Monday, June 21, 2010


For the uninitiated, the government has been trying to build a coal-fired power plant in the East Coast of Sabah for quite a while now. I shall not dwell into the long history of the proposals, but if you are interested, there is enough written on this issue - nothing you can't find with a quick Google search.

Opposition towards this plan has been quite vocal especially online and amongst politicians. Go here if you want to read more about it.

In a nutshell, these people are against a coal-fired plant and have been extensively quoting a couple of academic studies that suggest that a few biomass plants would be more feasible than one large coal plant.

While I acknowledge the well known fact that coal isn't the cleanest energy option out there, it certainly isn't as bad as these people make it out to be. Not these days at least. My beef here is that a bunch of people plucked a study conducted by University of California's Renewable & Appropriate Energy Laboratory (not exactly the staunchest supporter of coal, eh?). If you are interested, you can download and read those two studies from the above website. So these guys have been going around lauding the feasibility of biomass - just because some academics said it is. And pretty much everybody who is against the coal project have been referencing from these two studies.

Personally I think this smacks of laziness! This is not how science and business works! You cannot point at TWO studies to prove you are correct! This is common in science - for every study you point to supporting your case, someone else can release 10 other studies disputing your case!

I wonder if the oppositions of this coal project ever launched their own study to verify the so-called feasibility of the biomass proposal. Or are they saying it can be done just because some other people in the US said it can be done? Do they even understand the contents of the Berkeley study?

In summary, that study proposes that there is no need for one large power plant; it states that since there is a vibrant palm oil industry in that region, it would be feasible to collect the waste and use it as a fuel. Indeed this is already done on a smaller scale by palm oil mills to run their boilers to produce steam. The study proposes that this be done on a larger scale under a Small Renewable Energy Production (SREP) programme and all the small palm oil mills will generate electricity on a small scale and inject it into the grid.

Sounds good, eh?

But there is more than meets the eye. There always is.


There are two ways to go about this - you can either burn the solid palm oil waste (empty fruit bunches, fibres, shells, etc) directly or you can allow the Palm Oil Mill Effluent (POME) to decompose, releasing methane. You then use the methane as your fuel source; both these methods are proposed in the study.

Under the Kyoto protocol, carbon income is essentially selling carbon credits on the market to offset the pollution caused by the Europeans/Americans. This means that a developing nation is allowed to sell 'carbon' that it did not generate as a result of using renewable energy to someone in the EU/US who is operating a plant over the allowable limits in order for that person to avoid a hefty fine (or get shutdown).

In the solid waste proposal, the economics are slightly questionable because carbon income accounts for one-fifth of the income. Slightly dodgy and questionable because in their projected Year 11-20 of plant operations; if carbon income is totally removed from the equation, the power plants will all be operating at a loss! Who is to know what would happen to carbon trading in the next 10 years?!

Even worse is the POME proposal - 100% economically unfeasible! The electricity income is projected at RM39mil over 20 years while the carbon income is projected at RM64mil over the same period. Isn't it ludicrous to expect a power generation company to derive their main expenditure from a trading exercise?!? Yes, carbon trading can be used as a supplementary income but surely you are not suggesting that a power generation company depend on 60% of their income to come from activities outside their core business? What kind of fantasy land do these people live in? Who on Earth is going to approve such a risky project with such low returns?!

(Dodgy) Economics aside, let's talk technicalities:


Sure, coal isn't super clean - but how much do you know about burning palm oil waste?
Sometimes when you drive along the highways, you can smell the palm oil mills from miles away. There is one near KLIA, I am sure you can notice the smell coming off the North-South Highway. Smoke, ash, greenhouse gases; they all exist. You are not burning some magic fuel; you are still burning carbon based fuels. It may be cleaner than coal - but it still pollutes.


A boiler is like your kettle. You are boiling water to produce steam. This steam, under high pressure and high temperature is then passed through a steam turbine which rotates a generator. If you were paying attention in Form 3 science, you would remember that electricity is produced when you cut the flux of a magnet.

As with your kettle, water quality is supremely important here. If the water has high mineral content, you get scaling on your boiler tubes the same way you get scaling on the heating element of your kettles. Only difference is that scaling on the boiler tubes are extremely dangerous as they will cause uneven heating and potential explosions. Therefore, water has to be treated properly before being used.

Most of the palm oil mills in Sabah face the problem of high silica content in the water sourced from streams and rivers. Currently it is not that big an issue because the palm oil mills only generate electricity to cater to their own requirements. Water source would be one of the major problems in a larger scale SREP power plant. Both quantity and quality of water will be a big issue which the academics did not mention in their study.

Regulations & Enforcement

Then comes the issue of treating the water; chemicals are used extensively here. Chemicals are used to remove scales, to treat the steam condensate to prevent algae and barnacle growth. Disposal of spent lube oil is also an issue here. In a single large facility, it is easy to regulate. In a SESB/TNB operated plant it is even easier to regulate their emissions. In fact, we would expect that a company like TNB self regulate and would easily comply to the emissions standards set.

But do you expect DoE to be able to regulate small SREP plants in the middle of the jungle to ensure proper disposal and proper usage of those chemicals? Given the dodgy economics of these projects in the first place, can we regulate the small plant operators to act ethically in disposing all their waste properly?

I am not saying coal is definitely feasible. Neither am I saying biomass is completely unfeasible.

I am merely saying that you cannot propose something blindly. The government has released detailed studies of the coal fired facilities. I don't see any detailed biomass proposals. If you are going to object so strongly to something, you need to propose a viable alternative and put forward a good case promoting its viability (not just an 11 page report written by some academics). That reeks of laziness and opposing for the sake of opposing.

Ideally, yes. Renewable energy should be the way to go. But I am a realist. Development does not come cheaply. Inevitably, there has to be some ecological impact. But that ecological impact can be minimised greatly and in a sustainable way.

Instead of banging your heads against a brick wall, start lobbying for more stringent controls. Demand that the standards for greenhouse gas emissions be tightened. Insist that the cooling water discharge into the sea is at a temperature closer to ambient. Lobby for harsher penalties for DoE infrigements.

Save the dugongs? Hell yeah, but let's do this realistically, shall we?


mello said...

wow you FINALLY moved blogs! (and i'm saying this in a very awestruck way coz i thought you were one of those characters who would never)

nice (not-so anymore) new space!! sorry i haven't been keeping up and i didn't read your entry. i just wanted to drop a line to say hi (: happy monday!

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the oppositions of this coal project


lishun said...

you must be really busy. just a note to say...BLOG MOREEEE!