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Is coal power really cheap?

By Emmanuel Unaegbu | Publish Date: May 9


Miners at Enugu Coal Mine

‘Coal power is cheap and we have it in abundance.’ A popular quote among coal power proponents. In my daily interactions, I have had to answer the question “Is coal power really cheap?” Again and again, I have answered the question with my own questions.

If coal power is cheap, why are we realising this after over 100 years since the discovery of coal in Nigeria? If coal is cheap, why did the Nigerian Railway Corporation and the Electric Company of Nigeria switch to diesel in the 1950’s? If coal power is cheap, why is it that since 2014 when the pronouncement of 30 percent power from coal made, we still have not added 1MW to the grid from coal power?

My hypothesis: we have not added a megawatt from coal to the grid because we are not using public fund to execute it. And importantly, private investors and investment banks are divesting and are restricting fresh investments for dirty and unsustainable energy generation like coal.

Hear me, coal power is not cheap. It is only considered cheap because coal power generation companies do not pay for and our electricity bills do not reflect the social and environmental costs (externalities) associated with processing coal on human health, the natural environment and our climate. These externalities are consequential.

Going back in time to the great smog of London in 1952; an event that was as a direct result of burning coal. It was estimated that within the five days period which the smog lasted, 4,000 people died as a direct result. Another 100,000 were made ill. A recent research suggests that about 8,000 more died in the following months as a result. Now, how cheap is that?

A 2011 study titled “Mining Coal, Mounting Costs: the Life Cycle Consequences of Coal,” by scientists at Harvard University, it was found that when these externalities are fully factored, the price of power coal doubles or triples. The study considered the economic, health and environmental costs associated with each stage in the life cycle of coal and estimated that the public borne a cost which range between $175 and $500 billion dollars annually in the United States in the form of medical bills. Please, how cheap is that?

The 2014 New Climate Economy Report by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, valued deaths from air pollution in China to be 10% of its GDP. Again, how cheap is that? Note that pollution in China is mainly driven by combustion of coal.

China has learnt its lessons the hard way and has gone ahead to suspend the development of over 100 new coal fired power plants, Nigeria does not need to learn from her own mistakes. We don’t have the data or medical capacity to deal with the damning consequences large scale coal power on human health and the natural environment.

Unfortunately, it seems that large corporations are in on the coal revolution in Nigeria. For example, Dangote Cement, in 2016 disclosed that it has converted all its power plant to coal-fired as against gas. The plants use about 12,000 tonnes of coal daily. Ashaka cement is also investing in coal power with coal for its Maiganga mine. In this age of sustainable development, this shouldn’t be the case.

Another myth by coal proponents is the notion of “clean coal.” Clean coal refers to a range of technologies that burn coal more efficiently and removes some of the pollutants from the smokestack.  But these plants emit 15 times more carbon dioxide than renewable energy systems and twice as much CO2 as gas-fired power plants. Importantly, clean coal doesn’t deal with irresponsible mining across Nigeria.

Even with clean coal technology, will any coal fired plant operator in Nigeria agree to a strict, clear and enforceable air pollution regulation? Your guess is as good as mine. So, it is best we drop this notion of “clean coal” for now. It may happen in the future when the technology is fully developed.

In any case, constructing a new coal power will mean relying of dirty fuel for another 40 to 50 years of the plant’s lifespan. As it stands, conventional coal power plants are fast becoming an ‘outdated’ technology. Researchers have gone ahead to estimate that if all the proposed coal power plants were to be built, this could result in up to $981 billion in stranding assets. So, can Nigeria cope with another huge investment going moribund?

Even with the President Donald Trump’s efforts in rolling back pollution regulations, he has not been able to stop the market from steadily moving away from coal.

Instead of coal in Nigeria, we should be looking for ways to safeguard our pipelines, end gas flaring and harness our abundant gas reserves. As a cheaper and cleaner fuel, gas should be the priority. Luckily, Nigeria’s pioneer domestic liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant owned and operated by Greenville Oil and Gas Company Limited with phase 1 daily capacity of 2750 tonnes from 3 trains of LNG located in Rumuji in Emuoha LGA of Rivers State coming online this year.

Thus, with the nation’s growing hydropower capacity, huge potential for clean but variable supply from solar power, and increasing investment in fairly clean and abundant natural gas, Nigeria has a winning formula for her long standing energy problems. Burning coal does not have to come into the equation.

Burning coal for power can be likened to eating junk food all day, every day. It may be cheap, even taste good but it is not healthy. At the end, you pay the price through poor health, sky-high medical expense and shortened lifespan.

So, let’s not get it twisted, ‘you don’t drink poison and expect it to kill your enemy.’ With weak medical facilities, burning the supposedly “cheap coal” within Nigeria will hurt Nigerians (not the west) in very ‘un-cheap’ ways.

Coal power is not cheap power.

Unaegbu wrote this piece from Abuja


Coal Power Plant in Enugu, Nigeria


Re: Is coal power really cheap?

By Robert Audu | Publish Date: May 30 2018.    Source: DailyTrust.
Chief Robert Usman Audu, a retired Federal Permanent Secretary, wrote from Abuja.

I read with utmost disgust, the misleading article authored by Emmanuel Unaegbu, Senior Program Manager at CLIMATTERS, Abuja on what he titled: “Dangers of coal mines for host communities” published on page 6 of Daily Sun of February 10, 2018. Again in Daily Trust of Wednesday May 9, 2018, the same Emmanuel Unaegbu wrote another misleading article on “ Is Coal Power Really Cheap?” I consider it imperative to disabuse the minds of the readers and the government on the dangers of this kind of propaganda aimed at discouraging the use of this vital mineral resource that is widely used around the world.

Coal is known to the entire world as a critical mineral that is used mainly for power generation across the globe, among other uses. The misinformation contained in the piece is capable of sending wrong signals to the reading public and makes Nigeria a laughing stock before the developed world that wonders why coal, as a solution to Nigeria’s power supply, has eluded the country for so long.

I see the writer as an alarmist and prophet of doom who has demonstrated that he is unaware of the role of coal in building sustainable societies and shaping the economies of the developed world. Nigeria needs to experience a dramatic breakthrough in our power generation which accidentally rose to 7000 mw recently only for us to discover we lack the transmission infrastructure to transmit 2000 mw which is now lying waste.

The writer is apparently unware of the dominant role coal is playing in the energy mix of most industrialized nations, notably, our own South Africa where coal accounted for more than 90% of domestic power generation in 2014.  The following key energy facts and targets or projections by South Africa are instructive and worthy of note. South Africa is the 17th largest producer and consumer of electricity globally; 69% of primary energy demand was provided by coal in 2012.

In China, “coal is deeply integrated into economic development”. In spite of comparative advantage in nuclear and other sources, 52% of China’s electricity will come from coal in 2040 leaving coal as the leading source of the country’s electricity generation.

World Coal Association in its recent Energy Outlook reported that “China provides an efficient example of an electrification strategy based on coal, with a 400% increase in China’s coal consumption and 660 million people lifted out of poverty since 1980s”.

India is where the dominance of coal in the country’s energy mix is attributed to factors of affordability and access and will remain the most affordable option through 2035 driven by low domestic coal prices and limited gas affordability. Currently, 60% on India’s power generation capacity is satisfied by coal.

It is evident that “coal plays a vital role in electricity generation worldwide” and the fact that government after government failed to embrace or adopt coal as solution given Nigeria’s abundant coal deposit in 18 states is a surprise and it is inexplicable. With the evolving scenario globally about coal dominating the energy mix of industrialized nations, it is curious to want to know why Nigeria is left out of all these in the face of clear inability and incapacity to tackle the country’s daunting power generation and distribution challenges.

It will be heartwarming for the public to know that the Government is doing something about coal. In the face of the spurious allegations and unverified conclusions made by Mr. Emmanuel Unaegbu of alleged outbreak of coal inspired diseases that is unknown to the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control, government silence may be misconstrued. Is government acquiescing with the grave and misleading conclusions of Emmanuel Uneagbu which I reproduce here?.  “Finally, we have to ask the hard question. Do we really need coal power to develop? If there is any iota of doubt, then it is important we leave coal in the ground. Our future is at stake. We have the sun, water and natural gas. We cannot gamble with coal”.

Unwittingly, Mr. Emmanuel Unaegbu concluded that the energy mix in Nigeria should comprise solar (sun), hydro (water) and natural gas. He failed to examine the prospect of each source of his tripartite energy mix to determine the extent to which they will meet our energy needs, especially electricity generation. Of course, he failed to admit that solar globally is only supplementary and never the mainstay of any country’s’ electricity generation. Also, there is limitation on hydro because Nigeria has virtually overstretched this source after the gigantic Mambilla Hydro Electric Project. He also failed to note the myriads of issues associated with gas, including availability, relative cost, pipeline vandalism, which combined limited our gains in optimization of power from this source.

Shortly after the Paris meeting on Emission Control, American President Donald Trump invited some countries including Nigeria to collaborate in clean coal power generation. Nigeria is well advised to heed this call as we have a lot to gain from America. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said: “There’s never been a country that has developed with intermittent power”. Nigeria cannot be an exception. The way to go is adoption of coal for an aggressive power generation, starting with 5000 MW plant at Ankpa, Kogi State, 5000 MW plant at Owukpa in Benue State, 5000 MW plant at Obollo Afor in Enugu State, 2500 MW plant at Ashaka in Gombe State and 2500 MW in Keana, Nasarawa State. This project which can be completed in about four years should bring 20,000 MW to the national grid and boost industrialization that will create minimum of 10,000 jobs. It is only when we attain this level of power generation that our investment promotion Commission can target major manufacturers around the world and invite them to locate their process nearest the power plants and minimize cost of transmission infrastructure.

The era of global use of coal is far from over! Nigeria’s era of using coal to generate electricity is in due season, especially as we can deploy clean coal technology now available. The world forecast is that coal available in 70 countries will last for 142 years while gas and oil will last 61 and 54 years respectively. This forecast shows that coal will outlive gas and oil for 81 years!  The government should put in place a National Think-Tank to explore the prospects of coal in Nigeria’s power generation. The Think –Tank will double as advisory committee on coal to power. This is a national imperative and we should gain speed starting. Where there is a will, there will be a way!

This piece with the rebuttal were culled from DailyTrust Newspaper.

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