Is This the Wrong Century for Coal to be King in Burma?

A Burmese laborer carries sacks of coal beside Rangoon River. (Photo: Reuters)

A Burmese laborer carries sacks of coal beside Rangoon River. (Photo: Reuters)

The plan by Indonesian company Bukit Asam to invest in building a coal-fired electricity-generating station in Burma is the third by a foreign business to see coal as a potential quick-fix solution to the country’s woeful power shortage.

Malaysia’s Mudajaya Group in February proposed building Burma’s biggest power plant, a 500 megawatt coal-fueled facility in Mandalay, and Thailand’s construction firm ITD earlier declared hopes for a major coal venture to power its ambitious port plans at Dawei on Burma’s southeast coast.

But there are major problems associated with such aims. First, there isn’t a lot of coal available. Second, the Naypyidaw government doesn’t seem very keen on coal-fueled projects.

Naypyidaw blocked plans by ITD to build a massive 4,000 MW coal-fueled power station at Dawei, supposedly on environmental grounds. The Mudajaya Group says its plant is subject to what it termed feasibility studies plus copper-bottomed investment reassurances from the Mandalay authorities.

Bukit Asam meanwhile proposes a 200 MW coal power plant located at the mouth of a coal mine which probably does not exist yet. The Indonesian government-owned coal company said it planned to invest up to US $80 million in Burma.

“There is already a research team that has done a study on it,” Bukit Asam’s corporate secretary Joko Pramono told the Jakarta Globe newspaper, without disclosing where his firm proposed to mine in Burma.

Bukit Asam is working on a similar coal-mouth mine and power-plant investment with an international flavor as it seeks to diversify from an Indonesian coal industry suffering from a regional slump. This is in Indonesia’s northern Sumatra Island, but instead of supplying electricity to the domestic market which suffers severe shortages, it is planning to export power via undersea cable across the Malacca Strait to Malaysia.

If all three Burma coal projects became a reality, they would more than double Burma’s electricity-generating capacity, but concurrently there would need to be an improvement and expansion of the country’s dilapidated electricity-distribution infrastructure.

Burma’s main coal resources are located in the central region in about a dozen small fields dotted around Mandalay. There has not been a detailed geological survey for years and estimates of reserves range from the Ministry of Energy’s 270 million tonnes to 750 million tonnes suggested by the US’s Energy Information Agency.

There are only three or four mines in production on a commercial scale, delivering about 1.5 million tonnes per year. Only one of these fuels a power plant, near Pinlaung in Shan State.

Fuelling the power plants proposed by the Indonesian, Malaysian and Thai firms would require about 10 million tonnes of coal per year, depending on the efficiency of the installed equipment, Hong Kong-based energy industries analyst Vince Lomax told The Irrawaddy.

The Tigyit open-cast mine and a 120 MW power plant at Pinlaung, built by the China National Heavy Machinery Corporation in a partnership with military-linked firms, predates recent concerns for the environment voiced by President Thein Sein’s government.

Built cheaply, it operates without most of the filtering technology available to reduce ash, sulphur and CO2 emissions, according to Source Watch of the US.

“If the Myanmar government is really concerned to avoid the pollution problems of some other countries in the region it might want to consider using natural gas rather than coal,” analyst Lomax said. “Gas is much cleaner burning and it’s a major resource in the country. On the other hand, gas turbine equipment is more expensive than plants for coal-burning systems.”

Burma’s Ministry of Energy has previously declared that from this year any new natural gas discoveries will be subject to priority domestic consumption rules ahead of export.

The outbreak of communal violence across central Burma has heightened concerns that the army generals might be induced to move back to take full control of the country and make foreign investors pause in committing to large capital projects. This concern has not been helped by calls for the European Union not to permanently abandon its suspended economic sanctions against Burma when they come up for review soon.

The EU only suspended its sanctions in 2012 for one year pending a review of reform progress on April 22 this year.

“We are concerned that the premature lifting of European Union sanctions will undermine the reform process in Burma, and could even encourage further serious human rights abuses,” said the European Burma Network, comprising 12 NGOs from Sweden to Italy, in a statement on March 26.

“We believe that European Union members have a tendency to highlight the positives while ignoring some important and harsh realities on the ground.”

The Network said the EU’s conditions for finally ending sanctions have not yet been met and human rights abuses continue in Burma.

Meanwhile, the only quick-fix seemingly readily available for the Naypyidaw government to ease Burma’s acute electricity shortages is more expensive and temporary portable generators.

Japanese media reported this week that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has sent more than a dozen diesel-fueled generators to Rangoon. They have a combined electricity generating capacity of 13,000 kilowatts, or 1.3 MW—enough energy to power a few hundred homes for a few hours.

8 Responses to Is This the Wrong Century for Coal to be King in Burma?

  1. In near future coal bacome gold coz no trees to burn?

  2. I don’t support Coal fuel Power station in Burma. Why should we grant such as dirty Coal Fuel Power Scheme when other nations like India, China and Thailand want to build Hydroelectricity Power Plants in Burma?
    Burmese Government should ask Japanese Government for Japanese Company to invest in such as Hydroelectricity Power Scheme in Burma. Country like Burma, the state must control domestic power distribution and production. State must abandon subsidy culture for Power and Energy in future.
    Our country may be many years behind our Asia neighbor countries but it does not mean we should embrace old technology from them. We must invest in modern technology and cut wasting money on Civil War and Weapons.

  3. A great leap forward. Myanmar might as well go nuclear which is the cleanest of all.The long term investments pay off in the end.

    • Shwe Mann signed the contract with N Korea for that. And the bunkers had already been dug under Nay Pyi Taw in case the reactors go bad soon after they press the button on the opening ceremony. Confidence!

  4. iNDONESIAN COAL for power plant, you must be joking, what is wrong with clean hydro or gas

  5. The electricity from damming Burmese rivers (not to mention the copper, jade and timber) has to go to China (Than Shwe signed these MoU’s with China to get some cash flow because of sanctions from the West, remember?). Gas has to go to China and Thailand. Don’t you guys understand. Burmese are “Untermenschen” (slaves) even in their own ancestral land. Slaves don’t need that much electricity, do they? Didn’t Suu Kyi say something like: “first Letpadaung Taung, then Irrawaddy river and then Mt. Popa will vanish”
    May the 37 Nats of Mt. Popa punish those who sold the country’s wealth to “aliens”!

    • That is hilarious!.
      What’s happening to our country is beyond belief. I really feel bad for our people and I don’t know how it is going to play out. We will pay a hefty price relating to health issues. I hope the leaders of our country wake up soon before it is too late.

  6. It is certainly wrong to have coal plants started in Myanmar.

    It is a known fact that mercury is the end result of coal burning. Mercury is one of the lethal environmental poisons which can wreak havoc to your body. It is fat soluble and it accumulates in the brain which is 60% fat and other fat containing tissues.Once in the brain, it is converted to ionic forms which in turn reacts with a number of important structures and chemicals in that vital organ.

    Mercury even in very low doses can alter how the brain functions and is also a contributor to neurodegenerative diseases. Heart muscle is also very sensitive to mercury and can give rise to heart failure.

    Mercury in the environment can also contaminate fish and sea food in the lakes and streams.

    I can go on and on about how dangerous mercury is.

    I wished I could educate people so that they can watch out for themselves and their loved ones.

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