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Rescuing Thar coal

Even as Pakistan’s energy woes worsened – causing industries to shutdown, piling miseries upon people – the cheap and abundant solution to its energy problems languished and seemed lost in the wilderness. Many years and billions of rupees down the road, neither has a single ton of coal been mined from the much talked about Thar coalfields nor a single bulb been powered from one of the largest energy sources in the world.

Why such a state of affairs has persisted for so many years has puzzled everybody with no satisfactory explanation coming forth. A simple power-generation project, using time-tested technology, saw its technical and financial end within 18 months of its marketing in 1996. For the last ten years, however, coal-based power generation from Thar coalfields has been marred by confusion and conflicting interests making its ultimate takeoff even more difficult than before.

Before more problems emerge, the Thar coalfields need to be rescued from inertia and measures taken so that affordable and abundant power can be produced for the energy-starved Pakistan.

The country has been suffering from power outages for many years but a crisis-like situation has persisted during the last five. Endless loadshedding has disrupted the lives of millions of people, strangulating the economy, forcing the rupee to lose 40 percent value in five years as our reliance on back-breaking foreign energy sources increased.

The worst energy crisis witnessed during the last five years not only inflicted immense suffering upon the people and the economy, but it also played an important role in bringing down the government and practically wiping out the largest political party from most of the country. The former government paid this price, even though the solution to the problem was staring them right in the face, in the shape of the Thar coalfields from which cheap and abundant power could have started coming on stream within three years!

It is a sad state of affairs especially for a leadership whose own leader Benazir Bhutto, laid the foundation stone of the Thar coal power project at Keti Bandar in 1996 and whose details and documentation were also available for a quick update to deliver on that promise.

Nevertheless, the permanent solution to our national energy crisis lies nowhere else but in Thar coal. One example may suffice to illustrate this. If Pakistan produces 100,000 MWs of power from Thar coal and keeps producing this amount for the next 100 years, it would have consumed only one-fourth of the coal reserves at Thar! Compare that with our total installed capacity today – from all sources of power generation of less than 20,000 MWs.

Three things are essential if Thar coal is to deliver its potential. First, let us not reinvent the wheel. Coal-based power generation is simple, time-tested, labour intensive and intermediate technology used all over the world for over 150 years (now with reduced carbon emissions). There is no need to keep experimenting with fancy ideas and no need to move away from direct conversion of coal into electricity.

Second, we should design and market the Thar coal power project worldwide, for direct investment by genuine and reputed private power producers and not be taken in by fly-by-night operators. Our mountain of public debt should put an end to any wishful thinking of spending more public funds on this account.

Third, like too many cooks spoiling the broth, the Thar coal power generation has suffered from pulling and pushing by several clueless cooks who have gatecrashed the kitchen to look after their own interests. A lot of time and resources have gone into secondary and tertiary works, while the core issue of mining coal and generating power from it has been pushed to the back-burner.

If such a course of events is followed, the first 1000 MWs of coal-based power would come on stream within three years of signing. Thereafter, another 1000-1500 MWs would continue to be added every 18 months to balance the demand and supply position and then go on to meet any rising demand for as long as the nation needs.

For immediate relief from massive loadshedding, it is good to pay-off the backlog of circular debt to get the wheels moving again. Simultaneously, tough reforms are needed to cut down massive power thefts continued under various euphemistic labels to reduce the gap between installed capacity and what is delivered to the consumers.

But the circular debt is merely a symptom – one of the several – not the cause of persistent power outages which lies deeply embedded in our unaffordable energy paradigm. Because of an irrational energy mix, the electricity rates in our country are already among the highest charged anywhere in the world. And matter of circular debt will keep coming up until the energy mix in the country is rationalised by letting coal contribute to more than 50 percent of power generation – like many other countries – to provide affordable energy to the people of a low income country like Pakistan.

Unexplained delays and failure to generate power from the Thar coalfields for several years have raised concerns in the minds of some people, who have often questioned why power generation from these reserves is not coming on stream even when the nation has been passing through its worst energy crisis for several years.

Various excuses have been given to cover up the real causes of failure that need to be put in proper perspective:

• Thar coal reserves are not large enough to build high hopes on it.

Wrong. The GSP report – with technical assistance from the US Geological Survey – of 175 billion tons is more credible than any individual guesstimates.

• Thar coal has higher sulphur content, therefore, it is not fit for power generation.

Wrong again. Several countries – including China, India and even the US have been using coal with much higher sulphur content for power generation for decades.

• Thar coal has high water content, which makes it unfit for power generation.

Wrong. The 40 percent water content in Thar coal is, in fact, a blessing in disguise for the people living in the Thar Desert. I have visited several power plants run on coal in other countries, where the water content in the coal is extracted, filtered and used for human consumption and agricultural purposes.

All of which further highlight the national urgency of generating coal-based power. There is nothing wrong with Thar coal and it can generate cheap, abundant and affordable power for Pakistan for the next 400 years. All it needs is a rescue in the shape of an independent Thar coal energy board to start delivering on its great potential for Pakistan.

The writer, as head of BOI, helped develop the 5200MW Thar coal private investment power project at Keti Bandar.Email: smshah@alum.mit.edu

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