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Experts: coal cleaner than ever

A bulldozer and backhoe on a mountain of coal that will be burned for electricity at the Manjung power plant in Manjung, Malaysia. Photo: Mark Angeles
A bulldozer and backhoe on a mountain of coal that will be burned for electricity at the Manjung power plant in Manjung, Malaysia. Photo: Mark Angeles

A coal-fired power plant shouldn’t invoke images of belching black smoke or polluted waters, coal energy experts said recently. In fact, the use of coal as a source of energy has come a long way, they said. The coal that is burned in a boiler is more efficient, and the resulting emissions are cleaner, and should be a significant part of Myanmar’s energy solutions, experts told journalists recently during a trip sponsored by GE, which has pioneered the latest technologies for converting coal to electricity.

For those who believe coal-fired power plants are bad for Myanmar’s environment, the experts from GE said that technology has improved dramatically since Myanmar’s first power plants were built years ago, to the point that harmful emissions such as sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) are significantly reduced. Upgrading its energy grid is critical for Myanmar, which has surging electricity needs for residents as well as potential foreign investors. Coal, GE experts say, should be strongly considered to be an integral part of the country’s energy mix because of its reliability, safety, abundance and relatively low cost. But demonstrations over the last few years protesting against coal-fired power plants have halted or postponed the construction of several facilities across the country, including a 1,280-megawatt plant near Hpa-an, the capital of Kayin State in eastern Myanmar.

The demonstrations have protested coal-fired plants past shortcomings including air pollution, water pollution, disruption of local livelihoods and land disputes. Energy experts from GE, who sponsored an educational trip for about two dozen reporters to visit a state-of-the-art coal-fired power plant in Malaysia earlier this month, said the latest cleaner coal technology can result in much lower emissions and meet or exceed the strictest environmental regulations in the world. The state-of-the-art energy producing centres are known as ultra-supercritical power plants, using technology developed by GE. Ultra-supercritical technology improves on previous supercritical and subcritical technologies, bettering the efficiency of coal burning that is converted to steam, which in turn powers turbines that produce electricity.

Manjung 4, the largest coal-fired power plant in Southeast Asia and the only ultra-supercritical power plant in the region, is on the western coast of Malaysia in the state of Perak, about a four-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur. On 1 August, 27 journalists from the Middle East, Africa and Asia were flown to Malaysia to visit Manjung 4, which was built from the ground up by GE three years ago. It now provides enough electricity for nearly two million households in Malaysia. As a bus full of journalists and GE communications experts drove through a small fishing village near the Manjung 4 plant, there was no dark smoke belching from the power plant, no unpleasant smell, and the water appeared to be clean enough for fishermen to continue their livelihood.

“We are aware of the need to sustain the environment we are in, and we will do our best to safeguard and sustain it”, said Datuk Shamsul, the managing director of TNB Janamanjung, which owns and operates Manjung 4. Datuk Shamsul said TNB Janamanjung has also engaged with the local community, provided jobs and maintained an ongoing relationship with those in the community in which Manjung 4 was built. According to World Health Organization data, Myanmar has by far the most polluted air in Southeast Asia. In fact, all of the 10 ASEAN cities with highest particulate matter levels are found in Myanmar. Coal combustion is one of the major sources of particulate matter pollution globally, emitting much higher levels of SO2, NOx and dust.

Power plant emissions also include large amounts of heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium and nickel. But, according to GE, ultra-supercritical power plants meet and exceed the world’s strictest environmental regulations, resulting in 20 per cent less CO2 emissions, which is equivalent to taking 3.5 million cars off the road. Environmentalists, however, advise that, while ultra-supercritical power plants are more efficient, a country’s emissions regulations should still be stringent. “Why are the coal industry and its advocates always going on about ultra-supercritical coal plants and not about emissions regulation?” asked Lauri Myllyvirta of Greenpeace East Asia in an article for reneweconomy,com. “Simple: ultra-supercritical plants are usually more profitable than subcritical plants, since they have lower fuel and other operating costs. Stringent emission regulation, in contrast, increases both investment and operating costs.” The GE energy experts point out that they do not want any country, Myanmar included, to rely solely on coal-fired power plants, which GE refers to as steam power.

“Any country, including Myanmar, should have a balanced representation of energy sources, without an over-reliance on one form of energy,” said Dr. Sacha Parneix, Commercial General Manager, Steam Power, for GE. “I can guarantee that no modern country has just one source of energy”. Myanmar has an abundance of natural gas and hydropower, but currently relies too heavily on hydropower, experts said. The purpose of a balanced portfolio of energy sources is to reflect availability, reliance, cost and flexibility. Each country, GE experts said, is unique in its power needs and should be evaluated accordingly. Myanmar seems to be in agreement with a multi-source energy approach, with coal as an integral part of the mix. Government officials have said that the critical need for electricity in the country is not just for the people in rural areas, but for attracting important foreign investment.

“An insufficient power supply is the biggest problem in our country. If possible, we should accept coal-fired power generation rather than generating power with diesel engines,” MP U Maung Myint of Minkin constituency told the Pyithu in January. “Clean, coal-fired power plants should be established for the industrial zones”. Myanmar’s energy currently comes from hydroelectric (62 per cent), gas (35 per cent) and coal (3 per cent), according to Andrew Lee, Myanmar country leader for GE. That reflects an over-reliance on hydro and and under-reliance on coal, he said. Myanmar produces power using 29 hydro-power stations, 14 gas-fired and energy-from-waste plants and one coal-fired power plant. Last year, the Myanmar government announced it would follow the Generation Mix Plan, which would coordinate power delivery from a combination of sources, with 38 per cent from hydro-power stations, 20 per cent from the natural gas-fired power plants, 33 per cent from the coal-fired power plant and 9 per cent from renewable sources.

“This encourages use of resources proportionally to produce electricity,” said Dr Tun Naing, Deputy Minister for Electricity and Energy, at a Pyithu Hluttaw meeting in August 2017. Myanmar sells most of its abundant natural gas, a major source of revenue. Increasing the percentage of gas-derived energy would be economically unwise, experts said. Hydroelectric power, while abundant, should be reduced for security, economic and geopolitical reasons, the GE experts said. “Geopolitically, there could be a case where countries upstream could disrupt the flow of water, and suddenly the country would not be able to produce electricity from a major source. That’s the theory of a more balanced approach,” said Amir Mujezinovic, GE’s Global Product Leader for Steam Power.

The Manjung power plants in western Malaysia. One of the power plants, Manjung 4, is the only ultra-supercritical power plant in Southeast Asia. Photo: Mark Angeles

The electricity produced from renewable sources such as wind and solar energy is small, and should probably remain so because of Myanmar’s weather, the experts said. During the long rainy season, electricity could not be made in sufficient amounts because of a lack of steady sunlight. Unlike nuclear energy facilities, a coal-fired power plant can be built in less than five years, an important factor when considering Myanmar’s urgent need for electricity. Coal represents only 3 per cent of Myanmar’s current energy portfolio, a number that should be higher because of its reliability, relative low cost and cleanliness due to recent technological advances, GE’s experts said. “People need electricity”, said Dr. Sacha Parneix. “I cannot imagine a modern society that can prosper without it”.

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