Coal is the cheapest and the most common fuel used directly or indirectly to produce electricity and heat in the world today. Global coal consumption was about 6.7 billion tons in 2006 and is expected to increase 48% to 9.98 billion tons by 2030, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). China produced 2.38 billion tons in 2006. India produced about 447.3 million tons and Pakistan mined only about 8 million tons in 2006. 68.7% of China's electricity comes from coal. The United States consumes about 14% of the world total, using 90% of it for generation of electricity. The U.S. coal-fired plants have over 300 GW of capacity.
The Thar desert region in Pakistan is endowed with one of the largest coal reserves in the world. Discovered in early 1990s, the Thar coal has not yet been developed to produce usable energy. With the devastating increases in imported oil bill and the growing shortages of gas and electricity in the country, the coal development is finally beginning to get the attention it deserves. Coal contributes about 20% of the worldwide greenhouse gas emissions but it is the cheapest fuel available, according to Pew Center on Global Climate Change. It can provide usable energy at a cost of between $1 and $2 per MMBtu compared to $6 to $12 per MMBtu for oil and natural gas, and coal prices are relatively stable. Coal is inherently higher-polluting and more carbon-intensive than other energy alternatives. However, coal is so inexpensive that one can spend quite a bit on pollution control and still maintain coal’s competitive position.
At the end of the decade of 1990s when the economy was stagnant, Pakistan had about 1200 MW excess capacity. Between 2000 and 2008, the electricity demand from industries and consumers grew dramatically with the rapid economic expansion that more than doubled the nation's GDP from $60 billion to $170 billion. The Musharraf government added about 3500 MW of capacity during this period which still left a gap of over 1500 MW by 2008. The economy has since slowed to a crawl, the electricity demand has decreased, and yet the nation is suffering the worst ever power outages in the history of Pakistan. As discussed in an earlier post, Pakistan's current installed capacity is around 18,0000 MW, of which around 20% is hydroelectric. Much of the rest is thermal, fueled primarily by gas and oil. Pakistan Electric Power Company PEPCO blames independent power producers (IPPs) for the electricity crisis, as they have only been able to give PEPCO much less than the 5,800 MW of confirmed capacity. Most of the power plants in the country are operating well below installed capacity because the operators are not being paid enough to buy fuel. Circular debt owed to the power producers and oil companies is currently believed to be largely responsible for severe load shedding affecting most of the nation.
The circular debt has assumed alarming portions since 2008, resulting in the current severe power problems. Former finance minister Saukat Tarin recently told the News that “in real terms the circular debt has swelled to Rs108 billion which mainly includes non-payment of Rs42 billion by KESC, Rs21 billion by the government of Sindh and Rs15-16 billion from commercial consumers to the Pakistan Electric Power Company (Pepco)". Just prior to leaving office, Tarin decided to raise Rs. 25 billion as a small step toward settling the swelling unpaid bills owed to power producers.
Per capita energy consumption in Pakistan is estimated at 14.2 million Btu, which is much higher than Bangladesh's 5 million BTUs per capita but slightly less than India's 15.9 million BTU per capita energy consumption. South Asia's per capita energy consumption is only a fraction of other industrializing economies in Asia region such as China (56.2 million BTU), Thailand (58 million BTU) and Malaysia (104 million BTU), according to the US Dept of Energy 2006 report. To put it in perspective, the world average per capita energy use is about 65 million BTUs and the average American consumes 352 million BTUs. With 40% of the Pakistani households that have yet to receive electricity, and only 18% of the households that have access to pipeline gas, the energy sector is expected to play a critical role in economic and social development. With this growth comes higher energy consumption and stronger pressures on the country’s energy resources. At present, natural gas and oil supply the bulk (80 percent) of Pakistan’s energy needs. However, the consumption of those energy sources vastly exceeds the supply. For instance, Pakistan currently produces only 18.3 percent of the oil it consumes, fostering a dependency on imports that places considerable strain on the country’s financial position. On the other hand, hydro and coal are perhaps underutilized today, as Pakistan has ample potential supplies of both.
The country's creaky and outdated electricity infrastructure loses over 30 percent, some of it due to rampant power theft, of generated power in transit, more than seven times the losses of a well-run system, according to the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank; and a lack of spare high-voltage grid capacity limits the transmission of power from hydroelectric plants in the north to make up for shortfalls in the south.
It does seem that Pakistan is finally getting serious about utilizing its vast coal resources to produce electricity and gas. Talking recently with GeoTV's Hamid Mir, Pepco Managing Director Tahir Basharat Cheema shared the following list of coal projects being launched:
1. The Sind Government has awarded a 1200 MW project to extract Thar coal and produce electricity to Engro Power.
2. A similar 1200 MW project is being undertaken by Pepco in Thar. The Pepco project also includes a 700 Km transmission line to connect Thar plants with the national grid.
3. An experimental project for underground coal gasification is being built by Pakistani nuclear scientist Dr. Mubarakmand to tap underground coal to produce 50 MW.
4. Another experimental 50 MW project using pressure coal gasification is planned by Pepco.
The coal and various renewable energy projects are expected to be online in the next 2 to 5 years. If these projects do succeed and more investors are attracted to the power sector, then Pakistan has the potential to produce about 100,000 MW a year for a century or longer. But these efforts will not help in the short or immediate term. What is urgently needed is decisive action to resolve the circular debt problems and restore power generation to full installed capacity immediately.
Here is a video clip of former president General Musharraf talking about the worst ever load shedding being faced by Pakistanis today: