The government's plan, as reported in the media, to reduce the number of coal-based power plants and thus the amount of power to be generated using coal, brings relief to the concerns of environmentalists, scientists and the general public who have been campaigning against major coal use due to the danger it poses to the environment and human health. Be it for the failure to collect funds for the projects or for environmental concerns, the plan, if agreed upon, will take Bangladesh closer to the sensible world, whose policies tend to downsize and eventually discontinue coal as a major source of primary energy. There is no official statement yet and the decision is pending for a nod from the highest authority of the Government. Media sources, however, report that the government may scale down the number of large coal-based power plants to only five and scrap the other 13 in the pipeline.
Coal is a dirty fuel and has been pointedly shown by climate scientists around the world to be the prime polluter of the atmosphere, resulting in heating up the world with severe negative consequences. Most nations around the world are pledge bound to take action and move towards zero emission policies following the Paris Climate Agreement, whereby the use of primary sources of pollution like coal will be gradually phased out in specific timeframes.
Bangladesh has for a long time been a gas-based mono-energy country, and the energy demand was primarily met by local gas supplies. But the depletion of gas reserves and the declining volume of gas production prompted the government to diversify energy sources, thus planning an energy mix with major coal, liquefied natural gas (LNG), nuclear power and import of power.
The foreign consultant engaged to prepare a Power Sector Master Plan (PSMP) for Bangladesh, in its report submitted in 2010, suggested an energy mix with 50 percent coal dependency for power generation. This plan was revised in 2016 and the suggested use of coal in the master plan was revised to 35 percent of total power generation. This translates into generation of 10,500 MW of power in 2030 and 20,000 MW in 2041 using coal, when the total power generation capacity is expected to reach 30,000 MW and 57,000 MW respectively. In the above context, the annual consumption of coal for power generation will be about 36 million tons in 2030 and 70 million tons in 2040.
The present consumption of coal for power generation is about 3.5 million tons per year for the two coal-based power plants, one at Barapukuria (440 MW) in Dinajpur and the other is the newly commissioned Payra plant (660 MW) in Patuakhali. This means that if the Power Sector Master Plan 2016 is implemented, the coal consumption for power generation would be 10 times more in 2030 and 20 times more in 2041 than the present consumption level.
The PSMP 2016 formula of generating 35 percent of power by coal prompted the government to move forward with an aggressive plan of building coal-based power plants, both in the public and private sector. As many as 33 coal-based power plant projects were approved and coal-based power was supposed to be the most important contributor of power. The high concentration of coal power plants in small areas led the general public to realise the disastrous consequences of its environmental impacts. For example, several large coal power plants were planned to be built on the small island of Moheshkhali, which means that Bangladesh's most valued tourist area, Cox's Bazar (which is in close proximity) would be turned into a sink for the emissions and would eventually damage and degrade the pristine natural beauty and environment of the area.
The international independent environmental watchdog Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air's (CREA) lead analyst Lauri Myllyviro, in a recent webinar presentation, focused on the high concentration of coal-based power plants in Bangladesh. It has been pointed out in the report that the eight coal-fired power projects proposed in Cox's Bazar district (Moheskhali) constitute the largest proposed coal-fired cluster anywhere in the world. And this is in a location with a very high population density and is close to the tourism capital of Bangladesh. The plants would emit an estimated 1,600 kg of mercury per year into the air, of which one-third would be deposited into land and freshwater ecosystems.
There are two sides to the coal burning problem. One is the emission of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas which, when entering into the global atmosphere, adds to the warming up process of planet earth. The second is the local environmental pollution due to emissions of many other pollutants including ash, nitrogen oxide, mercury, sulfur, chromium and polluted waste water, among others. Bangladesh's contribution to atmospheric pollution through carbon dioxide is insignificant compared to the major coal polluters of the world, but on the issue of local environmental pollution, there are serious concerns, especially for the one project in Rampal, which is located very close to the Sundarbans.
Ramplal has been in the centre of an international campaign, in addition to the national one, with respect to the danger it poses to the UNESCO heritage site, the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest. The campaigns' points—that the Rampal coal power plant will have negative impacts on the Sundarbans' ecosystem, will harm its environment and eventually result in lasting damage to the forest—has been substantiated by several scientific reports. As many as 11 scientific reports prepared by international scientists dealing with various components of the pollution chain, such as toxic gas, mercury, ash, coal dust, waste water etc, have been made public in addition to submitting these to the authorities. A UNESCO team visiting the Sundarbans pointedly concluded that the Rampal coal power project would harm the Sundarbans.
The present government, to its credit, has been successful in raising the power generation capacity to a new high at a speed never seen before in the country. There has been a positive gap between power generation capacity (20,000 MW+) and power demand (8,000 MW to 13,000 MW), meaning our power generation capacity far outpaces the power demand at present. The government is in a position to comfortably cut back on the power generation master plan by reducing those of coal-based plants. The list of coal-fired power plants the government is supposed to scrap should include the controversial Rampal project. This is the right time to reconsider the Rampal coal power project which, if built, will remain controversial for a long time into the future. With such high levels of successful development achieved, the government can very well do without Rampal.
Dr Badrul Imam is Honorary Professor at the Department of Geology, University of Dhaka.