THE prime ministers of Bangladesh and India unveiled the plaque of the foundation stone of the 1,320 MW Friendship Super Thermal Power Project, popularly known as Rampal coal-fired power plant, on October 4. Sheikh Hasina and Dr. Manmohan Singh officially inaugurated the grid connectivity for transmission of electric power between Bangladesh and India at Bheramara in Kushtia through video conferencing. The official inauguration of the projects is the logical continuation of the historic joint communiqué signed between Bangladesh and India in January 2010.
Left leaning activists, opposition political parties and groups along with a section of environmental activists have been agitating against the Rampal power plant project. Leader of the opposition Khaleda Zia, reacting to the news of unveiling of the Rampal power plant project on the same day at a public rally in Sylhet, said that “the power project would be scrapped once my party comes to power, because the plant would destroy all animals, and environment of the Sundarbans.” She further added: “We are not against power plants. We need them, but not at Rampal. The plant may be set up somewhere else in the country.”
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asserted that the Rampal power plant would not cause any harm to the Sundarbans or the livelihood of the people in the surrounding areas. As reported, Indian PM Manmohan Singh said: “I extend my best wishes to the project and call upon those implementing it to observe the highest environmental standards, given that the Sundarbans is our common heritage.”
The government plans to set up several more coal-based mega power plants in Moheshkhali of Cox's Bazaar, Banshkhali of Chittagong, Barguna, Munshiganj and Ashuganj. There are plans to set up three more coal-fired power plants with 1,320 MW capacity each after signing of government-to-government contracts with Malaysia, China and Korea. On September 29, the cabinet committee on purchase of the government approved five coal-based power plants to be built, owned and operated (BOO) by local private companies. As approved, Orion Power and Associates will set up three coal-based plants in Dhaka and Chittagong with a generation capacity of 1,400 MW. Two other coal-based plants will be set up by a joint venture of S. Alam Group and HTG Development Group in Chittagong and Barisal. Generation capacity of the two plants will be a maximum of 1,100 MW. As reported, tariff rates approved for the Orion power plants will vary between Tk.6.69 and Tk.6.76/kW, and Tk.6.60 and Tk 6.79/kW for the S. Alam and HTG Group.
On June 27, 2012, Orion Group had signed an agreement with Bangladesh Power Development Board for building three coal-fired power plants for 1,105 MW power generations as IPP projects at a total cost of $1.4 billion within 36-45 months. Of these, one was planned to be set up in Anwara, Chittagong (282.67MW), one in Labanchara, Khulna (282.67 MW) and one in Mawa of Munshiganj (522 MW). The government agreed to buy electricity from the Mawa plant at Tk.4.095 per kWh (US cents 5.8497), from the Chittagong plant at Tk.3.795 (US cents 5.4214), and from the Khulna plant at Tk.3.785 (US cents 5.4071).
The indicated power tariff looks attractive but hardly pragmatic, as the power plants were planned on costly imported coal. As a result, the approved coal-fired power plants so far have not been implemented. The initiatives for development of coal-fired power plants face various challenges. Among them, the absence of local supply of coal, serious limitations of port and inland water transport infrastructure required for import of large volume of coal, lack of experience of large-scale coal imports, maintaining a balance between affordable cost for electricity generation and use of environment-friendly power generation technologies are a few.
Finance Minister A.M.A. Muhith recently said to the media that the companies that got the job for power plant development would decide from where they would procure coa. The agreements will stipulate punishment to the companies if they fail to go for power production within the stipulated time.
The government has little option but to go ahead with coal-fired power generation as 78% of the existing power plants are gas-based and have been facing serious problems with increasing gas supply shortages. Unless there is a major breakthrough in gas discovery in the near future, there is a genuine fear that the remaining gas resources will be depleted within one decade. Also, to attain the government's vision for making electricity available for all Bangladeshis within 2021, approximately 24,000 MW of electricity generation target has be met within that period. The government also has set the target for 50% of the power generation using coal within 2030.
If Bangladesh truly wants to attain a balanced mix of primary fuel diversity it needs to immediately address the issues of mining domestic coal and build infrastructure for large-scale coal imports. Also, coal-based power plants should be developed with environmentally sustainable and economically affordable technologies.
The writer is a mining engineer writes on energy and environment issues.