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Why Is China Funding Unsustainable Coal Projects In Pakistan?


On April 16th, Chinese investments in Pakistan through the much-vaunted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) were revised upwards, from $46 billion to a whopping $62 billion. The project, part of China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative to invest in trade routes from Asia to Europe, has huge implications for Pakistan’s development prospects. As part of CPEC, Beijing plans to build new industrial parks, railways, and roads to link its Xinjiang region with Pakistan’s port city of Gwadar. But instead of giving cause for celebration, the colossal Chinese investments heading to Pakistan have sparked massive protests from locals and environmentalists. Why? Because of Beijing’s senseless decision to use part of the funds to build outdated coal power plants.

Since Pakistan boasts more than 175 billion tonnes of coal (equal to Saudi Arabia’s oil deposits in terms of heating value), harnessing its energy reserves is crucial to ensure the country’s economic development. Currently, Islamabad only generates 0.1 percent of its energy needs from coal, relying on expensive coal and LNG imports, as well as 4 nuclear power plants and substantial hydroelectric dams to power its economy. However, instead of opting for cutting edge technology, the Chinese decided to build 10,000 MW worth of subcritical coal-fired plants (sub-CPC), an obsolete way of burning coal that ranks among the most polluting ways of generating energy.

Make no mistake, with Pakistan’s energy crisis reaching a tipping point – with a shortfall estimated at 4,000 MW and over 140 million Pakistanis lacking reliable access to electricity - China’s intervention couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The majority of rural households in the country still lack access to conventional energy sources and power their homes and businesses with unreliable materials like kerosene, firewood and plant waste. This causes frequent blackouts, which in turn impact quality of life and are estimated to shave up to 2 percent off GDP growth every year. Related: The Bullish Case For Oil Is Fading Fast

Some have questioned the rationale behind Pakistan’s embrace of coal when it could be turning towards renewable energy solutions like solar panels. But India’s experience with bringing electricity to its rural communities shows the limitations of this approach. The government has met 77 percent of its target to connect villages to power grids, but has only met a dismal 14 percent of its goal for villages designated for off-grid power like solar. Many villages that, for a short time, enjoyed life on the grid have now plunged into the darkness once again as solar panels, wind turbines, and the like fell victim to theft, damage, and disrepair. It’s understandable that India has prioritized clean coal technology rather than unreliable renewables as part of its goal to increase power capacity. And it’s logical that Pakistan, too, is prioritizing coal as a way to expand access to electricity.

Not only are coal-fired plants more affordable and reliable than other energy sources, Beijing’s projects could generate over 1.3 GW of electricity annually when fully implemented. However, this is where the leaders of CPEC have made their critical misstep, by opting to build sub-CPC plants instead of their more technically advanced relatives, the supercritical power plants. The distinction here is important, since subcritical plants use greater amounts of lower-grade coal, which is then burnt at lower temperatures and pressures, thereby emitting far more carbon dioxide (CO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxide (NOx).

Again, this is where Pakistan should have taken a leaf out of India’s playbook. India has already made significant headway in addressing the need to balance its reliance on coal with concerns about pollution by successfully blending fossil fuels with its climate change commitments. Late last year, New Delhi announced that it would be phasing out all old, inefficient power plants to replace them with supercritical ones over the next five years as part of its plan to reduce emissions. Piyush Goyal, the country’s Energy Minister, argued that upgrading 40GW of sub-CPC plants would generate savings “far greater than possibly the 100,000 MW of solar power that we will be generating.” Related: Space Mining: The Final Frontier For Oil Countries

The government has also been exploring how the use of homegrown carbon capture technology can help it square the circle of increasing power capacity while minimizing emissions. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, for example, can store up to 90 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation and other processes in allocated reservoirs, such as depleted oil and gas fields and un-mineable coal seams. Its sister technology, carbon capture and utilization (CCU), uses the same principles but instead puts the captured carbon to work. China has been pursuing the same clean coal solutions at home, as well, such as the Waigaoqiao No 3 plant, one of the most energy efficient in the world. If the average global efficiency of all coal plants were to increase from the current 33 percent to 42 percent by using technology like CCS or ultra-supercritical boilers, this would reduce annual carbon dioxide emissions by a whopping 2 billion tons.

It’s clear that Beijing recognizes the importance of leveraging the latest advancements in clean coal technology. However, they should be using their expertise and cash to push Islamabad in the same direction – not funding the construction of outdated, subcritical plants. With Beijing breaking new ground with several new energy plants in Pakistan, it should use its clout and know-how to bring power to the people in the most sustainable way possible. Otherwise, Pakistan could end up with an inefficient short-term solution to a long-term question.

By Richard Talley for Oilprice.com

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  • John Scior on April 27 2017 said:
    Good article. It exemplifies the difficulty ( if not impossibility ) of convincing poor developing nations to invest substantially more for the latest and greatest technologically advanced way ( and more expensive ) of generating electricity for their populations when a simpler less expensive method exists. And not to seem hypocritical, its also extremely difficult to get the citizens of developed countries to invest say in Tesla EV's when a conventionally powered gasoline engine will do the job. When the economics of non-carbon emitting energy become superior to carbon emitting sources, then change will occur. One should also consider that entities that have a vested interest in the carbon emitting energy sources will do what they can to keep their investments making returns. I have no doubt this is a way for China to modernize their electrical power generating system to improve the pollution problem they have and find a place to "sell" their old coal generating plants.
  • Abbas Bilgrami on April 28 2017 said:
    Dear Richard

    Perhaps you might find this link useful.


    Whether this is political speak or reality I leave it upto you to decide.

    Not all the projects are supercritical however a large proportion are.


    Abbas Bilgrami
  • Keshav Pawar on April 29 2017 said:
    As you know CPEC is already established and major road links are completed in September 2015. Six month ago, on 13 November 2016, Gwadar port was officially inaugurated and first cargo ship was arrived in Gwadar for opening. Please let know, How many ships and cargo arrived afterwords? Is situation like Hambantota is going to repeat here?

    Prime ports like Karachi and Qasim port are working under capacity and major road links are completed. How much FDI beyond China Pakistan got in last two years?After Free Trade agreement in 2007 , Pakistan trade deficit is widening continuously every year and every major Industries are crippled because of cheap Chinese goods. Why you hope s in future it will not going to continue? Is China the number one reason for Pakistan’s unemployment?
    The routes connected to Europe and Asia are completed and operational. Why European and East Asian nations going to use CPEC route which usually closed for several months because of extreme weather and has terrorism affected?

    Governor of State Bank of Pakistan, Ashraf Mahmood Wathra, in December 2015, had said “I don’t know out of the $46 billion, how much is debt, how much is equity and how much is in kind”. Why government is hiding these critical details of deal even Governor of State Bank does not have any info about it?

    Instead of concentrating on improving export and industrial sector, Pakistan is obtaining loans from a variety of sources, including the multilateral financial institutions, and through the floatation of bonds in the international market as well as from the foreign commercial banks. Pakistan is taking more loans to cover their deficits and interests of maturing debts, which now reached at new alarming levels and may even lead to Bankruptcy. What Pakistan is doing for reducing overall Debt?

    Due to already burden of existing loans, Pakistan is finding very hard to lend money from existing sources as Local and International Institutions are not willing to offer more loans. With no choice Pakistani government is now putting few of their national assets as mortgage in trading more loans. By mortgaging Motorways, Airports, and Broadcasting stations, Every year Pakistan have to pay Trade Deficit (Currently $24 Billion) plus Budget Deficit plus Interest of there current debts (currently $220 Billion) plus CPEC related loans (Originally $11 Billion Loans with 2% interest plus $35 Billion with 17% guaranteed ROE [Official Figures] and by the way loans are now reached around $62 Billion). How Pakistan will payback these loans and adjustments when Two-thirds of the tax (66%) revenue collected was used for debt servicing, Trade deficit is continuously increasing and exports and remittances are continually falling down?
  • Kashif Zahid on May 01 2017 said:
    Hi Richard,

    Great article. However, I looked up more information on the type of technology used for coal power plants in CPEC and found this information: http://www.cpecinfo.com/cpec-news-detail?id=MTk0Ng==

    It says, "Particulate matter can be controlled by passing exhaust gases through Electrostatic Precipitator (ESP) which catches carbon and dust particles by static electricity phenomenon."

    Can you please elaborate, if that address your concern?

  • David on May 01 2017 said:
    I wonder what the author's source is? My understanding is that while not all coal-fired powerplants in CPEC is supercritical, the vast majority are.

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