Coal-generated electricity: not clean, not cheap, and is no guarantee of energy security

16 September 2018

On May 30, His excellency the minister of electricity celebrated the opening of  the bids for t the Hamrawein power plant which is located on the Red Sea coast near Safaga. Hamrawein is the first coal-fired plant in Egypt with a production capacity of 6,000 megawatts, which makes it the biggest coal power plant in the world.

This is happening while the rest of the world is tapering off the use of coal-generated electricity.  The International Energy Outlook Report issued last year by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows that worldwide consumptions from all sources of energy are increasing with the exception of coal. Coal-powered energy will continue to decline by 10 percent in the next two decades, replaced by natural gas and renewable energy.

While most of this decrease is occurring in OECD countries, the same pattern can be observed in developing countries that conventionally have made intensive use of coal. China, the biggest coal user on the planet, will decrease its reliance on coal by 25 percent; India, the second largest user, will decrease coal use by 15 percent in the next 20 years.. Coal has lost the battle, as the head of the US Department of Energy  has observed

Despite these clear projections, Egypt is determined to expand its use of coal. Coal  still finds champions in Egypt, who tout its use for three primary reasons: it’s cheap, it’s clean, and it can guarantee energy security.

The problem is none of these supposed advantages stands up under scrutiny.

Coal is not cheap

Globally, coal is increasingly disfavored not only because of its adverse health and environmental effects, but also because of economic considerations. Where once coal was the cheapest energy source, it has lost ground in the market to other sources like renewables, particularly in the Global South. The price of renewable energy is expected to fall below the price of coal around the world in the next decade.

In fact, India already canceled projects for coal-powered energy projects generating 14,000 megawatts in May 2017, choosing instead to focus on solar energy, having observed that solar energy cost 33 cents per kilowatt hour (kw/h) compared to 47 cents for coal.

The Abu Dhabi energy complex project achieved a record cost of 2.42 cents per kwh for photoelectric panels, while the Sakaka solar project in Saudi Arabia achieved a cost of 1.79 cents per kw/h, a world record.  In Egypt, wind energy at Mt. al-Zayt cost 40 cents per kw/h in 2016; the cheapest bids for the Hamrawein plant estimate the cost at 45 cents per kw/h.

Coal is a loser not only compared to renewable energy. It is now more expensive than natural gas, especially in combined cycle plants, even without calculating the cost of CO2 capture. Last year the cost of gas-power electricity in the US reached 16 cents per kw/h, compared to 22 cents for coal.

More importantly, the real cost coal far exceeds its nominal rate when its environmental and health impacts are calculated. These costs are borne not by investors, but by society, which bears the brunt of the health costs in the form of respiratory, cardiac, and neurological diseases, cancers, and other illnesses.

In dollar terms, these illnesses cost billions every year.

The EU has found that pollution from coal leads to 24,000 deaths annually, 19,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, and some 30 million severe respiratory infections, costing upward of 4 million work days, or an estimated €15–42 billion annually. In the US, a study by Harvard University estimated the social cost of coal use to be about $354 billion annually, while in Egypt a study by the Environment Ministry in 2014 found that one coal-fired plant working at half the capacity of Hamrawein incurs a social cost of $1.6–5.9 billion annually.

In short, the cost of coal increases exponentially when one accounts for the social impacts.

Coal is not clean

Speaking about the Hamrawein project, the minister said that it uses “clean coal,” suggesting that plant will not be polluting or hazardous. This is wrong concept. The term “clean coal” is typically used to refer to technologies that limit coal’s carbon and other polluting emissions—technologies that are already used worldwide. But these technologies do not make coal safe or clean. 

According to the US Environment protection Agency  the burning of coal releases 76 different pollutants in massive quantities, and filters do not capture all of them. While Egyptian law allows factories and power plants to release these pollutants in quantities greater than international norms, even these international emissions standards are not safe.

A medium-sized coal-powered cement plant that produces about 4,000 tons daily , according to an  expert report submitted in a legal case, emits about 900,000 m3 of gases every hour. After filtering, the plant releases about 70 kg of dust every hour each day, and this is a legal limit

A coal-fired power plant producing 500 megawatts emits about 10,000 tons of CO2 every year and an equivalent amount of nitrous oxide, as well as 500 tons of particulates and huge amounts of mercury, lead, and other heavy metals. No technologies prevent all these emissions.

Coal also generates pollution in transport and loading, as coal dust spreads to surrounding areas and transport routes. The Hamrawein plant will require 16 million tons of coal every year, and transport and handling itself is a potential hazard.

Burning the coal also generates tons of solid and liquid waste every year, which contains variable amounts of toxins and carcinogens like mercury and thallium. The waste is stored near the plants, meaning it can be spread by wind, leak into aquifers, or carried by rains and floods into water resources.

Coal is no guarantee of energy security

Secure energy is availability of energy. This security  depends on several factors: the availability of primary energy sources, a secure supply chain, the ownership and independence of energy technologies, and environmental sustainability.

Countries with sources such as gas, petrol, sun, wind... can secure energy at a reasonable price; countries without them are more vulnerable to political vagaries and global price fluctuations.

In seeking to insulate themselves against the impact of these fluctuations, states generally rely on energy diversification, with the specific mix varying from country to country based on their particular needs and conditions.

Egypt does not have coal reserves and so will be wholly dependent on the global market for supply. Nor does it own coal technologies, So with the relatively high cost of coal and its adverse health and environmental impacts, does coal qualify as a secure source of energy?

Better Alternatives

In contrast, Egypt owns substantial natural gas resources that currently cover all its needs and more, and it possesses massive resources for renewable energy, particularly solar energy, with direct solar radiation delivering roughly 2,000 kw/h per square meter. Wind capacity is also promising, especially on the Gulf of Suez, where average wind speeds come in at 5–11 meters per second.

The world is taking decisive steps toward renewables. Renewable energy is currently the fasting growing energy source worldwide and will account for 30 percent of global energy production by 2040. The investment opportunities this presents are also on the rise.

Electricity generated by solar and wind energy is a real guarantee of energy security in Egypt. These sources are inexhaustible and their technologies are constantly improving and growing cheaper. Thanks to the availability of natural gas and the fact that Egypt produces surplus electricity, the country is perfectly poised to make the transition  to renewables.

Instead of becoming captive to the global price of coal and its increasingly obsolete technologies, lethal health effects, and inevitable depletion, Egypt could more effectively achieve energy security by directing investments and efforts toward renewables, focusing on improving energy efficiency, and supporting decentralized networks and smart systems.

This Article has been published vis el Mada website in Mada in 27th June 2018 and translated by EIPR