A study released at the end of last week, as The Manila Times reported on Thursday, drew the surprising conclusion that shifting to “clean coal” for electricity generation will allow the region (Southeast Asia plus China) to economically meet growing energy demand while minimizing the adverse climate impact.
The study was carried out by the World Coal Association (WCA), with the cooperation of the Asean Center for Energy (ACE).
It was essentially an extended cost-benefit analysis of different scenarios, which assumed that the proportion of coal in the region’s energy mix would stay the same as it is now, or continue to expand. Between 2010 and 2014, coal expanded from 27 percent to the current 34 percent of the energy mix, while gas-fired power generation declined about 5 percent.
The study did not consider other sources of power, but rather analyzed the likely results of shifting from conventional, subcritical coal plants to more advanced supercritical or ultra-supercritical plants. “Critical” in those terms refers to the pressure generated inside the boiler to make steam, which is used to spin the generators that actually create electricity; the critical pressure is 3,200 pounds per square inch. Boilers that are hotter and have pressures higher than that are more powerful, and produce more electricity from the same amount of fuel.
In addition, because the boiler must be heated to a much hotter temperature, the coal used as fuel is ground into a fine powder and sprayed into the combustion chamber almost like a liquid. Thus, it is more completely combusted, and produces less waste – ash, gaseous emissions – than coal burned in a conventional generating plant.
As Greenpeace Philippines pointed out, however, coal is still coal, and in its “cleanest,” ultra-supercritical form, is still surpassed by newer gas technology in terms of environmental impact; this assertion is backed up not only by studies Greenpeace International has done with various universities, but third-party studies as well. A study at the end of last year by the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies at Oxford University found that, at current commodity prices, generation costs for supercritical coal and combined-cycle gas plants are about the same, while the capital cost per kilowatt-hour and CO2 emissions from gas plants are about half that of supercritical coal.
And coal already takes a toll on human life in the region. According to a study conducted by researchers from Harvard University, the University of Colorado and Greenpeace International, and published just this past January, nearly 20,000 excess deaths that are attributable to coal emissions occur in Southeast Asia and China each year. The study concluded that if coal power expands according to present plans – which are almost completely based on supercritical or ultra-supercritical technology – those deaths would increase to more than 69,000 per year by 2030.
Greenpeace Philippines offered the opinion that the WCA’s push for coal in Southeast Asia is probably driven by its need to find wider markets in the face of a retreat from coal power in the US and Europe. To be fair to the WCA, it did point out that its solution was a sort of happy medium, or lowest common denominator among the factors that regional nations have to consider – cost, availability of resources, and environmental impact. On the other hand, other forms of power were not mentioned at all. A report stressing the advantages of coal from a global coal industry group will naturally inspire questions of credibility; focusing solely on coal without building an argument about why it is a better option than other non-coal alternatives does not at all answer those questions.
For the Philippines in particular, putting effort into coal power to meet growing energy needs would be a huge step backward economically and in terms of environmental management. Energy policymakers here have touted coal as the easiest and most reliable solution to meet demand, painting the country’s electricity needs as too critical to consider solutions that might take longer. The implication of the position – which is only going to be reinforced by the WCA study, since that has the endorsement of an Asean-linked agency – is “energy now, worry about the environmental impact later.”
What is wrong about that is that the country is not obliged to take that approach, being rich in alternative resources, especially those that can provide baseload power, such as geothermal and tide power. Solar and wind power, although not as consistent as other sources of energy, are already making a significant contribution, and other options such as biomass generation are increasingly being explored.
Coal probably still has a place in the energy mix, and if nothing else, it is a somewhat better option than some of the truly inefficient and polluting systems like oil-fired power that are still being used in some parts of the country. But coal power is rapidly becoming outdated, and should only be considered if no other alternatives are feasible.