Egypt's case for coal is already crumbling

A good case might be made for Egypt’s decision a few years ago to allow cement plants to convert to coal as their main fuel and away from natural gas.

The country was in the midst of a fuel crisis, with regular power cuts in residential areas because power plants could not find enough gas. The cost of switching kilns to coal was modest. And politically, successive governments after the 2011 uprising were not in a position to raise the country’s ridiculously low natural gas prices to reflect the cost of producing it.

But there seems to be almost no sense at all in the recent plan for a major push into using coal to generate electricity.

Under the electricity ministry’s new master plan, details of which were published last month by the newspaper Al Masry Al Youm, the electricity ministry foresees Egypt generating 15 per cent of its total electricity in coal-fired plants by 2030.

The government has sel­ected 10 sites along the Red Sea and Mediterranean coastlines to place the plants, says Shadia Elshishini, an adviser to the environment ministry and a strong proponent for switching to coal.

According to recent press reports, the government is ironing out the details of a final agreement with Abu Dhabi’s Al Nowais to build a 2.64 megawatt coal-fired plant at Uyun Musa on the Gulf of Suez.

The government this week agreed with a consortium of ­Japan’s Marubeni and Egypt’s El Sewedy to do a feasibility study within two years for a coal-fired plant near Marsa Matruh on the Mediterranean, while South Korea’s Doosan signed an agreement to establish a coal-fired power plant, also near Matruh.

In January, Egypt signed conditional contracts with Chinese electrical engineering companies to build two coal-fired power plants in the Hamrawein area on the Red Sea just north of Qusair.

Construction has yet to start on any of these plants, but at ­cement plants the switch to coal is firmly under way.

The coal, all of it imported from abroad, is transported by lorry from specially equipped ports, including Sokhna on the Gulf of Suez, Alexandria, Dak­haila and Adabiya. Safaga on the Red Sea will soon start. The cement plants will use 7 million tonnes a year.

Cement plants are being encouraged to install more effi­cient back filters to reduce emissions, she says, and the government is looking into the use of fuel made from municipal and agricultural waste.

An additional advantage of coal use in cement plants is that it allows for the safe disposal of hazardous waste from other industries in its kilns, she says. Egypt has few other ways to dispose of such waste.

Yet Ahmed El Droubi, an environmentalist, says the cement industry’s record on pollution has been dismal and the power industry’s record promises to be just as bad if not worse.

Although far cheaper than natural gas, coal is also far dirtier, even when properly managed, with some ugly heavy metals among the waste.

Egypt’s environmental agency has placed sensors in cement kiln stacks to track pollutants. Although these only measure one out of a dozen common pollutants, they recorded more than 760 recorded violations in 2012, and more than 810 in 2013, Mr El Droubi says. The imposition and enforcement of penalties, once detected, has been weak. Some fines are so tiny that cement companies find it cheaper to violate the law than to reduce harmful emissions.

Another problem is pollution during transport. A quarter- million lorry trips are required each year to supply the cement plants. Mr El Droubi says he has seen lorries on highways that, in violation of the law, spew coal dust into the air because they have not even bothered to cover their loads with canvas.

Using coal for power plants will create a whole other set of problems. First off, the investments are billions of dollars and not millions as in cement plants, so once built there will be little going back.

The power plants will need their own special quays, equipment and storage facilities lest the coal contaminate other bulk cargo. Much of the coal waste at cement plants can be incorporated into the cement itself, but power plants don’t have that option, and a place for dis­posal will have to be found. Power plants consume vast amounts of water, mainly fresh, as a coolant. Its discharge into the sea raises water temperatures, endangering coral reefs, a mainstay of the tourist trade. The dust from the coal will also put the reefs in danger.

Using coal for power plants may have made more sense a couple of years ago, but since then the cost of cleaner fuels has plummeted. The cost of solar energy has been rapidly declining and in the not-so-distant future looks set to become cheaper than oil. Plus Egypt has uncovered enormous reserves of natural gas. In the long run, coal will almost certainly end up costing the country more than it saves.

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