Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Unbuilt coal-fired power plant in Sabah continues to generate heat

Sometime in the future a river of coal will start flowing into Sabah from neighbouring Kalimantan in Indonesia. It will be burned in a power plant and generate 300MW of electricity on the pristine shores of Darvel Bay.

It is purported to be clean, efficient and will employ the most up-to-date technology that will limit carbon emissions to negligible levels. That's what its proponents, the national power utility company Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB) says.

Sabah is also sitting on lots of natural gas. It has enough gas under its soil to inspire dreams of self-sufficiency.

Down south in Sarawak, a surfeit of hydro-electricity is waiting to be tapped. For cash-rich Sabah, cost is supposedly not a problem. The federal government has been pumping billions of ringgit into the state.

Nevertheless, the drive for a cheap coal-fired power plant surges on. Some say it is fed by vested interests over a thousand kilometers away across the South China Sea in Kuala Lumpur.

The status quo is puzzling opponents of the plant who say there are sensible options which are being strangely discarded in favour of coal.

Generating power cheaply using coal has always been always commercially viable and attractive due to its abundance. The trade-off is the damage it will do the state's currently relatively healthy environment. That is too costly for a majority of Sabahans. The plant has been re-sited three times due to their objections.

Local environmental groups are unified in opposing it.

Their main grievance is that the studies put forward by the government in support of the plant have been biased.

Nothing they have seen so far justifies the drive for power production from a dirty source, they say.

But that has not stopped the government from pushing the plant as the only option for the power-starved east coast of the state.

The Sabah Environmental Protection Association (Sepa) which has been at the forefront of efforts to get more information about the controversial plant says it is being rammed through by policymakers.

Its plain-spoken president Wong Tack who has been fighting an almost three-year battle to get full disclosure on what will be Sabah's first coal-fired power plant believes the government is not being candid about how they arrived at their decision.

"Where is the transparency," he asked during a recent press conference organised by the group.

He points to irony of Energy, Green Technology and Water Minister Peter Chin actively supporting the plant.

"It is disappointing that the person in charge of promoting green technology in the country is instead championing a dirty energy source.

"He should resign immediately instead of waiting till the end of the year," said Wong referring to Chin's vow to resign if he failed to improve Sabah's long-standing electricity shortage.

Sepa is also puzzled by the government's insistence that renewable energy such as biomass is not a feasible option for Sabah.

"Instead of checking to see what is the problem with using renewable energy he (Chin) is already making conclusive statements that biomass plants are not dependable.

"He is making statements against his own national policy and undermining the Prime Minister's (Najib Razak) commitment in Copenhagen last year to reduce the nation's carbon footprint," Wong pointed out.

Chin, during a visit to Sabah last week, had shot down proposals to use Sabah's large biomass production from the oil palm industry for power generation.

He explained that besides the question of availability and steady supply, about 6.6 million tonnes of empty fruit bunch (EFB) from oil palm would be needed to generate 300MW annually and about 900 trucks would be needed to transport it to the plant.

Sepa's Wong however dismisses this explanation and estimate as misleading.

He says independent studies show that using biomass is feasible "if there is decentralisation."

According to the Asia Biomass Office, a database of Biomass Research Organisations in Japan, these wastes burn well and generate plenty of heat to be considered suitable for thermal power generation.

They estimate a ton of EFB can generate about 1,330 kWh of electricity. 6.6 million tonnes of EFB would generate about 8,423GWh. With current price of electricity at about 6 cent/kWh, power generation using 6.6 million ton of EFB will be about 1.72 billion ringgit sales per year.

Sepa's own studies show that based on the location of the oil palm mills, most are in clusters, small power generating plants of about 10MW plant each could be built in Beluran, Kudat, Semporna, Kunak and so on to supply clean, renewable energy to the east coast.

Wong says that it is worth noting that the EFB from the palm oil industrial cluster (POIC) in Laha Datu is currently being processed and compacted using foreign technology before being shipped to Japan and Korea for power generation.

"There is no reason why the government cannot do the same," he says.

"The haste with which this government is pushing the coal plant is not correct. There has been no public discussion or dialogue as demanded by Sepa.

"Where is the second panel review in the revised Terms of Reference (TOR) report we asked for during the first assessment panel meeting in Putrajaya last year.

In the first meeting on Nov 24 on the proposed coal plant, the first TOR was rejected as its language and terms were seen to be overwhelmingly biased in favour of the proposal rather than being an independent view.

After Sepa and other non-governmental organisations declared this was not acceptable, State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Masidi Manjun promised a review in Sabah to allow for broader representation and debate

However, the new TOR report has again been pushed through with minimal changes and no oversight, Wong claims.

"We do not accept this TOR report. We want the matter to be discussed in public.The TOR and environment impact assessment should be carried out in Sabah, not in Putrajaya," says Wong.

According to sources, the state government has almost no control over the issue as electricity generation in the state is controlled by TNB via the Sabah Electricity Sdn Bhd (SESB). The state government only has a 20% stake in SESB.

The tug-of-war between concerned Sabahans and environmental groups to get their message heard and the government's efforts to pooh-pooh them is set to continue.


No comments: