Beyond coal, our energy future

There is good reason to believe that we  are entering a new era of energy  development.  Reports  of coal companies going bankrupt have hit the news.  The  surge of this shift is auspicious, as it  gained  momentum just after  the adoption of the Paris agreement on  Dec. 12,  2015. The legally-binding climate deal mandates developed and developing countries to achieve a long-term global temperature goal of as low as 1.5 degrees Celsius.  Major emitters such as  US and China are onboard to  lower their carbon footprint.  The Philippines, in its intended nationally determined contribution or INDC, also set a conditional 70-percent emission reduction goal by 2030.

Phasing out coal is considered one of the steps that have to be taken in order to have a cleaner and greener world.  Coal-fired power plants have  various environmental stressors  and as such contribute to pollution  and climate change. We discussed thoroughly the effects of the CFPPs on the environment  in the policy brief  we  produced at  the  Ateneo  School of Government.

In “Striking a Balance:  Coal-fired power plants in the Philippines’ Energy Future,” we showed that  from  emissions from the smokestacks to byproducts from coal combustion, CFPPS cause harm to the environment. The smokestacks serving the boiler emit pollutants such as bituminous and  subbituminous  coal.  From  using bituminous and  subbituminous coal, we pointed out  that   particulate  matter (PM), such as oxides of sulfur (SOx), and oxides of nitrogen (NOx)  are released to the air.  Unburnt  combustibles such as carbon monoxide (CO) and organic compounds are  also  emitted  “even under proper boiler operating conditions.”

Wastewater, ash and  leachate, which came from coal combustion, produce selenium, arsenic and mercury, all of which are dangerous to health.  These stressors came from the parent coal, some of which even persist in the environment and bio-accumulate in organisms. CCFPs also  use huge amounts of water to turn turbines and cool thermoelectric plants.  

The  amount of greenhouse gases such as  methane and carbon  that came from  CFPP operations  could not be ignored.  The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reported that “nearly 99 percent of the fuel carbon in coal is converted to CO2 during the combustion process relatively independent of firing configuration (USEPA).”  Data from the US Energy Information Administration also showed that coal power plants in the US emit 2.07 to 2.17 pounds (938.9 to 984.3 grams) of carbon dioxide  per kilowatt-hour of electricity.  Research by environmental experts Thomas Bruckner, Igor  Alexeyevich Bashmakov  and others, which was published by  Cambridge University, meanwhile,  concluded that “globally, coal power plants generate the largest lifecycle GHG emissions.”

All of these combined, “these unnatural inputs to the environment and considerable usage of natural resources lead to climate change, air, water and soil pollution, and acid rain.”  

There are technologies that could minimize the negative effects of CFPPs to the environment. These include what we call “clean coal technologies” such as supercritical and ultra-supercritical, integrated gasification combined cycle and fluidized bed combustion which could lower emissions. There are also retrofitting measures such as combustion control optimization, cooling system heat loss recovery, low-rank coal drying,  scootblower optimization, among others which have the capacity to increase efficiency. Some CFPPs in the Philippines such as the  Sual  power plant in  Pangasinan  use similar technologies in compliance with the World Bank standards as well as that of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. But even if there are technologies that could mitigate the stressors we mentioned, CFPPs, as compared to other power sources “still produce more  potential land, air, water, and people stressors per unit of electricity generated.”  

We have  mechanisms  in place in the Philippines that enable us to assess the  effects of CFPPs on the environment.   Communities that are affected by CFPPs—through the multipartite team—could participate in scoping, developing and reviewing the Environmental Impact Assessment study of CFPPS. This MMT is composed of representatives from government agencies and nongovernment groups.  The results of the EIA are  also  disclosed to the public. There is the danger though that these mechanisms are not  properly utilized and the opportunity to take part in genuine evaluation of CFPP operations is not  maximized, given limitations in the capacity of the stakeholders themselves to understand how CFPPs work.  We have to assess the effectiveness of  the MMT,  do the  necessary improvements and take steps  to  empower and educate  stakeholders  for them to be able to fulfill their role  in minimizing and even preventing the increase of  the harmful impacts of CFPPs on  the environment.

With 23 more CFPPs also already in the pipeline, stakeholders must be proactive and be vigilant in demanding that these CFPPs adopt technologies that will reduce their harmful effects to the environment. This requirement, we propose, should be part of a “gold standard” that will also include a social-cost benefit analysis and scientific assessment of the health and social impacts of CFPPs. I will expound on these social and health impacts in the next part of my column.

Last but not the  least,  the national government must also give a clear timeline of its own coal  phaseout. When we seek assistance from the international community in reducing our emissions, we must provide strong, feasible and sustainable strategies. How do we intend to reduce our coal use? What do we plan to do to deliver on our own promise? It is important that we find a way of balancing our immediate energy needs with our long-term aim to adopt clean energy.  This should be the core of our exit plan from dirty energy and of our entry into the new era of energy security.

Topics: Dean Tony La Viña , Beyond coal , our energy future
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