as we are using the highly expensive furnace oil as the main fuel for generating electricity. The fuel cost to generate one Kwh (unit) of electricity through furnace is about Rs 17-18. This does not include the fixed charges for the plant, transmission and distribution costs and losses etc. Since the government cannot afford to buy the oil at this high price, therefore, several thermal power plants are shut down or producing power much below their capacity. A news item indicated recently that monthly requirement of furnace oil for power plants is 32,000 tons but only 10,000 tons of oil is being imported. Obviously, the generation is accordingly low. The natural gas is another fuel which is being used but is in short supply and very little is available for generation of electricity.
The country needs $5 billion for the import of oil, only one-third of the amount will be required if the fuel mix is changed from oil. Globally about 21,000Twh of electricity is consumed per year, 41 per cent of this electricity is generated through coal. China generates 78 per cent of its electricity through coal, India 68 per cent, USA 48 per cent but Pakistan only 0.1 per cent. The world does not use oil for electricity, as less than five per cent of the world electricity is generated through oil, but Pakistan is using oil for 40 per cent of its electricity, which obviously it cannot afford.
Its time that we wake up to these realities, and concentrate on mining Thar coal and start generating electricity through this indigenous resource. Obtaining natural gas through fracturing of underground shale rocks is big news these days. The US is leading in this technology, and China is following very fast. Does Pakistan have any plans for expanding our natural gas production; again no information is passed on to the public.
The writer is President of the Associated Consulting Engineers, former Managing Director NESPAK, and former Chief Executive Pakistan Hydro Consultants for the Ghazi Barotha Hydropower Project.