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Can This Technology Reduce Coal Emissions by 97%?

The future of ASEAN is growth, with analysts McKinsey predicting a combined GDP as the fourth-largest economy in the world by 2050. Powering that growth will be an increasing thirst for electricity.

Electricity demand and economic growth are inseparable in the modern world. Factories require electricity to produce their goods, the growing ASEAN middle-class demand it to enjoy those goods, and even a large share of our transportation will soon be driven by electricity. Meeting that growing electricity demand in a way that balances sustainable opportunity with economic affordability is an increasingly thorny problem for the region, especially when we talk about coal.

ASEAN is driving forward with coal

The International Energy Agency (IEA) Southeast Asia Energy Outlook 2017  predicts the region’s energy demand will grow by almost two-thirds to 2040. Almost 40% of that growth is expected to come from coal.

“The ASEAN region will depend heavily on coal for power generation to meet growing electricity demand driven by economic growth. Hence, building low-efficiency coal-fired power plants (CPPs) would seem an obvious choice for ASEAN,” said Han Phoumin, Energy Economist, Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia.

The reality is, if we expect to use coal as a continued power source in ASEAN, we ensure we do so in the most efficient way possible. The starting point for that understanding comes with an assessment of our emissions.

“ASEAN as a group has coal power plant (CPP) emission standards ranging from 200-850 mg/m3 for SOx, 380-1,000 mg/m3 for NOx, and 80-400 mg/m3 for Particulate Matter (PM). Compare that to Germany, Korea, and Japan, which range from 100-150 mg/m3 for SOx, 50-200 mg/m3 for NOx, and 10-100 mg/m3 for PM,” continued Han Phoumin. “The crucial difference here is that in these countries, high-efficiency low emissions (HELE) coal technology is mandatory.”

If ASEAN wants to mitigate the significant environmental impact of growing coal use, HELE technology will be vital to its delivery.

The future of high efficiency

HELE technology offers state-of-the-art efficiency in coal power generation. According to Han Phoumin, where a standard sub-critical plant delivers efficiency of around 35%, advanced ultra-supercritical (A-USC) technology delivers efficiency as high as 47%.

The average efficiency of global coal-fired power plants today is just 33%. Just a 1% improvement would reduce CO2 emissions by 2-3%. Improving the global average to 40%, still below the maximum potential of today’s technology, would reduce CO2 equivalent to the total annual emissions of India. These figures highlight the crucial importance of adopting HELE technology here in ASEAN.

Advanced, high-efficiency coal technologies are already making progress in the region. The launch of Manjung 4, ASEAN’s first USC coal-fired power plant in 2016, followed by two other USCs, Tanjung Bin and Manjung 5, meant Malaysia built its name as a pioneer in this field. But is there a wider reason for adoption aside from the environmental benefits?

The positive economics of HELE

The case for adoption of HELE technology is more nuanced than simple up-front capital expenditure. Consider that in 2013 air pollution cost the global economy US$5 trillion in welfare costs, and an astonishing 7.5% of GDP in East and South Asia, and you get a glimpse of that complexity. That’s not even taking into account our growing understanding of man’s wider impact on our planet.

That argument is an important one for government stakeholders but delivering new power plants takes more than just a government argues Han Phoumin. “Coal-fired power plants are large investments that require a variety stakeholder to be involved. Each investor, be it bank, government, or developer, has a different idea of what a project’s risk/return profile should be.”

While the initial capital costs of A-USC coal plants are higher than sub-critical counterparts, Han Phoumin argues that considering the cost of appropriate environmental controls applied over the lifetime of a plant tells a different story.

“If we look at the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE), over multiple coal cost scenarios and power-plant lifetimes, A-USC and USC technologies provide better LCOE compared to subcritical technologies,” says Han Phoumin. But that benefit must be supported by regulation. “The basic principle for HELE’s attractiveness is to introduce a level playing field in the coal-fired power generation, meaning a country will need to have clear environmental laws and procedures that all plants must equipped with NOx and SOx facilities.”

So, what is the ultimate benefit to adoption that HELE technology? Around 32% reduction in CO2 emissions alone according to Han Phoumin. But continued research and adoption of carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) could take that benefit to another level. “Research shows that with CCS technology combined with A-USC power plants, CO2 emissions could be reduced by up to 97%,” argues Han Phoumin.

If ASEAN is to embrace a future energised by coal, it’s clear that adopting highly advanced, cleaner coal technologies is essential. HELE not only provides an opportunity to deliver cleaner power to the region, expert assessment shows that with the right environmental regulation, one of which is ultimately economically viable. Combining that reality today with the future potential of carbon capture and storage technology could go a long way to supporting a cleaner future of power for the region.

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