How Southeast Asian Countries Could Drive the Future of Coal Technology

Poised to drive the future of coal power, many Southeast Asian countries are considering new coal plants with high-efficiency, low-emissions (HELE) technologies, a new report suggests.

According to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) December-released World Energy Outlook 2017, Southeast Asia, along with India and other developing economies in Asia, will drive global coal demand. The region’s coal consumption is expected to grow two-and-a-half times to 385 million tonnes of coal equivalent (Mtce) in 2040, even as demand remains sluggish in the rest of the world compared to other fuels. Demand growth will clearly be driven by power plants, which are expected to account for nearly 75% of additional coal use in the coming 25 years, the agency noted.

“Electricity demand grows by 3.7% per year over the period and the region’s power system planners need to mobilise all sources of power generation to keep pace. Coal is a fuel of choice not only because it is markedly cheaper than natural gas in the long term but also because coal projects are in many cases easier to pursue as they do not require capital-intensive fuel delivery infrastructure (unlike gas),” it said.

In a June 2018 paper for the IEA Clean Coal Centre, Dr. Ian Barnes posited that the role of HELE coal-fired power technology could be marked across the region. HELE technologies, he noted, include supercritical (SC), ultrasupercritical (USC), and advanced ultrasupercritical (AUSC) technologies. These plants—often 800 MW or more—offer several benefits over subcritical units because they produce power more efficiently by operating at higher temperatures and pressures. While initial capital costs for such plants are higher, less coal is required per unit of electricity produced—which provides significant operating cost savings over the life of the asset. SC or USC units could also involve 13% and 19% fewer carbon emissions than a new subcritical unit.

Barnes surveyed six small but populous economies in the region: Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. One common challenge faced by all these nations is that they need to accelerate access to affordable power, he said.

Bangladesh. Power generation in the country is heavily rooted in natural gas and fuel oils, but reviews of natural gas reserves are driving a shift in power generation policy toward coal. The government has committed to a massive increase in coal-fired capacity, and the share of coal in the generating mix could rise from 2% to 50%. All new and planned future coal units are largely based on USC technology. Among its newest projects is the 1,320-MW Rampal Upazila supercritical project, a joint partnership with India’s state-owned NTPC.

Indonesia. Though it is the world’s largest steam coal exporter (and it supplies half of Asia’s steam coal imports), this country has moved to limit coal and increase its use of natural gas and renewables. The country is “heavily biased” toward subcritical and SC units, Barnes noted, and the uptake of HELE technology is challenged by the nation’s complicated geography. Most planned coal plants are USC with a unit size of more than 1 GW—but the country has yet to put online its first USC power plant (Central Java, which should be operational in 2019). Among other notable projects under construction in the nation is the 2-GW Batang coal plant, which should be operational in 2020.

Malaysia. Gas dominates power production, but coal use is set to triple, and the country is generally committed to using HELE technologies, mainly USC, for new projects. The country has stringent pollution targets, Barnes noted.

Philippines.  Though it faces a rapidly growing economy and plans to fuel much of its power demand with natural gas, about 34.6% of its power capacity is currently coal-fired. Coal will still remain an important contributor. However, local resistance to new coal plants is strong and could impede development of future coal power builds.

Thailand. Coal is seen as vital to meeting future demand, but recently added capacity has been limited to SC technology. “The continuing role of coal in the Thai energy mix was confirmed by the government announcement of the construction of the 800 MW power plant in Krabi, as part of Thailand’s Power Development Plan for 2015 to 2036,” Barnes said. “The project was shelved two years ago due to mounting opposition, but the National Energy Policy Committee gave the project the go-ahead in February 2017.”

Vietnam. A recent resurgence of interest in nuclear power could offset coal’s share in the medium-term. “The availability of sufficient capacity from coal plants now being built means that it is only when plants are retired and additional power is needed from 2035 onwards, that AUSC units may be introduced and emissions of CO2will fall,” he added.

 

—Sonal Patel is a POWER associate editor (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine)