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Treading in dangerous waters

  • Published at 04:11 pm July 30th, 2017
Treading in dangerous waters
With the energy demand growing due to population explosions in South Asia, energy shortage is one of the biggest concerns our governments have to face. For Pakistan, overcoming the energy crisis is one of the biggest challenges which the present government aims to resolve in its tenure, even if it comes at huge environmental costs. Under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, investments have been made in several energy projects in Pakistan including wind, solar and coal projects. The biggest investments have been made in setting up coal based power plants in Sahiwal, Gwadar and Port Qasim.

From renewables to fossil: going in the wrong direction

The share of coal in Pakistan’s energy mix-up has been low up till now, as Pakistan relies more on thermal, natural gas and hydro to meet its energy needs. The country has recently taken initiatives to increase energy production using renewables. Being a major sugar producer, Pakistan has an annual capacity to produce 30-40 million tons of sugar. The sugarcane waste that the industry produces is known as Bagasse which has a potential to produce an estimated 2000 MW of energy. It can be produced at a very low cost, because there is no fuel required for transportation as the sugar mills can generate electricity using in-house Bagasse co-generation power plants. The “Framework for Power Co-generation through Bagasse”will allow sugar producers to supply surplus electricity to the national grid. It is one of the cleanest forms of energy generation for Pakistan. Meanwhile, many rural homes in the country have electricity thanks to initiatives taken to provide low cost solar energy in rural Pakistan. Now with the coal power plants backed by Chinese investments, Pakistan is treading in dangerous waters. The Sahiwal power plant will require 4.48 million tons of sub-bituminous coal per annum, which is imported from Indonesia. Similarly, the Port Qasim Power project would require an estimated 4.66 million tons of coal per annum, also imported from Indonesia and South Africa. The imported coal is considered to be a cleaner form of coal compared to local coal, which holds a high amount of sulfur. So Pakistan has little choice other than taking up higher import costs in order to incur less environmental costs. Even if the plants are based on clean coal technology the amount of emissions can only be decreased, but is not a long term solution in reducing emissions, the way renewables can.

It is possible to invest in renewable energy instead

Unfortunately Bangladesh seems to be suffering from the same illusion as Pakistan. As environmental activists in Bangladesh protest against the Rampal coal power plant, the government assures its citizens that the plant uses clean coal technology which will curb the emissions. However, estimates by Greenpeace suggest a totally different picture, claiming that the plant would be the biggest source of air pollution in the country. Moreover, the plant is being constructed on the world’s largest mangrove forest, declared as a UN World heritage site. However supporters of the plant claim that this is just a controversy created by the activists, justifying the land’s proximity to River Poshur as an ideal location for the plant. But considering the huge risks of coal spills in the area which could contaminate the water and threaten the existence of endangered species, the concerns of the activists seem valid. Bangladesh too would be importing coal from either Australia or India, either way, increasing its costs. Pakistan and Bangladesh are amongst the countries most vulnerable to climate change, largely in part due to emissions generated by large industrialised countries. Isn’t it better, if instead of incurring huge costs setting up coal power plants, they divert the money into renewable energy? An interesting survey conducted in northern Pakistan showed 81 percent of respondents showing high interest in solar home systems. However, a significant majority (around 60 percent) also expected the government to provide incentives for them to use the system. If more incentives are provided to the sector, the prices of renewables would come down in developing countries and be market competitive, and more consumers would opt for renewables. But the first step is for us to realise that clean coal is not a viable long-term solution. There are very few success stories when it comes to clean coal technology, and those too after huge costs were incurred in setting up the infrastructure in richer countries. However, a trip to the remote areas of Pakistan will reveal the changes that clean and affordable solar energy has been able to make in people’s lives. These stories are the real success stories, often pushed to the sidelines, maybe because they aren’t as exciting, but these are the stories we need to talk about.