THAR COAL PROJECT OVERVIEW
ZAHOOR A. ABBASI
July 25 - 31, 2011
Government of Sindh needs to be commended for its continuing efforts for the development of Thar Coal such as creating a private/public sector partnership with Engro, signing MOU's with various investors and massively funding the experimental technology of underground coal gasification (UCG). However, serious technical, administrative, and cost issues remain unclear which if left unaddressed may result in complications and delays in the implementation and success of the Thar coal project. The purpose of this technical discussion is to highlight some of these issues and provide suggestions from a professional perspective with intent to assist and to inform.
Since all major project planning efforts are geared towards achieving specific goals, which in this case is presumably the government of Sindh's declared intention to develop 10 blocks of Thar Coal for production of 20,000 MW of electricity by the year 2030.
THAR COALFIELD NEEDS WATER
The flagship Sindh/Engro project in block II of Thar coalfield hinges on the availability of 300 cusecs (cubic feet per second) water from the Indus River System for operation of the coal fired power plant. Based on this, cumulative water demand for the proposed 10 blocks of Thar coal is calculated to be 3000 cusecs.
There is a chronic water shortage in Sindh. Assuming that somehow this additional 3000 cusecs of water becomes available, the question then is, how do we get it to the coalfield? Due to topographic constraints, conventional gravity driven channel flow of water to the coal project is not possible. Costly upslope pumping would be required.
Thar project is located near Islamkot in Thar Desert, which is outside the Sukkur Barrage Command Zone; the nearest source of Indus water is Jumrao, Makhi and Farash distribution complexes, which all are branches of Nara Canal which itself draw water from Sukkur barrage. Due to siltation of the canals and degradation of the nearly 80 year old regulatory system, additional water carrying capacity of the entire Nara Canal command stands significantly impaired.
To meet agriculture demands, these canals are forced to carry water beyond their design capacities and will not be able to carry an additional 3000 cusecs of water for Thar coal without a total overhaul and remodeling of their entire regulatory systems. This will be a massive undertaking costing billions of dollars and at least 20 years.
Does the government of Sindh have these financial resources and the luxury to wait another 20 years for power generation from Thar Coal?
A recently completed study by GOS at a cost of Rs180 million estimates providing a mere 100 cusecs of water, in the first phase, from Nara canal's Farash weir off takes complex at a staggering capital cost of Rs27 billion (operational costs of pumping not included).
Capital costs for the second phase of providing additional 200 cusecs of water are not yet known. Total capital costs for the entire 300 cusecs will likely exceed Rs100 billion roughly equivalent to US $1.2 billion.
This is just a cost of water for Block II, what about the rest of the Thar coalfield?
Salient Features of the 100 cusec (Phase 1) Thar Coal Water Carrier Project.
1 Construction Stone Pitching Re-aligned
Nara Canal RD 0 to 105
21 Miles 2 Construction CC lining of Makhi Farash Link
Canal from RD 105 to 305
40 Miles 3 Construction of 100 cusec capacity CC lined channel
from Farash regulator to Nabisar through Dhoro escape
42.8 Miles 4 Two pressure pumping pipe lines of 4ft Diameter, each
50 cusec capacity (one for auxiliary support)
62 Miles 5 Major reservoir (Nabisar & Vajhiyar) 0.16 MAF 6 Intermediate Reservoir 4 Nos 7 Pumping Station 5 Nos Estimated Capital Cost of Phase 1 - Rs27 billion (US$314 Million) (Source: GOS Department of Coal and Energy)
Providing Indus River water, at these costs, is beyond the provincial resource capability. The World Bank and other multi-lateral lenders will likely consider these projects as economically unfeasible (which they are); in that case, it will be back to square one for Thar Coal development, minus a lot of money and time.
Transporting a mere 300 cusecs (for block II only) at a capital cost of Rs100 billion (US$1.2 Billion) will require water to be pumped upslope through six separate, 4 feet diameter pipe lines, each 62 miles long, with 5 reservoirs, and operating 5 large scale pumping stations in the middle of the desert with logistical problems such as equipment breakdowns, spare parts, diesel fuel availability, staff reliability and O &M funding shortages typically experienced by projects in Sindh.
Water supply from this source will be cumbersome, expensive and unreliable, with a very high potential for operational failure. The province of Sindh has a long history and experience with operationally failed or stalled mega projects (SCARP, DRIP, RBOD to name just a few).
Apparently bringing Indus River water into Thar Desert for use in the power plants is neither economically nor practically viable. However, a perfectly viable, technically superior alternative is available at a fraction of the above costs. That is utilization of the available underground water in Thar and/or recovery of excess moisture from the coal for using in power plant operations. This is a proven concept being successfully practiced in many European coalmines and power production facilities.
GROUNDWATER AND POWER PLANT SELECTION
Suitable Closed Circle Cooling Cycle Power Plants need to be selected. These type of plants re-circulate and reuse the same water and are considered ideal for arid environments where water is scarce. Such power plants are operating in other countries. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will not issue operating permits for new coal fired power plants unless these types of systems are used. Existing plants will also convert to water conservation systems.
Various Thar coal seams occur between 450 feet to 650 feet depth. There are three ground water aquifers. Of which, the base aquifer contains significant amounts of water and is highly pressurized. The only viable option for open Pit Mining is dewatering and depressurizing of these groundwater aquifers.
A state of the art mathematical model, simulating Thar coal area ground water conditions was employed by Rheinbraun Engineering (RWE). This same modeling method has been used successfully in European open pit mines by RWE and predicts that 41 cubic feet/second (cusecs) water will have to be pumped, for each mine in Thar to make the mining operations safe and workable.
Water requirements of an 1100 MW Closed Circle Cooling Cycle plant are calculated to be two cusecs (cubic feet/second), therefore no additional water will need to be imported from the Indus river system, thus avoiding huge capital outlays and operational expenses.
Selection of a closed circle cooling cycle power plant will also eliminate the need for large volumes of waste water disposal (saving significant costs), as it will generate only two to three per cent waste water compared with an open cooling cycle plant.
WATER PRODUCTION AND DISPOSAL
Massive amounts of groundwater will be pumped out in order to dewater and depressurize the aquifers to achieve safe mining conditions. With proper planning the mine operators and provincial government can realize additional windfall profits by recovering/harvesting the natural gas (coal bed methane) that is always present in coal, which will be automatically released due to depressurization of the coal seams. United States Geologic Survey (USGS) sources estimate that Thar coal deposits contain over 21 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of recoverable natural gas with a production potential of nearly 1 billion cubic feet/day.
Water produced from the pumping operations is as precious a natural resource as the coal itself. Thar water is considered to be moderately saline containing 7500 to 10,000 (PPM) parts per million total dissolved salts (TDS), compared to sea water which has 35,000 to 40,000 parts per million.
This water can be treated and used for cultivation of high value crops such as fruits and vegetables. Water produced by each mine will be able to cultivate 15,000 acres. Using the government of Sindh's planning benchmark of 10 blocks (mines) by 2030, the groundwater thus cumulatively produced can cultivate up to 150,000 acres of high value crops and will provide the basis for developing livestock industry, which is well suited for Thar and its inhabitants.
Downstream economic benefits of this approach are immeasurable in terms of job growth, poverty alleviation, improved food security, and food price stability due to increased production and transportation through the existing road network in Thar.
Thar groundwater is a precious natural resource and definitely not effluent. Disposing it as such would be a monumental and a historic mistake which Sindh and its people will surely regret in the coming years of expected severe water shortages.
Ironically, policy decisions are formulated for undertaking the difficult task of importing a very expensive and unreliable supply of Indus river water for use in open cooling cycle plants, which in turn will effectively convert this same water into contaminated effluent which will then have to be disposed off in accordance with internationally acceptable environmental practices, at a huge additional cost.
The government will first spend trillions of rupees to help create a problem and subsequently spend other trillions to solve this problem-a stupidity.
On the other hand, a simple policy paradigm shift of utilizing the indigenous water resource and selecting a suitable power plant design would save the nation trillions in costs and years in terms of time to generate power from Thar coal.
WASTE WATER DISPOSAL
In the current paradigm, more than 3400 cusecs of effluent will end up into the already overburdened and under designed LBOD/KPOD and Tidal Link Canal. This huge influx will demolish the entire lower Sindh drainage system with devastating consequences for Badin district especially during the flood seasons.
Faulty design of LBOD system caused the collapse of Cholri weir in 1998, allowing tidal water flow intrusion into Pateji, Mehro, Cholri and Sanhro Dhands (lakes) destroying shrimp estuaries and loss of livelihood for 14,000 people in Badin.
On a continuing daily basis, high tide cycles cause backup of drainage waters in Tidal Link and KPOD (lower LBOD system) which then flow through 56 unrepaired embankment breaches further inland into Badin district. This has destroyed thousands of acres of fertile land and fishing estuaries. This problem increases substantially during the flood season, rendering thousands of additional people homeless and income less.
During 2003 floods, the LBOD system had to carry twice the amount of water than its design capacity of 4,440 cusecs, resulting in severe flood damage in Badin. Adding another 3,400 cusecs of Thar drainage water to an already overloaded LBOD system will be an unmitigated disaster for Badin District, which will spill over into Thatta District and the rest of the lower Sindh.
Lower Sindh wetlands maintain an ecological balance in this region and are an important national asset, contribute to food security from fishing, and provide employment to thousands of people. They must not be destroyed.
Thar coal effluent discharge into these wetlands through LBOD must be kept to a minimum while ensuring that deadly toxins like Benzene, Toluene, Phenol etc. created by the underground coal gasification process do not reach these wetlands and their fishing estuaries.
UNDERGROUND COAL GASIFICATION (UCG)
The dual concepts of harnessing coal energy by (a) Recovering/harvesting Coalbed Methane (CBM), which is essentially natural gas in its purest form (pipeline quality gas) and (b) Mining out the coal to serve as a thermal energy resource for power generation and other uses are mutually inclusive.
Technical processes involved in both of these concepts compliment and support each other. For example, recovery of natural gas from coal requires dewatering and depressurizing of the coal seams, which help the mining process and results in cost savings for both.
UCG process on the other hand works at cross purposes with both CBM as well as conventional coal mining in Thar. For example, the very same water and hydrostatic pressure that is needed to be removed by dewatering for CBM recovery and coal mining is necessarily needed to be retained in the ground in order to contain and control the UCG's coal burn from spreading into the adjacent mining and power generating operations, thus creating an extremely significant hazard and a potentially very dangerous situation.
This technical conflict can force a complete shutdown of the entire mining and power generation activity in Thar coalfield.
All UCG operations must submit comprehensive work plans demonstrating safeguards against uncontrolled spread of the underground coal burn/fire from reaching the nearby mines and for preventing deadly toxins such as Benzene, Toluene etc, normally created by the UCG process, from entering the groundwater.
Clear and unambiguous UCG policy guidelines need to be formulated to ensure safety of mining and power plant operations, health and safety of their staff, the population of Thar and the downstream recipients of waste water discharge from the projects. Rigorous groundwater quality assurance regime and an effective monitoring program must also be established.
Development of Thar Coal is a vitally important need of this energy starved nation. It is a complex mega project involving multiple aspects, which require a clear vision, a comprehensive understanding of all aspects and an integrated approach.
A broad based, well analyzed, clearly understood and technically focused strategic development plan needs to be formulated (can be done in 1 week). This strategic plan should form the basis of overall policy. These policy guidelines should set the direction for each and every tactical step required to be initiated in order to achieve the strategic objectives, rather than the other way around.
Current practices appear to favor multiple, individualized tactical initiatives, each narrowly focuses upon its own tactical objective, moving and meandering in its own individual direction.
From project management perspective, this type of phenomenon creates an illusion and a sense of busy movement; since everybody appears busy doing something therefore one must assume that something is being done.
In fairness, the last few years have seen some degree of positive shift in the strategic direction of the project. However, serious shortcomings remain for achieving strategic coherence between various individual initiatives currently in play within the Thar project. One glaring example is the simultaneous grant of mining licenses to Engro and Oracle & UCG licenses to GOS and Cougar projects without any technical evaluation of what one concept will do to the other.
Without a doubt, there are serious issues of policy and lack of technical coherence, which will continue impeding the successful and timely development of Thar coal project. A course correction is urgently required otherwise this whole exercise will very likely fail, the financial losses to the nation will be staggering and the extremely valuable Thar coal will remain where it has been for over 60 million years.