At a time when the world is pouring money into renewable and clean energy, Pakistan is raising ire for its plan to boost urgently needed generating capacity through Chinese-funded coal-fired power plants.
Chinese companies and their partners are expected to spend around $15 billion over the next 15 years, with plans to build coal power plants of varying sizes across the country.
Mohammed Younus Dagha, former federal secretary for water and power and now commerce secretary, emphasized that the coal plants are part of a larger energy plan, the $54 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). It includes roughly $33 billion to be spent on a total of 19 energy projects, including coal-fired and renewable power plants, and transmission lines, among other infrastructure.
“Hefty investment under the CPEC project has held out hopes of significantly spiking domestic power generation (by) around 6,000 megawatts by the end of 2018,” Dagha said.
Combined, the projects will eventually generate 16,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity, which the government says is urgently needed.
Approximately 75 percent of that power will come from coal-powered plants, which the government insists will be fitted with the latest technology to cut back emissions.
But energy experts and environmentalists have lambasted the plans for coal-fired plants as a waste of money that will badly damage the environment and affect Pakistan’s image as a low-carbon emitters.
“Such plants would only accelerate the rising trajectory of the country’s carbon emissions, (accelerating) environmental degradation that costs billions of rupees to the national exchequer annually,” said Syed Jawad Hussain Shahzad, an energy expert at the Comsats Institute of Information Technology in Islamabad.
Pakistan currently has an energy deficit of around 4,000 MW. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), average energy demand in the country is around 19,000 MW, against generation of around 15,000 MW.
During the summer months of May to July, air-conditioning systems place an extra burden on the national power grid, often causing power cuts as demand soars past 20,000 MW.
The IEA forecasts Pakistan’s total electricity demand rising to more than 49,000 MW by 2025 as the population increases.
According to the World Bank, only 67 percent of the country’s approximately 190 million people have access to electricity.
To improve access and maintain economic growth, Pakistan needs to invest between 3.7 percent and 5.5 percent of its annual GDP into increasing electrical production, the bank said in a report on South Asian infrastructure published in 2013. Pakistan’s abundance of coal is part of the motivation for building coal-powered plants.
According to Planning, Development, and Reform Minister Ahsan Iqbal, the sprawling desert region of Tharparkar in southern Pakistan, which is home to some of the world’s largest coal reserves, should be exploited.
“Pakistan must tap these unutilized vast underground reserves of 175 billion tons of coal, adequate to meet the country’s energy needs for several decades, for powering the country’s economic wheel, creating new jobs, and fighting spiking unemployment and poverty,” he said.
The country ranks 135th on the list of global emitters of carbon on a per capita basis, accounting for less than 1 percent of total global carbon emissions, according to World Bank data.
According to Pakistan’s report to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change last year, its 2015 emissions stood at 405 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MTCO2 eq.).
However, emissions are increasing at a rate of 3.9 percent (16 MTCO2 eq.) per year.
Iqbal said the planned coal power plants will use the latest “supercritical” emissions-reducing technology used in China itself and elsewhere.
“The latest coal power plants (will) be as clean as gas-based power generation,” Iqbal insisted. “(They) require less coal per megawatt-hour, leading to lower emissions, including carbon dioxide and mercury, higher efficiency and lower fuel costs per megawatt.”
But independent energy experts say the government's affinity for coal is a huge worry.
“No sane person would want electricity from dirty energy sources, even though supercritical technology is used," said Malik Amin Aslam, a former state minister for the environment who serves as global vice president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. "These plants, not being completely free of carbon emissions, will still harm the public health and the country’s environment.”
Pakistan is considered one of the countries most impacted by climate change, from worsening floods and soaring summer temperatures to erratic rainfall.
Sun Weidong, China’s ambassador to Pakistan, said coal power is only part of the projects China is supporting through CPEC.
“We are equally helping Pakistan bring more and more renewable energy sources into its energy mix by tapping its massive wind and solar energy potential,” Sun said.
Some of the renewable energy projects planned under CPEC include a solar park, four wind farms, and three hydro plants, which together would generate around 3,900 MW, at a cost of about $7.5 billion.
Pakistan could potentially generate each year 2.9 million MW of clean energy from solar, 340,000 MW from wind, and 100,000 MW from hydropower.
“We really fail to fathom the government’s inclination toward environmentally damaging coal-power plants while the country can generate millions of megawatts of solar, wind, and hydro-electricity,” said Mir Ahmad Shah, executive secretary of the Pakistan Renewable and Alternative Energy Association. “Even countries like Saudi Arabia -- rich in oil resources -- are gradually switching over to clean energy sources.”
Reporting by Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio for Thomson Reuters Foundation