Clean coal power dangerous gamble for Ghana

3039142709535_7633885576079As a nation, we cannot just simply continue to do the same thing and expect different results. Yes, over the last couple of years Ghana has being in one of the most prolonged energy crisis since independence, nonetheless, I sincerely believe it must not coerce managers in the energy sector to simply accept any offer that comes around.

The Volta River Authority (VRA) recently entered into a joint venture with China’s Shenzhen Energy Group – parent company of Sunon Asogli Ghana Ltd for a 700MW Coal plant at an estimated to cost about US$1.5billion.

In spite of the fact that this amount could build 1,000MW hybridized solar farm, Clean Coal is not only a mythical solution but ‘a dangerous gamble for Ghana.’

It is expected that in our situation there will be a lot of solutions, but it is crucial that the choices we make now is rather a sustainable one.

Frankly, I cannot modulate the huge potential of coal in power generation. It is worth noting that just a handful of bituminous coal contains about 3.5KWh of energy, and this amount of energy is enough to power one laptop computer for 3 days (72 hours). Even though Ghana will have to outsource raw coal from either South Africa or Australia, it’s relatively easy to dig out of the ground.  Compared to our conventional sources (the fossils), the raw material is about 0.2 (one-fifth) the cost of oil or natural gas per Btu. The raw material looks relatively cheaper than the fossils.

However, in all this, truth must be told, and that is COAL HAS ISSUES. Apart from the fact that coal is by far the largest single source of greenhouse gases in countries that have coal fired power plant, a recent study concluded that coal emissions contribute to 10,000 premature deaths annually in countries that have coal power in their energy mix.

Coal will never be clean. The cliché of clean-coal is that we can bottle up the carbon dioxide (CO₂) produced when coal is burned, most likely by burying it deep in the earth. That may be possible in theory, but it’s awfully difficult in practice.

Let’s walk through some SSS chemistry. In Prempeh College, I was taught that when coal burns, oxygen from the air combines with the carbon in the coal in an exothermic (heat-releasing) reaction. Because of the addition of oxygen, the resulting (CO₂) weighs more than the carbon alone which means that each pound of coal produces about 2.5 pounds of (CO₂). Keeping that (CO₂) out of the atmosphere requires a process known as Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). It works by forcing the exhaust from a power plant through a liquid solvent that absorbs the carbon dioxide. Later, the solvent is heated to liberate the gas, much the way a bottle of soda releases its dissolved CO2 when opened. The (CO₂) is then compressed to about 100 times normal atmospheric pressure and sent away for storage in the earth.

Nonetheless, this technology CCS has two major hurdles.

First of all, research have it that a coal-fired power plant would have to burn roughly 25 percent more coal to cater for the carbon sequestration process while producing the same amount of electricity. That would mean a vast expansion in mining, transportation costs resulting in extra OPEX.

The second major challenge relates to transporting and burying all of this high-pressure (CO₂). It must be on record that energy companies that have test this technology noted that the operation captures a few hundred tons of (CO₂) a day.

In the case of Ghana, a typical 700-megawatt power plant will produces about 14,000 tons of (CO₂) daily. Collectively, Ghana’s 700MW coal-fired power plant will generate 5.1 million tons per year, and capturing that amount of (CO₂) would mean filling 102,000 barrels with liquid (CO₂) every single day.

The irony of this whole CCS technology is we don’t even know if the (CO₂) gas will stay buried. This could easily be another white horse by spending millions of Ghana cedis by injecting (CO₂) into the earth only to have it start leaking out again in a few decades.

I do not mean that CCS is impossible to achieve, however, it is dangerous to assume that it will become technically and economically feasible any time soon.

Wouldn’t it be a punishment for Ghanaians if we created a policy that further burdens the consumers with even higher utility tariff and yet does virtually nothing to solve our problems. I believe with all my heart that embracing the clean-coal myth, is a dangerous gamble for Ghanaians.

The focus on mythical clean coal is particularly precarious because practical, cost-effective clean alternatives do exist and I mean solar power. Ghana has the potential for clean solar power that makes us even more energy independent.

A 1.5billion US Dollar investment will be able to build a 1,000MW or 1GW hybridized solar farm which can provide a 24 hour carbon free power to the grid than carbon sequestration.

Assuming it is possible to make coal emissions cleaner, the eventual cost will make the Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) from this very expensive.

I sincerely believe we should continue research into making coal cleaner because even though it is non-renewable, it may be a vital part of our energy mix, however, let’s not allows clean-coal myths to divert us from real-world energy alternatives that work today.


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