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On one hand, Pakistan has enormous hydro, coal, solar, wind and natural gas potential, while on the other, the country faces a never-ending power crisis. The Thar coal reserves, which according to some estimates amount to 175 billion tonnes, are one of the world’s largest lignite coal deposits. Lignite coal, despite being low-quality coal, still accounts for a significant portion of global power production. For example, more than 50 percent electricity in Greece, around 25 percent electricity in Germany and 20 percent electricity in Australia is produced through lignite coal. The significance of lignite coal in the world power production proves that direct burning of lignite in power plants is quite feasible, something that Pakistan needs to look into with careful deliberations.

The other obvious choice is using lignite reserves via gasification. This can be done either underground or in gasifier refineries after mining. The gas obtained after gasification can be used to generate electricity. Conversion of this gas into other fuels and chemicals are also economically viable options.

Although there are numerous pathways to the utilisation of lignite coal, it is unfortunate to see none of these being utilised in Pakistan. This state of affairs has been existing since the discovery of the reserves more than twenty years ago. What are the contributing factors? Well, first is the rather obvious: the bureaucratic establishment’s lethargy coupled with the political leadership’s callous attitude that coexist with strong lobbies supporting oil and coal imports. And second is the lack of sufficiently available qualified and trained specialists.

This paucity of experts has been and would continue to be a major impediment in the adequate utilisation of Thar coal reserves. The development of an adequate pool of experts and scientists is one of the core issues that needs to be addressed in order to expedite the utilisation of Thar coal reserves. Human resource needs to be developed on a war footing. Additionally, experts need to be recruited in all areas related to the effective utilisation of Thar coal reserves.

Allocating the entire human resource development to one technology or output is also not a healthy choice. A team of experts is needed to ascertain the best options for the reserves and then identify a couple of them as the top priority. Underground coal gasification (UCG), coal gasification and coal mining for power generation seem to be the obvious top choices.

Once the core areas are identified, the immediate step should obviously be creating a pool of Ph.D. and Post-Doctorates in these areas. The fastest way to achieve this would be through sponsored studies, both in national universities and abroad. These scholars would then become the forerunners in setting up the industry based on Thar coal. This is to be followed by establishing a centre of excellence in coal utilisation. A top ranking university would be the ideal place for the said purpose. In addition, new subjects dealing with this area need to be introduced in some of the national universities. Similarly, this should be linked with a simultaneous introduction of the subjects in polytechnic institutes as well as vocational training institutes to develop a commensurate technologist and skilled workforce. As the Post-Doctorates would be able to return back within a year, their research and expertise would be ideally utilised in the centre of excellence and university courses.

Other than obtaining the required educational and research background, the team members selected for work on the Thar coal reserves would need relevant training and practical exposure. This requires site visits and on-site training. For example, for UCG the team members would need to visit to the world’s only operational industrial UCG facility at Angren (Uzbekistan). Partnering with international players in the area of UCG is another option. Similarly, the team of experts working towards direct coal burning would need to visit Germany, Greece and Australia, which produce a major portion of their national energy mix through lignite coal. For coal gasification in gasifier refineries, visits to South Africa would be needed, as the country is the world leader in coal gasification.

The other aspect needing urgent attention is the creation of a team of experts that looks at the national interest for utilising Thar coal reserves. At this point, the experts being trained using national resources would need to go beyond their call of duty and help establish a society based on Thar coal reserves. The society’s main aim would be to further the interests of the Thar coal in favour of the national interest. The society would need to regularly arrange an annual conference that further promotes the utilisation of Thar coal reserves in an optimal manner and for the country’s better interest.

A website needs to be created, which should be solely dedicated to the Thar coal project. It should have all the details, studies and project team members’ data. This would have a multitude of benefits. Firstly, it would ensure transparency and freedom of information. Secondly, it would help in creating public awareness, increasing public interest and public support. Lastly, it would encourage coal-related research in the country. The proposed society would be ideally suited for the task.

While working towards the creation of experts and skilled workforce, the policymakers also need to take into account the related industries that would mushroom because of the Thar coal deposits, such as new power plants. Thus, it would be important to also take into account those mushrooming industries and factor in their demand, both in terms of human and financial resources. This would then help in the development of an ideal human capital to help maximise the benefits of Thar’s vast coal deposits.

Pakistan is in a dire need to free itself from the clutches of the power crisis. Thar coal deposits present themselves as one of the best approaches for this. But, for the last twenty years no progress has been made to this end. This can be partly blamed on the scarcity of national experts in this area. Thus, it is proposed that the policymakers work towards developing team experts on a priority basis. Only then can we truly hope to live the dream of utilising Thar coal deposits for stepping out of the darkness of power outages.

The writer is a Ph.D. candidate. ghayur.adeel@gmail.com

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