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Coal can be clean

/ 12:22 AM March 16, 2017

The problem I have with environmental activists isn’t their idealism. That I fully support. It’s just that they brook no compromise, no allowance for realities. And they lack expert knowledge on the subjects they care so passionately about. It’s a dangerous brew: Ignorant absolutism.

Take mining, certainly the most topical today, and there’s much to say about the way it’s being misunderstood by environmentalists. But for today, let me rather focus on electricity—or how we should source it?

The old renewables—steam and water—are stalwarts in our power system. And they do provide an impressive amount of power—31 percent of our total electricity mix. Indeed, one of the world’s highest. I like nuclear, too, but the way there would be an uphill climb given the emotional ignorance clouding the issue, plus the refusal to accept established facts.

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Gas is good—and clean; but it’s a limited resource. And diesel is dirty and suitable only for small stuff; so ignore that.

So, we’re left with coal. And this is where I and the environmentalists differ. They want nothing to do with it because it’s dirty. Is it? Yes. But that was before the advent of modern technology. Today, a modern power plant, properly designed, can be clean.

I looked at it, studied the figures. And did what a few others do. Yes, I visited a major plant. It’s new, its large (630 MW)—and it’s clean.

The emissions come from a smoke stack (chimney to us oldies) 210 meters tall; so whatever smoke goes out of it blows into a higher atmosphere—with no effect at all on local communities. More so, because the volume of smoke is well below what is considered unacceptable, dirty.

Particulate matter, which is removed by massive filter bags, is only 31.9 mg/Nm3. Much less than the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ standard (minus 150) or World Bank’s (50).

Then there’s those nasty gases. Sulfur oxides (SOx) and nitrogen oxides (NOx)—some 400 mg/Nm3 of SOx and 340 mg/Nm3 of NOx, respectively; the DENR’s limits are 700 and 1,000, and the World Bank’s are 800 and 510.

Then there’s the waste water, which goes through turbines to produce a bit more power—2.8 MW, for free—then it is cleaned up by oxygenation before entering the bay. Interestingly, the fish love it. There are more fish around the plant than elsewhere in the bay.

So the fishermen love it, too; and they have stopped dynamite fishing—another benefit from having the power plant there.

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Finally, the fly ash. This is what is left after the coal is burnt. This is nasty stuff, a fine dust full of heavy metals that do humans no good. In a modern power plant like this only 3-4 percent of the coal becomes fly ash. So it gets put in cement, where it’s harmless.

I agree: Older plants are a pollution problem, but you can’t just shut them down. They’ll eventually go, but over time. An instantaneous shift, which the activists are clamoring for, is not practical; you’ll have to pay a lot for it. Building new power plants, of any kind, is expensive, and the public must pay for them. The Filipino public won’t accept that. The cost of power is not second to cleanliness, it’s first and foremost. A choice must be made.

And the wisest choice is a compromise, move to cleaner, low-cost coal plants over time. Augmented increasingly by natural gas—if China will allow us to get it. And by solar and wind when technology shall have allowed for affordable storage. I would add nuclear, but that will need some real political will—and negotiating skill. I’m glad Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi is trying. He should.

The bottom line is: The public wants cheaper, cleaner energy. Coal plants are the cheapest. Solar and wind are the cleanest. (Well, geothermal and hydro, too, but they’re well-established electricity sources.)

Our most sensible solution today is to continue to run the old coal plants until they wear out. Buy new, clean coal plants to replace them until natural gas and the other renewables become more affordable and available, day and night.

E-mail: wallace_likeitis@wbf.ph. Read my previous columns: www.wallacebusinessforum.com

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TAGS: coal plants, Inquirer Opinion, Like It Is, mining, Peter Wallace, power sources
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