The Financial Express

Can we expect affordable power supply by replacing coal based power with LNG ?

Can we expect affordable power supply by replacing coal based power with LNG ?

Bangladesh government's recent decision to cancel the contracts for 10 coal fired power plants in late June 2021 has invited interest in the country and abroad. On  June 27, 2021, State Minister for Power, Energy and Mineral Resources Mr. Nasrul Hamid, MP confirmed that the government decided to cancel permissions for construction of the Patuakhali 1,320 MW, 1,200 MW North Bengal Super Thermal Power Plant, Magura 520 MW Coal Power Plant, Dhaka 282 MW Coal Power Plant, Chattogram 282 MW coal power plant, Khulna 565 MW coal power plant, 2 x1,320 MW coal power plant at Maheshkhali, Bangladesh Singapore 700 MW coal power plant, CPGCBL-Sumitomo 1,200 MW coal power plant. It may be mentioned that the ongoing major coal power plants under operation and the power plants under construction (including Matarbari 1,200 x 2=2,400 MW, Rampal 1,320 MW and Payra 1320 x2=2,620 MW and 1,320 MW, Bashkhali (Chattogram) 1,224 MW  power plants and Barishal 307 MW) have been progressing their works. The present government approved earlier 18 coal fired power plants to be built in the country. The cancelled ten power plants are part of the said 18 coal power plants.

The Power Division officials indicate that the cancelled 10 coal power plants could not make any physical progress for their implementation despite the fact that their contracts were signed several year ago. Moreover, proponents of these cancelled power plant projects could not secure investments in the pipelines to advance their projects. Therefore, the government considered the projects unreal and unnecessary to keep them in the lists of upcoming power plants. The State Minister for Power, Energy and Mineral Resources of Bangladesh further stated that the government would consider converting part of the cancelled power plant projects to run with imported LNG fuel. However, Power Division officials indicate that the necessity for converting some of the cancelled power plants into LNG fuel power plants can be considered only after careful assessment of additional power generation capacity requirements in the country. Bangladesh already has grid connected power generation capacity of 22,023 MW. The projected maximum demand for power in 2025 (as per BPDB) would be 19,900 MW. BPDB expects that in 2025 there will be an installed net power generation capacity of 35,635 MW. And the cancellation of 10 coal power plant has no role in the projected generation capacity in 2025.

Coal remains as comparatively cheaper fuel for electricity generation worldwide. Bangladesh has opted not to extract its own coal available in the northern districts but decided to use imported coal for power generation. The coal power plants  have been facing difficulties to import coal for power generation at a 'cheaper' price due to logistic constraints. The impediment is linked with the absence of deep sea port and large coal import vessel movement restrictions due to shallow depth of the existing port channels. As a result, small ships are to be used for coal import in the country (involving multiple transshipments and high handling costs), imported coal becomes costly. If the coal power plant location is away from the ports, coal import cost for the plant becomes costlier.

Also, the environmental restrictions compel coal fired power plant to use advanced and costlier technology to capture coal dust and Sulphur emission from the plant. Thus, the import based coal fired power plants in Bangladesh are not very cheap compared to many other countries. However, experience of Payra coal fired power plant (2x660 MW) still encourages the local power producers to maintain a healthy share of coal power plant for ensuring cheaper power generation and for fuel diversity.

The ongoing revision of integrated Energy and Power System Master Plan for the country may take two more years to complete. The analysis of primary fuel availability and cost for power generation and realistic projection for power sector growth requirements will influence the decision if increase of LNG share for power generation is justified.

There are infrastructural capacity constraints for LNG import as well. At present, the existing 2 Floating Storage and Regasification Units (FSRU) at Maheshkhali with installed capacity of 1,000 mmcfd (million cubic feet ) equivalent natural gas can no longer support additional import pressures for more LNG. The government has been progressing the installation of 2 more land based LNG Regasification plants (one at Payra, Patuakhali and the other at Maheshkhali, Cox's Bazar) with 1,000 mmcfd capacity each. Installation of the land based LNG regasification plants is not cheap and their installation will take minimum 3-4 years. In addition, existing gas transmission pipelines have their capacity limitations. Therefore, more LNG regasification plants will invite additional gas transmission pipelines to be build.

The domestic gas production has been declining steadily as no new gas field is added to the gas supply system. These is a long list of industries and development projects requiring natural gas supply. However, the growing gas demands and declining productions of domestic gas fields will push for more gas and electricity supply. Already a number of gas-based power plants remain idle in the country due to gas supply shortages. So, the demand side pressure for natural gas supply as primary fuel for industries and for power generation need to be assessed carefully considering the huge cost of LNG import and its impacts on power generation costs. Significant cost escalation for power generation may invite conflicts with consumers' affordability and business competiveness of the country.

The potential growth of renewable energy-based power plants and their limitations, potential capacity enhancement for nuclear power and its cost have to be assessed prior to enhancing LNG import. A balanced energy mix is healthy and may allow better energy security. On the other hand, the trend for continuous (for last 11 years per unit power price has increased on average about 90 per cent) energy and power cost escalation challenges the consumers' demand for affordable energy supply. Therefore, share of coal power plant and LNG based power generation capacity have to be defined carefully keeping in mind the government's commitment for affordable and sustainable energy and power supply to the consumers.

Mushfiqur Rahman is a mining engineer and writes on energy and environment issues.

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