The USC technology for coal-based power plants may provide some reassurance that coal is still worthy of investment
By RAHIMI YUNUS
Renewable energy (RE) might be the current flavour, but one could not simply dismiss the dominance of coal-fired power plants that seem to be the main contention among the more environment-friendly quarters.
Energy fundamentalists have so far not been too kind towards coal-consuming facilities; in fact, for any other fossil fuel-based energy including natural gas and oil, these plants are always associated with environmental issues.
The more advanced countries like the US and Europe are championing RE, an exercise that could see the earlier demise of the more traditional coal-fired plants.
The attitude is slightly different in Asia, Africa and the Middle East where coal is still an important element for energy generation due to its more economical disposition.
The fact is, coal-fired power plants are still the largest source of electricity generation worldwide at about 38%. But, for how long?
According to the International Energy Agency, by 2022, the share of renewables (including hydro) in power generation will reach 30%, up from 24% in 2016.
While RE is slowly phasing out coal, the ultra-supercritical (USC) technology for coal-based power plants may provide some reassurance that coal is still worthy of investment.
1st USC Plant in SE Asia
Manjung 4 made history to be South- East Asia’s first USC coal power plant when it began its commercial operation on April 14, 2015.
Touted as “the region’s most efficient power plant”, it has added 1,010MW to the national grid, which is enough to power nearly two million households in the country.
As it is, Manjung 1 to 3 each has a capacity of 700MW, while the latest unit, Manjung 5, which also uses USC technology, is able to generate a similar 1,000MW as its predecessor.
In total, the five siblings bring out some 4,100MW, making operator TNB Janamanjung Sdn Bhd the biggest electricity producer in Peninsular Malaysia which supplies 23% of the total need.
Indeed, the tranquil coastal district of Manjung in Perak, populated by less than 300,000 people, is actually growling with power that feeds almost a quarter of the electricity demand of Peninsular Malaysia.
“My mission statement is simple: Don’t fail…23% of the country’s electricity need is on my shoulder. Can you imagine what will happen if this Manjung facility goes off?” TNB Janamanjung MD Datuk Shamsul Ahmad said in an interview with The Malaysian Reserve (TMR) during a media trip to the power plant recently.
Gold Standard for Coal Power Plant
The RM6.5 billion Manjung 4 includes boilers, steam turbine, generators and a complete set of air quality control systems supplied by turnkey contractor General Electric Co (GE) and its consortium partner CMC Engineering Sdn Bhd.
Simply put, USC technology at the plant operates at a much higher temperature and pressure of steam, which improves the efficiency of boilers and turbines to an around 42% level.
This results in less coal required, which reduces greenhouse gases that are released.
Manjung 4 is equipped with a seawater flue gas desulfurisation system which absorbs more than 90% sulphur dioxide emissions in order to achieve 200mg/Nm3 level remarkably below the World Bank standards of 750mg/Nm3.
Carbon dioxide emission is also reduced by up to 5% to 200mg/Nm3 level.
Additionally, TNB Janamanjung monitors the air quality from three different locations surrounding the facility area of up to 5km distance, which also includes acid rain.
For the fly ashes, the company sells the by-products to cement companies, instead of throwing it and polluting the environment.
“When we talk about coal power plants it always has the perception of pollution. “We have made a lot of engagements and explained the clean coal technology that we employ,” Shamsul said.
Such a perception is, however, hard to counter — especially when RE is slowly becoming cheaper and subsequently closing the gap with coal.
Balancing Producing Energy and Protecting Environment
Every energy mix, either coal, gas, oil or RE, has their own pros and cons.
Each country has its own risk appetite and geographical advantages (as well as disadvantages) that deter- mine the kind of energy mix that it is willing to adopt.
In Malaysia, fossil fuels are still the major source of energy at 98%.
Coal and natural gas account for roughly a 50:50 ratio to the national power generation mix, while 1% to 2% is generated by hydro and solar.
Wind might not be feasible for the nation compared to the European countries and some parts of the US.
Regardless, the newly appointed Energy, Green Technology, Science, Climate Change and Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin is pushing to increase the contribution of RE (excluding hydro) from the current 2% to 20% in the medium term.
For a technology provider like GE, the company remains non-biased to any energy solution.
“We are fuel agnostics. We will adapt and fit to what is best for the country and what the policy will guide,” GE Steam Power Systems commercial GM Dr Sacha Parneix, who was present during the Manjung media trip, told TMR.
As it is, RE comes with its own set of constraints that include intermittency and power density.
Parneix, whose job covers businesses in the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey, said it is all about balancing between the power demand, energy security, economics and environmental factors.
Meanwhile, Shamsul remains realistically optimistic on the future of coal-fired power plants.
“To replace people like us with a 1,000MW (plant) is not easy,” he said.
“We will be around for many more years, definitely.”