Cleaning Beijing and polluting Lahore


Now that’s a fine kettle of fish

As smog enveloped the Chinese capital last weekend, state news agency Xinhua reported the closing of the last large coal fired power plant in the city. Beijing has become the country’s first city to have all its power plants fuelled by natural gas. It is part of the 2013 five year clean air action plant. Huangneng plant is the fourth to be closed and replaced by gas thermal power centres. The World Health Organisation (WHO) limits of PM 2.5 (harmful particulate) levels of 25 micrograms per cubic metre in a 24 hour period were far exceeded (200 to 330 micrograms per cubic metre) causing serious environmental degradation. President Li repeated his pledge to target coal-burning. He said, “we may not be able to control the weather but we can adjust our behavior and our way of development. Blue skies should no longer be a luxury, nor will they be.”


China produces 65% of its power by burning coal. USA is not too far behind. In China the Shenhua Group Corporation Ltd is the largest state utility that is responsible for power generation. It is an empire with headquarters in Beijing which I had the opportunity to visit in September 2013 for a briefing by its president Zhang Yuzhou. It is responsible for the entire process starting from mining, transportation, storage, logistics, power generation and research and development. The group has its own railway network and shipping lines. Despite huge investments and extensive infra-structure, China is backing off from coal-burning


India remains the only defiant country as far as coal combustion is involved, all civilized nations have understood the environmental sensitivities of the 21st century. Most international funding bodies including the World Bank and IMF have not funded any coal combustion based power project after the Koyoto Protocol and now after the Paris Moot in 2015, it is curtain time for this outdated approach to power generation.


China has started to export its outdated coal based plants together with financing. Out of the ten national coal combustion plants, six have Chinese technology and CPEC funding. The two 660 MW power plants at Thar that were able to obtain funding under the same approach. Mining has now started at Block-II by a joint venture called SECMC (Sind Engro Coal Mining Company). Perhaps the biggest disaster of all is the Sahiwal plant, which according to my prediction will run only for three months on coal. Its logistics and environmental impact will prove to be un-manageable. Punjab Government will then be forced to convert the boiler to gas.


While the capital of China is moving away from coal, the heart of Pakistan is moving in this direction. The approach is mind boggling. After running out of gas the country needs a 21st century clean fuel not obsolete coal-combustion plants from the People’s Republic. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its associated projects come both with opportunities and threats. The project loans have to be returned with interests, there are no free lunches. Ad hoc, short sighted decisions are not in national interests. While the oil fired IPPs were a PPP disaster, the coal based plants may prove to be PML-N debacle like the Nandipur power project that has failed to meet its designed output.


Not too far from Jamshoro at Lakhra thee are three 50MW coal fired plants operated by WAPDA. Coal is mined and then sent to the plant where Chinese boilers manufactured by Deng Fong are used to generate steam which then drives the power turbines. Due to mismatch between the fuel and the plant there are serious operational difficulties which have not been overcome despite several years of running. Our Chinese friends should be tasked to fix Lakhra Power Plants before embarking on new ventures.


Above ground gasification is an established process to convert coal into a clean fuel. Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) is still an untested and not commercially viable technology which should not have been tried in a shallow, watery deposit like Thar. Now that digging has started in Block-II at Thar all options should be considered including the production of Synthetic Natural Gas which can substitute the imported LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) from Qatar and is about 40% less expensive. Even at the current low rates of oil the price of LNG is higher (Rs 946/mmbtu) compared to local gas supply (Rs 700 mmbtu). When the price of oil goes up this imported gas will be out of reach of the local industry.


In the 21st century environmental considerations have to be taken seriously which unfortunately the present government is not considering attending a clean energy conference in Istanbul in 2015 I ran into a ruling party MNA from Lahore. Over a cup of coffee I told him about the conference in which it was reported that with the current rote of global warming half of the living species would perish by the end of the century. I requested him to lobby against the coal fired plants but instead he came out with a straight answer saying ‘Why should we not’. Our common friend intervened, “they have their kick backs worked out that is why they want to pursue these projects”. It is time to revisit our coal strategy as we are moving in the wrong direction. While the world is moving against coal combustion we are importing the same to burn it. Countries rich in coal are looking at producing Synthetic Natural Gas while we have signed a binding contract with Qatar to buy 1.3 tons of LNG every year for a period of 20 years at a varying price of Brent. Why no voices are being raised? Where is the opposition, courts and intelligence agencies? What are they waiting for? How will this insanity be countered? The dossiers prepared on LNG kick backs should be leaked like the disputed Dawn leaks.


  1. How is synthetic natural gas (SNG) cleaner and more environment friendly than coal when it is produced from coal and the additional energy for this reaction will also come from burning some carbon based fuel. By some estimates producing electricity from synthetic gas would require burning twice as much coal.

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