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Pakistan Bets on Underground Coal Gasification to Help Relieve Power Shortages

Pakistan has glimpsed its energy future, and it is brown – coal, to be exact.

Sindh Engro Coal Mining Co. is developing the $3 billion Thar Coal mining project in partnership with the government of Sindh. The Thar project is expected to produce 100 megawatts of electricity by 2016 using Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) technology. The Thar UCG pilot project is situated in the Tharparkar desert in Sindh eastern Pakistan.

UCG converts coal to gas while still in the coal seam, where injection wells are drilled and used to supply the oxidants to ignite and fuel the underground combustion process, with separate production wells bringing the resultant gas to the surface. The high pressure combustion is conducted at temperatures of 1,290–1,650 degrees Fahrenheit, but can reach up to 2,730 degrees Fahrenheit. The process produces carbon monoxide and dioxide, hydrogen and methane.

Boosters of the Thar UCG project note that Block Number 5 of Thar Coal Project contains 1.4 billion tons of low-grade lignite coal reserves. Overall the coal reserves at Thar are estimated at 175 billion tons of lignite coal.

The project is being driven by Pakistan’s dire electricity situation. With about 50 percent less electricity generation capability than the actual demand, Pakistan’s National Grid currently faces more than a 5,000-megawatt shortfall in power generation, leading to blackouts in both urban and rural areas of the country. Due to unscheduled shortages by the National Power Control Center, urban areas are now subjected to unscheduled minimum 8-hour power blackouts each day, while in some parts of the country, blackouts can last up to 22 hours.

So, where will the $3 billion financing come from? According to Sindh Engro Coal Mining Co. CEO Shamsuddin A. Shaikh, “The bulk of financing will be arranged from China - we may also seek funds from other places if need be.”

Interestingly, the Thar project may also improve relations with India. When asked about Thar's geographical proximity to India and the possibility of Indian participation in Thar Shaikh replied, “Yes, that's something we have in mind. India is supposed to develop an additional 100,000 megawatts based on coal in the next five years. India currently generates more than 50 percent of their electricity from coal, using about 450 million tons of coal every year. Most of that is indigenous and about 50 million tons is imported coal. They will need to import coal, we can utilize the railway line, which will be serving our own plants as well, to export coal to India. We can also put up a power plant at the mine mouth and export electricity to India. The economics are very much there, but India-Pakistan relations are always more delicate than just the economics. A plus point of working with Indians is that they have immense knowledge and experience of coal. They have been dealing with over 400 million tons of coal per annum for a number of years. It makes more sense for us to use their expertise instead of having experts from China or anywhere else.”

One Pakistani will not have to worry about power interruptions during a torrid Ramadan, however. The new Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf residence near the capital Islamabad has just had a dedicated 24-hour power supply generator installed, guaranteeing him continuous power. Needless to say, the installation has led to charges from opposition leaders and citizens that the Prime Minister is out of touch with the lives of ordinary Pakistanis, with critics pointing out that when Ashraf earlier served as the nation’s minister of power and water, he was roundly blamed for a power crisis that escalated during his tenure.

And for the average Pakistani, he need only wait four year years until Thar comes online, which will reduce his blackouts – somewhat.

By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com

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