September 15, 2008

Returning to the Coal Option

By Joe Fernandez

SABAH MAY EVENTUALLY have no choice but to accept the coal option after rejecting a proposed 300MW coal-fired power plant in Silam, Lahad Datu, along the east coast, which already suffers from sporadic power outages.

Tenaga Nasional Bhd's proposal to set up the plant was aborted in April by the state government after strong objections from locals and non- governmental organisations (NGOs) that the project would cause serious harm to the ecology of the sensitive environment there.

`Even though Silam is the preferred site, we respect that decision,' said Tenaga chairman Tan Sri Leo Moggie Irok. `It is now more urgent to agree on a new site. Work on the east coast power plant was to have started last year. A coal-fired power plant using clean coal technology remains the most realistic option available at the present time.'

Moggie sketches a gloomy scenario `if we take the route advocated by those who express concerns for the environment': a power crisis along the east coast in the post-2011 years.

Tenaga's 80%-owned Sabah Electricity Sdn Bhd (SESB) currently generates 755MW and has forecast demand to reach 820MW by 2010. By 2025, Sabah's demand for power is expected to reach 2,330MW. The National Five-Fuel Policy calls for an optimum mix of oil, hydro, coal and renewable energy in the supply of electricity. In Sabah, there's a 66% over-dependence on fuel oil for power generation and this leaves it at the risk of supply and price fluctuations.

At the heart of the matter in Sabah's east coast is the many small, inefficient and unreliable diesel-driven generation plants which need to be replaced. At the moment, the Kota Kinabalu- Sipitang West Coast grid transports 60MW of electricity - 40% of power requirements - on a daily basis along a 270km line to the east coast, easing presure on the the low generation stations.

`What if there's a loss of this west-east grid inter- connection?' asks Dr Aznan Ezraine Ariffin, the special officer (technical) to the Tenaga CEO.

`There is a need for a central generation station in the east coast - covered by the Tawau-Sandakan Eastern Grid - which can operate on an individual mode. Preferably, a plant with 4x75MW turbines that can still continue operating if one or even two units break down.' On April 21, there was a major power failure which affected the entire state.

`Tenaga has appealed to the state government to re-consider its scrap decision or identify a new site,' confirmed state Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Datuk Masidi Manjun.

This has forced a radical re-think in government on the coal option, based on the premise that coal offers the most viable fuel option in fulfilling the need for a sizeable 300MW power station capable of providing a reliable and dependable base-load electricity source, a crucial factor in the establishment of a secure power supply system for the east coast.

However, it's unlikely that the state government would reverse its decision on the Silam site. Sandakan may be considered as an alternative, according to SESB. `We would welcome an independent Environment Impact Assessment on the project site,' announced SESB managing director Baharin Din at a media briefing on Aug 18 in Kota Kinabalu. `We are professionals. We have nothing to hide.'

It is learnt that the Sandakan Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry is willing to commission an independent EIA of an alternative site along the east coast.

Apparently, SESB had considered using gas, hydro, biomass, nuclear, solar, renewable energy and even wind for the proposed east coast power plant but none were found suitable for various reasons, leaving coal as the only `bitter pill' option available.

Baharin also provided thumbnail sketches of the various options (see box).

`Coal is the most viable fuel option for the east coast against other alternatives,' said Baharin. `Abundant supply of coal from the huge Kalimantan fields nearby will provide a secure supply at a competitive price, thus ensuring continuous operation of the plant and optimum cost of supply tariff.'

There are currently four coal-fired power plants in operation in Malaysia, with a total capacity of more than 4,500MW, and two new plants under construction in Jimah, Negri Sembilan (1,400MW) and Mukah, Sarawak (300MW). The operating plants are in Kapar, Selangor (300MW); Manjung, Perak (2,100MW); Tanjung Bin, Johore (2,100MW); and Sejingkat, Kuching (210MW).

There are also plans for a combined cycle gas power plant in Kimanis, Sabah, along the west coast while the development of hydropower in Upper Padas and Liwagu is under consideration. Discussions have also started with Sarawak Energy Bhd for the import of power from Sarawak for the west coast. Lawas and Limbang are being looked at but all these plans will not address the power generation concerns along the east coast.

Nevertheless, NGOs in Sabah have been very vocal on the issue of a coal- fired power plant, citing in general carbon emissions and `the adverse impact on the environment as a result of thermal pollution'.

WWF-Malaysia, among others, has urged the Federal and state governments to be guided by one of the principles of the Sabah Development Corridor, ie, to ensure sustainable growth via environmental conservation.

`With the continuous rise of the price of coal, will cheaper sources be eventually sought?' asks Dr Rahim Matsah, WWF-Malaysia's CEO for the Borneo Programme. `How can we be sure that the coal under Maliau Basin - Sabah's off limits Lost Valley - will not be mined to feed this power plant in the future?'


* GAS: There is no gas along Sabah's east coast and laying a 300km pipeline from the west coast or shipping gas from Peninsular Malaysia, if available, would be prohibitive. Besides there are security considerations. Petronas has also tied up its gas production in long-term commitments to foreign buyers;

* HYDRO: There is no suitable water source or river along the east coast or high gradient for the required head pressure;

* BIOMASS: A large area of land - unavailable - would be required for the supply of fruit bunches for fuel. Besides, this method can never generate enough power - the range is only between 2MW and 10MW - to satisfy a major part of current demand;

* NUCLEAR: These power plants do not emit any greenhouse gases but safety is still a major concern and creating a secure as well as permanent system for disposing of spent nuclear fuel remains a challenge for the industry;

* SOLAR: This is an alternative only applicable where current demand is 30kW or less. For 300MW and above, ie, large-scale power generation, harnessing energy from the sun is still not cost- effective although the technology has great promise. To produce 300MW of power, over 50,000 solar panels and about 90 sq km of land would be required.; and

* WIND: There must be constant wind, `not for just three seconds', to produce wind power and this is not the case along the east coast. Even if sufficient wind power was available, there would still be the need for a large spinning reserve back-up power supply, which is not cheap although promising high efficiency. To plant up 300 wind turbines would require a land area bigger than Singapore.

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