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C-S-karim-Bangladesh is now staring at a situation when misleading perception of the past decades on abundance of natural gas reserves has suddenly disappeared. Even in a short term perspective, it is unlikely that the country can come out of the quandary of enormous and complex proportions. The situation is further compounded by the fact that electricity related undertakings entail large investment, a long gestation period and an ensured supply of fuel for 30+ years of life of a plant. Our hopes are limited by our capacity to resolve these issues on a fast track, and a bleak future is a more realistic scenario. We have to have patience and learn to make sacrifices for some more years to come even if we resolve to learn and apply the tricks of comprehensive and programme based planning. In this backdrop, the importance of a proper generation-mix assumes overwhelming importance. The imaginary perception of reserves of indigenous primary energy resources has to be replaced by evolution of a realistic fuel-mix that can help develop the energy sector in keeping with the goals of socio-economic advancement. The alternatives include oil, coal and nuclear—each having a separate set of relative advantages and disadvantages.

Discussions are now focused on coal as one of the options. It now accounts for about 41% of global electricity. In some countries, coal fuels a higher percentage of electricity. For example, its share in total generation is 94% in South Africa, 76% in Australia, 68% in India, 93% in Poland, 49% in USA, 81% in China.  Even a cursory analysis would show that these countries depend on indigenous reserves and thus take into account the question of sustainable energy security. In Bangladesh, the total deposit is not so significant that we can attain that level of security of supply. Naturally, the government is contemplating importing coal to fuel some future power plants. The combined capacity of such plants is reported to be 2000-3000 MW, according to various open sources of information. It is encouraging to see that the decision makers are looking beyond a contingency plan of energy supply.

Before jumping into the environmental dimensions or the economics of this solution, it is worthwhile to look at the other important issues like logistics of transportation and handling of imported coal. A 300-MW coal-fired plant, operating at a plant factor of 75%, would require about 900,000 tons of coal annually, which is equivalent to a daily average uninterrupted supply of about 2,500 tons. Do we have such a capacity in place? If not, then do we have a plan in place as an integral part of the solution?

In the past, when the requirements were much lower than what we plan for coal as fuel for thousands of megawatts of coal fired plants, ocean going vessels used to berth at River Mooring at Chittagong Port. It had a daily handling capacity of about 2000 MT. The alternative to this is to discharge from a larger mother vessel at the outer anchorage to lighter vessels of capacity to carry 1500 -2000 tons each. There used to be a dumping lot for coal near the Marine Academy Jetty, which had a holding capacity of about 30000 MT, which can possibly still be restored as the coal dumping yard. Even this storage capacity can cater for five days’ supply to a 300 MW power plant. Another alternative is to use conveyor belts for discharge of coal. In that event every lighterage vessel has to have its own conveyor system to unload. By doing so, the unloading capacity could be increased to 6000 MT for the River Mooring of Chittagong. Thus, it may be possible to have a maximum of 600 MW of coal-fired plants with coal imported through the Chittagong port. Another limitation is that due to draft restrictions, ships carrying a maximum of 25000 MT of coal can be berthed depending on the tide. Turn around time for such a vessel would be 4-5 days. In case of Mongla, the draft restriction will allow vessels with a maximum capacity of 10-12,000 MT, meaning that each ship could carry 4-5 days’ requirements of fuel for a 300 MW plant. One could imagine the stresses on the channels by movement of coal cargo. Moving coal upcountry from the port area is almost impossible, especially during the lean months. Thus, such plants have to be built close to the Chittagong port. This proposition, if implemented, would have little impact to supply of electricity to the energy-starved western zone of the country, where per capita availability of electricity is half of what is supplied in the east zone.

The problems can be resolved subject to limitations, like handling and transportation of imported coal. Even, then the maximum capacity of generation with imported coal cannot possibly exceed 500-600 MW. And even for achieving this, a careful planning of handling has to be made and infrastructure for this developed.

Burning coal produces about 9 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year which is released to the atmosphere, about 70% of this being from power generation. Other estimates put carbon dioxide emissions from power generation at one third of the world total of over 25 billion tons. Development of new “clean coal” technologies is addressing this problem. The ultimate aim is to achieve “zero emissions”. Burning coal gives rise to a variety of wastes which must be controlled. So-called “clean coal” technologies aim at resolving environmental concerns, including that of global warming due to carbon dioxide releases to the atmosphere. This includes, among others, coal cleaning by ‘washing’ which reduces emissions of ash and sulfur dioxide when the coal is burned, electrostatic precipitators and fabric filters for removing fly ash from the flue gases, flue gas desulphurization (FGD) for reducing emission of sulfur dioxide, use Low-NOx burners to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions, increasing efficiency of plant to reduce emissions per kwh, advanced technologies such as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) and Pressurized Fluidized Bed Combustion (PFBC) for increasing thermal efficiencies, ultra-clean coal (UCC) such as Gasification, including underground coal gasification (UCG) in situ, etc. for reducing ash and sulfur.

Another dimension of burning coal is waste coal ash (85 tons of ash from burning of 100 tons of waste coal). Mercury and other toxic contaminants enter a waste coal burner, which are concentrated in the highly toxic ash that ultimately threatens the groundwater wherever this ash is dumped. Waste coal burners have cleaner air emissions than antiquated coal plants due to their better pollution controls. Waste coal ash is dumped in communities not far from the waste coal burners, threatening the groundwater with leaching lead, mercury and other poisons. Power plant waste is allowed to be dumped without the basic protections (landfill liners).

Some of the measures mentioned are still to reach a level of maturity that would allow their use on a commercial scale. Often, even matured technologies are ignored to improve economics of electricity generation. Years ago, I saw a comment in a report by a reputed consulting firm which said that incorporation of FGD would increase cost of a coal-fired plant and that the coal option would result in a loss of at least a part of its economic advantages over the alternatives. I had politely asked the foreign consultant whether such a comment would be acceptable in his country. The answer was something between yes and no. This was in the 1980s. The scenario has changed since then, especially in the backdrop of universal concern for climate change. Ideas are floated now on carbon trading, carbon tax, low carbon path of development. If a consensus is reached on mitigation of Green House Gas emission, there would not be short cut available to mitigate emission-it is important to realize that retrofitting for improving technological performance, including making a power plant responsive to environmental and climate change mitigation regime will be costly, time consuming and even impossibility.

It is likely that development of the energy sector with coal as one of its important components would require investments by the local and expatriate entrepreneurs.  And the regulatory regime should be comprehensive and exhaustive. Required codes and standards should be developed in consultation with the experts so that non-responsive technologies are automatically excluded. This should be true for power plants to be built both by the public and the private sectors. Infrastructure for handling and transportation should be developed so that the issues are resolved well ahead of time. All these aspects should be reflected in the coal policy or alternatively in a separate document on establishment of coal-fired plants.

We need a secured and rugged energy-mix that would help sustainable growth of electricity sector. Coal is a viable proposition. Problems are diversified, but technological solutions are also available. All we have to do is be careful and prepare for all the likely pitfalls of coal-fired power plants with the risks minimized. A surprise appearing a few years down the line would fail to provide us with a reliable supply of coal based electricity.

14 Responses to “An apology for coal-based solution”

  1. shottovashi

    Dear Dr CSK,

    Thank you for the excellent write up. I just think that in addition to satisfying the immediate needs of the energy source by diverse sources, Bangladesh could explore and lead in some state of art greener and carbon neutral energy source other than solar and wind which were already mentioned. Third generation bio-fuel, Algae possibly has a good potential. Bangladesh is a land of rivers and is situated in a coastal land. With proper planning, Algae can be grown without jeopardising the marine environment. Algae multiplies every hour in salt and sweet water. It also has the high affinity for CO2 (rather grows on CO2) and hence is ideal for them to be grown in vicinity of the coal or fossil fuel power plant for them to feed on the exhausts from the power plants. It is like killing two birds with one stone. Reduce emission and grow biofuel. Though the present cost of micro-algae is high, it was a viable competitor lately when the oil price shot upto 147 dollars a barrel last year. And let’s not forget, with this looming carbon levy, the cost of coal and fossil fuel driven power would be higher in future, as you rightfully highlighted. In my mind, this quantum jump is possible for Bangladesh. We are the country, where the cable phone used to be a luxury even for the urban people, now the mobile is in the hands of many illiterates in the rural area.


    Dear Dr Sajjad
    I have carefully read your thought-provoking article advocating power generation to reverse back to coal-fired energy status for Bangladesh.
    Several decades ago Bangladesh had one or two small-size coal-fired and many medium size fuel-powered power stations. After the independence of Bangladesh with the rise of gasoline price has forced the government to close down due to high maintenance costs.
    Energy starved Bangladesh of course needs to explore all options to meet galloping electric consumption to ensure sustainable agricultural production, export-oriented industries, and of course massive growth of urban and semi-urban settings with influx of expatriates remittance.
    Coal fired power plants has always been blamed to be worst contributor carbon emission fearing global warming. Reading your article it seems that coal fired plants now could be made environmentally safe, as well as minimize risk factors.
    To the best of my professional relations you were a staunch proponent of nuclear power generation for poor Bangladesh to augment industrialization and economic growth. You always argued with me explaining nuclear power is cheapest, safest and higher capacity production.
    Are you still in favour of nuclearisation of Bangladesh power sector?
    Recently Bangladesh has given a nod to the proposal of Russian nuclear technology.
    Should Bangladesh not explore other forms of cheap and alternative green energy generation in private sector, which has already made possible in many developing and poor countries?
    I refrain from writing personal issues in this comment box. Please write to me in my email for bilateral discussion.

    Saleem Samad

  3. C.S.Karim

    Respected Reader (Bokalok)
    Dear Mr…/Ms..
    I won’t dare to use your email coordinate/ pseudo name in addressing you. Your queries are thoughtful and interesting-so you must a well-informed person. Let me try to respond to those. I apprehend that the response could appear to fall short of your expectation- I am sorry if it is so.

    1. Demand… It is believed that the real demand for electricity is suppressed by constraints of supply. Since our present per capita consumption is inexplicably low, a higher growth is a logical consequence. I reckon that the growth rate of electricity should be of the order of 1.5 times that of economy. But actual growth will continue to be supply driven in the beginning and once the suppressed demand tapers off, in later stages the growth could be somewhat lower. Interventions on conservation will start influencing the demand. It will also depend on the contributions of different sectors towards the economy.

    2. Generation Mix… Infrastructure for handling LNG will be a challenge. Moreover, in most of the cases, the supplying countries have already concluded long-term contacts with the importing countries. I don’t think that global production capacity will increase much in view of its capital intensiveness. What we really need is network energy for meeting demands in the industries. Yes, renewable technologies have a role to play in meeting household demands, especially in remote areas.

    3. Why Apology…?-We have to have a rugged and affordable generation-mix that is responsive to our demands, can provide energy security, and is reliable and cost-effective. Coal could be a viable proposition in this context. I don’t agree that we can have thousands of MW’s with imported coal, though this option has merits in the context of energy scenario of Bangladesh.
    I am sorry if my statement was misleading. English as a language remains alien to me. I didn’t say anything about the size of individual power plants. What I wanted to say is that we can realistically have coal fired plants with combined capacity of 500-600 MW.

    4. Cost, etc…I remember Dr. Bhaba, the inspiring leader of Indian nuclear program once said that the costliest energy is not having it. If we are not ready to pay the price for electricity-can we have it? Moreover, if one assesses the fuel and technology options realistically, the right solution is a logical consequence. We are already experiencing the cost of energy not served. It is definitely much higher than the price we can pay for a kWh of electricity. Unfortunately, I can’t respond to the last part of your question- however, please allow me to state that transparency and accountability, regulatory regime, etc. should be able to resolve non-technical problems-it has nothing to do with the options of technology -kindly allow me to add politely.

    About the goose laying gold as eggs, it’s definitely a lesson to learn. On top of that worse is to put these golden eggs in the same basket..

    5. Corruption, etc. Again I am sorry that I haven’t an answer to this comment. I just like to refer to the answer to your earlier comment. But, I wish to ask you politely that should progress halt for such reasons? The growth and the interventions on reduction of corruption should proceed independent of each other.

    6. Supply of Coal/ surprise: Global reserve of coal is substantial. But price of coal follows or is expected to follow the price of oil. At least the ocean vessels use oil as fuel and thus it will have an impact on the cost of transportation. This, on its turn will be passed on to the importing countries. Who knows, may be we will be trapped by a coal cartel in the future. Other surprise which is looming is the climate change mitigation. Carbon tax, carbon marketing, etc. can easily upset the economics of carbon as a fuel for power generation.

    7. Seismic stress on supply of coal: I have talked about imported coal as fuel for power generation. Yes, seismic activities in the exporting country, if it affects mining activities could be a surprise. But, it is not conceivable that an earthquake will hit all the mining sites in the exporting country. Coal exporting countries usually have multiple in-country mining sites-and hence seismic activities will not influence the supply side, if you have a long term inter-government contract(s).

    Geothermal energy: There were some sporadic efforts to assess geothermal potentials in the country- I don’t remember having heard of anything exciting about its potential. I don’t pretend to have any background in geology beyond school text books. But, I heard that our geological structure by and large comprises of layers of clay and silt stretching to hundreds of meters below the surface. I am not very sure whether similar geological structure and the ground water table having strong seasonal variation (in places varying between next to ground level to tens or even hundreds of meters), the prospects can be substantial. Such structures are not possibly good for trapping heat–I am not really equipped to add further. May be some good Geologist will come up with a proper response.

    Other risks/ surprise: The surprise that is looming is the climate change mitigation. Carbon tax, carbon marketing, etc. can easily upset the economics of carbon as a fuel for power generation.

    Efficiency: In the past more efforts were directed at reducing pollution from coal-fired plants. But the climate change vulnerabilities have shifted the R&D effort levels to next generation coal technologies. An increase in efficiency will reduce the amount of coal burnt for producing electricity and improve economics of power generation. Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) technology addresses these issues. It will definitely improve efficiency. IGCC is coupled with carbon capture capabilities. Since this is based on combined cycle concept, the gain in efficiency could increase by 10-15%. The under-construction IGCC project of China, when completed will provide data achieved in reality. In my life-time?. Yes, if you pray that I live for a few years more–we can possibly have an efficiency of 45% or more by that time.

    Demand pattern: I don’t have latest figures on electricity consumption pattern. Usually what we get is sectoral shares of consumption (like industries, domestic, commercial, etc., etc.). I am sorry I can’t quote figures on consumption in end-use appliances (like lighting, HVAC, pump/ drivers etc., chemical processes). I think the data on consumption pattern is derived from tariff structure, which would not help estimating demand by types of loads. I am sorry, I am being of little help on this matter.

    Thank you very much for raising these important and pertinent points. I must confess that I am a below average student of energy. The learning curve always finds me realizing that the gap between me and knowledge widens further every day. It’s bumpy as well and comments from experts like you help me gather courage to crawl up that .

    C.S. Karim

    • bokalok

      Thank you Dr. Karim.

      No further questions until you write again.

      I deliberately decided to respond in very short sentences)

      Meet you next time.

      Have good future. God bless you.

  4. Dr. Hasanat Husain

    Dr. Karim had been active in Bangladesh Energy sector for a long time.This is a good indepth one focused on Coal as an Energy option.

    Bangladesh had in the past invested on Rooppur Power Plant, Kaptai Hydro-electric Dam etc. As the former Chairman of Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Karim was leading on Rooppur Power Programme. A touch on the Nuclear and other renewable energy options, therefore, would make this article a comprehensive one.

    • C.S.Karim

      Dear Dr. Hossain,
      Thank you very much for the kind encouragement.
      I will try to write on the issues you mentioned. Regards
      C.S. Karim

  5. Debashis Datta

    Dear Sir, Dr. C. S. Karim
    Thanks for your informative article regarding our energy security. I totally agree with your views. For a sustainable power supply, we must focus on all possible sources of energy. It will be too dangerous a policy if we depend on one specific energy source, as we did in past (only on natural gas). We should diverse our energy policy depending on our country’s economical, geological situations. Coal fired plants should be situated near the remote sea port areas as you also mentioned about the transportation problem of tons of coal per day. Similarly, wind power should be applied in the coastal region for having sufficient, constant velocity wind force. Solar should be used in all possible sites depending on our economic condition. But, for a sustainable energy security of our country, there is no alternative to huge power generated by nuclear power plants. In my opinion, nuclear energy will be a realistic option for meeting our stable power supply in future. If our neighbors (India:6 and China:16) can continue to increase their nuclear power plants for generating stable electric power then why can’t we do that? We must realize the fact, that we need power (electric power) for power (economic development). I do request you to write another informative article on this issue in future.
    Thanks again.
    Debashis Datta
    Dept. of nuclear and quantum engineering

    • C.S.Karim

      Dear Mr. Datta,
      Thank you sharing your reflections. I could not agree more with your comments on the need to harness all possible indigenous primary energy resources. But in case of fossil fuel, we should be careful and have in place a depletion policy (reserve vis-à-vis production) and also allocation of each fuel type to the end use sectors). Wind energy is an option that warrants consideration as well. Its site specific and the decision should depend on total energy available in a year (velocity and hours of the year. It will not be prudent if we invest based on discreet data/ snap shot view; important is to total energy we can obtain in an average year. Average velocity will influence decision on technology (for example, one should go for a costlier technology involving low speed machine, location is important because the components are heavy and would require good communication for transportation of components and handling equipment. If the location is remote with a low load density we have to think of the electricity transmission lines constructed to link the facility to the load center/grid. A hybrid (wind-grid, wind/solar) concept will facilitate efficient demand supply management as for such technologies the time of supply might not exactly be responsive to the demand.

      As regards the nuclear option, I will try to address the issue in one of the future postings, provided the bdnews24.com editorial team does not get tired of my lack of knowledge and my bad English.
      Thank you very much. Regards.
      C.S. Karim

  6. Matthew Islam

    Dear Mr. Karim,
    The problems are in fact manifold in achieving this smoothly in our country and would burden our economy immensely even considering that it would fuel growth. Like you said Sir, even then, it would probably be extremely damaging to our environment because we are a society that has almost zero environmental responsibility and resources to enforce breaches of that responsibility. We must find viable, low period turnkey solutions to the energy crisis we have at hand right now. I don’t believe that coal is the best solution. There are matters that you have described that is the basis for me concluding that coal isn’t a solution, no matter what technology and infrastructure solutions may be out there to make it viable. It’s dirty energy. Plain and simple. Clean coal energy is a joke as harsh as I may sound.

    While I posses very little information about coal based power plants and attached matters of concern, I am reluctant to believe that we can pull of generation of 2,000 to 3,000 MW power through this source alone which is your reluctance on the matter as well. Therefore, when policy makers believe that this dream scenario is perhaps a viable target (I am not referring to you sir but those who think 2,000 MW power is a viable target from coal energy), my mind seems to shut off in disdain at the waste of time that they so indulge in at the tax payers cost. But I am also skeptical to believe that we can consistently generate, given our resources, infrastructure, around 600 MW of coal fired electricity. I may be wrong though.

    There must be other solutions and we must stop wasting time on energy options that we all know we won’t be able to manage, creating a mess our younger generation will have to pay the
    price for.

    Thank you for your op-ed. Its great to hear from you and hope you will write more often.

    Matthew Islam

    • C.S.Karim

      Dear Mr. Islam,
      You said you are young-and that’s exactly where our hopes rest. A thinking member of the younger generation has more pragmatic views of our future than somebody belonging to a generation with gray hair such as me.

      Our responsibility should be to discussel the pros and cons of a solution that would facilitate obtaining a view of our future. As I wrote somewhere in response to another comment, costliest energy is the lack of its availability, a pre-requisit for attaining our goals of socio-economic emancipation. Unfortunately, our present per capita generation (not consumption) is (so far as my back of the envelope calculations suggest) between 250 and 300 kWh, which is inexplicably low (less than 40% of Asian average), less than one tenth of the world average). If you agree to climb up the ladder to have a cross-over to development threshold, you have to improve upon the situation with electricity supply scenario both in terms of quantity and quality. We have to consider all matured technologies, fuel types that are capable of providing affordable and reliable power on a sustainable basis. I leave it to the considered judgment of your generation to ponder and decide. All options have relative merits and demerits–there is nothing called a generalized solution common to all countries.

      Cheers and wishes.
      C.S Karim

      • Matthew Islam

        I see the point you are making sir and I am in agreeement that all viable sources must be considered. Thank you for your response.

        God bless.

  7. C.S. Karim

    Dear Mr. Zaman,
    Thank you for the appreciation. It inspires me. Regards

  8. bokalok

    Dear Dr. Karim:

    You ended you apology as:
    1. “We need a secured and rugged energy-mix that would help sustainable growth of electricity sector.

    2. Coal is a viable proposition. Problems are diversified, but technological solutions are also available.

    3. All we have to do is be careful and prepare for all the likely pitfalls of coal-fired power plants with the risks minimized.

    4. A surprise appearing a few years down the line would fail to provide us with a reliable supply of coal based electricity”.

    My questions:
    1. What kind of growth you foresee in Electricity Sector when our GDP (or say economic growth) is forecast to be at 6 to 9 % per year up to, say, 2018?

    You proposed a ‘secured and rugged energy mix’. Do you have suggestions about the mix? You indicated ‘oil, coal and nuclear’ to be the mix but excluded LNG. Any reasons? What about renewable? What about demand management? What about pricing the electricity right?

    2. You said coal is viable. Then, why the apology? You said viable? And you said we can have generators of max 600MW? Did I understand you wrong?

    You said coal has diversified problems and assured us of having tech solutions! What do you think what would be the cost of electricity with all tech solutions implemented. Can we implement these when criminals rule this country?

    3. Do you honestly believe that this nation is careful about anything? We messed up with so many good gas wells before end of their useful reserves (pure greed and no foresight)! We can’t even make a good contract with oil/gas companies! Remember the story of a golden egg laying goose?

    4. You are worried about a Surprise appearing very shortly and we shall not have reliable coal supply?

    Why not other surprises? We had lot of seismic activities recently. What about some new gas pockets? What about some geothermal?

    Do you foresee in your lifetime that we shall have electrical-thermal efficiency of a power plant exceeding 60% from it’s current 35% ( I know some furnace oil based low speed engines have much better than this). Do you foresee one day we shall be able to store sun-light economically and sufficiently?

    Do you have any charts where we can see the areas where electricity is used? I do not have but I would like to know, for example: what percentage of electricity is used for:
    1. lighting, 2. heating/air conditioning, 3. electric motors/pumps/drives; 4. electro-chemical processes and so on and so forth….

    Looking forward to hearing from you.

  9. Zaman

    excellent! major challenges for implementation of coal based power plants in bangladesh have been represented perfectly……

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