Sampur coal power plant - an opportunity lost?

By Dr Janaka Ratnasiri

Continued from yesterday

Impact on peoples’ health

In a study carried out by the National Research Council in USA in 2005 involving nearly 400 coal power plants across the country, the damage of major air pollutants - sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, ozone, and particulate matter – on human health in terms of additional hospital admissions and visits to out-door patient clinics, as well as on grain crops and timber yields, buildings, and recreation was considered. According to the report released in 2009, the country’s mean damage cost was estimated to be UScts. 3.20 per kWh.

The worst impact from coal power plants is the deterioration of health of the people. As described in my recent article on "Coal power – costs, impacts and the future" which appeared in The Island on 01 & 02.03.11, it was shown that the cost of treatment for patients with respiratory ailments amount to over Rs. 6 billion annually. These are mainly due to deterioration of the air quality in urban areas caused by polluting vehicles. With the commencement of coal power plant operation, one located at Puttalam and the other at Trincomalee, the monsoon winds blowing in south westerly and north easterly directions annually, the stack emissions comprising sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen and fine particulate matter will find their way into the interior, especially the North Central Province, North Western Province and the Eastern Province. Hence, there is a likelihood of a wider proportion of the country’s population presently living under rural environments getting respiratory ailments and seeking hospital treatment, estimated to cost more than Rs. 6 billion annually.

The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) of USA has recently introduced new regulations that will reduce power plant sulfur dioxide emissions by 73 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions by 54 percent from 2005 levels by 2014. The Agency also claims that the hefty cost, estimated at US$800 million a year, is worth the investment considering the estimated US$120 to US$280 billion in annual heath and environmental benefits the new regulations will create in 2014 ( This is despite the fact that there are strict power plant emission controls already in place in the USA.

Other important pollutants that are released from a power plant’s stacks are heavy metals including mercury, arsenic, chromium and nickel (above site). The new regulations – expected to go into effect by 2014 - would reduce mercury emissions from these power plants by 91 per cent, according to APA. In USA, coal-fired plants are responsible for 99 per cent of mercury emissions, which could cause neurological damage, including lower IQ in children exposed in the womb and during early developmental stages. The other metals targeted for emission reduction have also been linked to cancer. Sri Lanka has not considered these impacts of pollution to date.

Introducing natural gas

If coal is not an acceptable source of electricity, what else are there? Hydro has a few more sites to develop but not adequate enough to meet the future needs. The government is considering nuclear power and has sought the assistance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to conduct a pre-feasibility study. However, there is no need to spend millions of rupees doing feasibility studies, as common sense dictates that nuclear power is not a suitable option for Sri Lanka, as explained in a recent article written by the author (see "Does Sri Lanka really need nuclear power?" in Nation of 27.03.11). Biomass is a possibility, but it would take time to develop into viable industry.

The next option is natural gas which meets 24% of the world’s total energy requirements today (IEA Statistics 2010). Natural gas is also used as the fuel in 21% thermal power plants in the world. It is the cleanest fossil fuel available with absolutely no particulates, no sulphur dioxide, very little oxides of nitrogen and less than half of CO2 emitted from a similar capacity coal plant. Sri Lanka government did consider import of natural gas as early as 2001, and in fact announced requests for proposals for thermal power plants with the fuel option to include gas, but for some unknown reasons, the matter was not pursued.

The cost of electricity from natural gas depends on several factors such as total demand, location and the negotiated price with the supplier. In the my article on coal power published last March, it was shown that even for a small facility built to meet only Sri Lanka’s needs, the cost of electricity would be below Rs. 10 per unit, based on the contracts made recently elsewhere. However, even if it is going to be more, the possibility is there to get the incremental cost paid by developed countries under the UNFCCC schemes.

Energy hub at Trincomalee

The import of LNG is most economical when high quantities are imported. Its import also needs a deep harbour where ships carrying liquefied natural gas (LNG) could berth alongside the jetty enabling discharging of LNG direct into tanks on shore. With the availability of Trincomalee deep water harbour which makes an ideal location for building a LNG terminal, I described the feasibility of building a large LNG plant at Trincomalee to serve the needs of South India as well, in an article published under the caption "Establishing an Energy Hub in Trincomlee" which appeared in The Island of 2nd and 3rd of June last year. There aren’t many places like Trincomalee harbour which can berth LNG carriers close to the shore without having to spend money for dredging. There are also floating and storage terminals available today with on-board re-gasification facilities where transfer of gas after re-gasification to pipelines is done off shore. However, this is only an emerging technology with only a very few such facilities in operation today.

A medium size or even a large LNG terminal could be built at Trincomalee to supply natural gas even to South India in addition to meeting the needs in Sri Lanka since economies of scale would bring down the cost. The government need not spend money on constructing facilities to import LNG, but could get an investor to do that. Concurrently, other facilities need to be built within the country which would make use of natural gas such as a urea manufacturing plant, an essential commodity for our agriculture, and a pipe-line network to take the gas to other users. The investors could decide the most suitable option – whether an on-shore terminal or even a floating terminal and what capacity.

Source of thermal energy

Natural gas has the other advantage that it could be used as a fuel not only for generating electricity, but also for generating thermal energy and motive power, and as a feed stock for many industries. Thermal energy applications include firing boilers and furnaces, and also meeting the needs of the commercial and domestic sectors as a cooking fuel. Since natural gas is mostly methane which is the simplest hydro-carbon having only one carbon atom and 4 hydrogen atoms in one molecule, it burns efficiently and completely leaving no residual hydrocarbons – in other words producing no pollution, unlike in the case of burning LPG.

A well planned network of pipelines carrying natural gas across the country radiating from Trincomalee would be a cost-effective means of meeting future needs of thermal energy in Sri Lanka. It could replace transporting liquid fuel such as gasoline and diesel and transporting LPG cylinders to all corners of the country. Such a gas pipe line network could feed medium scale combined cycle gas turbine plants located close to load centres thus reducing transmission losses. Such power plants located within industrial estates or hospitality centres could even operate as cogeneration systems producing both electricity and heat which could be used to generate steam required for the industries and hotels. This will increase the thermal efficiency of the system to more than 80%.

Potential in the transport sector

A new development that is coming up in the transport sector is the emergence of fuel cell operated vehicles. The internal combustion engine will be replaced by a bank of fuel cells which generates electricity through the reaction between hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of a catalyst. The necessary oxygen is drawn from air, while the hydrogen is obtained either directly from wayside outlets or produced on board from natural gas once it is fed to the vehicle. These vehicles are already on the road in western countries on a trial basis, but will soon be available commercially. When the hybrid car was first introduced, we thought it would not be available here for a long time because of the high cost, but it has already penetrated the local market because of the government’s intervention by reducing tax levied on it. Likewise, once fuel-cell vehicles are produced on a commercial scale, and adequate tax incentives are granted by the government, it would too penetrate the local market rapidly. The only requirement to be satisfied before introducing fuel-cell vehicles is to make available natural gas here.

Even with the existing technology, the availability of natural gas will benefit the transport sector. Natural gas in the compressed form could be used as a substitute for gasoline in the normal spark-ignited engine. Its advantage is that vehicles operating on natural gas produce much less pollution than that produced by gasoline or diesel vehicles. Compressed natural gas (CNG) operated taxis and buses have been made mandatory in many cities in India as a measure for reducing urban air pollution. The conversion of heavy vehicles for operation with CNG is the only way to reduce air pollution from these vehicles too.

Meeting UNFCCC emission targets

If natural gas is used instead of coal in future thermal power plants and the existing combined cycle gas turbine plants also converted to operate on gas, the CO2 emissions by 2020 could be reduced to about 17 Mt/year from the business-as-usual value of 26 Mt/year, which is a 35% reduction, an acceptable strategy. Under the UNFCCC negotiations that are currently in progress, developing countries could seek funding from a special fund (yet to be established) to meet the incremental costs incurred in implementing measures proposed for reducing emissions. However, even without such funding, it would be economical to implement these measures as it would save money because of the high efficiency of the new systems. Furthermore, the health expenditure too will be reduced drastically which should be taken into consideration when costing the new projects.

Enforcement of emission regulations

Sri Lanka still has not gazetted any emission standards for the energy sector; only some drafts prepared several decades ago are available. Some of the thermal power plants located in the Western Province operate on heavy fuel oil which has high sulphur content causing emission of excessive sulphur dioxide, but there is no systematic monitoring being done. According to media reports, the only ambient air quality monitoring station in Pettah installed about 15 years ago is apparently falling apart. Even though the Cabinet of Ministers had on two occasions approved setting up of several monitoring stations covering the entire island, no follow up action had been taken by the relevant authorities. If no monitoring of thermal power emissions is done all these years, it is unlikely that it will be done in the future too, despite installation of coal power plants. Though it is the right of every citizen to know the quality of air he breathes, this has not been made possible by the government.

Lost opportunity

The best option the government could do at this stage is to call for proposals from international bidders for the construction of a suitable LNG terminal at Sampur as a BOOT project including the supply of the gas. The government could then decide on the economics of using natural gas versus coal with all external costs added, and judge the best for the country. In the current negotiations with the Indian party, there has been no transparency, which should not have been the case. Once gas is made available in the country, there will be investors who may wish to start various enterprises using gas in such sectors as transport, industries and commercial and domestic supplies. This harbour terminal facility could then be offered to any other party to import LNG for distribution to direct users after re-gasification, be it to feed power plants or to use as feedstock for the manufacture of such products as urea and other chemicals or to serve industrial zones for generating thermal energy. It is desirable, even at this late stage, for the government to renegotiate the Sampur project converting it to operate on LNG and not miss the opportunity to provide people in the country with a clean and a healthy environment. It is the government’s obligation to do so.

However, if the signing of the agreement with India to construct a coal power plant at Sampur goes ahead as scheduled, all these opportunities for reducing the country’s emissions and using it as a strategy for the promotion of the tourism, safeguarding the health of the people, compliance with climate change concerns and making available a clean source of energy to people will be lost. It is indeed a saddening situation that our decision makers are oblivious to the benefits that natural gas could bring in improving the quality of life of people in the country, including a healthy life free of respiratory diseases among its children particularly.


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