Revisiting old territory: A renewed interest in using coal to fire power plants

In its search for new ways to meet the surging demand for energy, Turkey has focused on oil, gas and even nuclear power, overlooking one of its most plentiful resources: coal. In an effort to reconfigure its energy portfolio and become more energy independent, Ankara is restructuring its electricity sector, and coal figures to play an increasingly important role in the years ahead.

Between 2001 and 2011, electricity demand in Turkey rose 70%, and independent analyses show that this figure is expected to continue to increase by 6-8% per year through 2020. This rapid growth is partly due to a low base. The International Energy Agency says that Turkey’s per capita electricity consumption is just 2500 KWh per year, less than half the European average. As it catches up, Turkey must more than double its capacity from 54,000 MW to 125,000 MW in a decade, according to the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources.

At present, Turkey relies on natural gas for just under half of its electricity generation and has poured billions of dollars into developing gas transmission and distribution infrastructure, along with gas-powered plants and storage facilities. The result has been a decline in coal’s share of Turkish power production, where it has hovered at between 22% and 29% of the mix over the past decade, according to the World Bank. Indigenous coal fuelled 15% of power generation.

Another Look

Coal had accounted for more production in the 1970s during the oil crisis, but fell out of favour in the 1990s when clean-burning natural gas from Russia was cheaper to import. As of 2009, hard coal accounted for 1% of installed capacity and lignite for 18%, compared with 16% and 13%, respectively, in 1970, according to a paper by Ali Osman Yılmaz from the Black Sea Technical University in Trabzon. “It is now vital for Turkey to attach importance to coal and renewable energy sources, which are the largest domestic energy sources of Turkey, in order to meet this increasing energy deficit,” Yılmaz wrote.

In mid-2012, the government announced it was stepping up efforts to exploit domestic coal resources. According to the state-owned electricity firm, Elektrik Üretim AŞ (EÜAŞ), just over half of the coal burned in Turkey is mined locally. If the government has its way, that figure will rise steadily in the coming years.

Reserves

The Anatolian peninsula is richer in coal than in any other carbon-based fuel source, with an estimated 13bn tonnes of reserves, according to Eura-Coal, a European trade association. Proven reserves are 500m tonnes of hard coal and 9.8bn tonnes of lignite, most of which has low calorific value. Lignite is used for power generation, though there are also two hard coal plants, of which one uses domestic product.

Hard coal is located in the Black Sea province of Zonguldak and is found in many different seams, which makes it difficult to extract, limiting production to an annual 2.5m tonnes, according to Mehmet Kayadelen, a mining engineer and coal expert.

Fulling Electricity

In the years ahead, gas-burning plants will see far less investment than those built to use coal, Hasan Köktaş, head of the Energy Market Regulatory Authority (EPDK), has said, and according to Taner Yıldız, minister of energy and natural resources, coal could provide 17,000 MW of electricity, or roughly one-third of the current installed capacity.

Just under 8900 MW of power is now generated by power plants using locally mined coal. Even as Turkey seeks out more sources of coal, it will take time to bring production up to speed. Since exploration is still under way at coalfields and detailed feasibility work has yet to be carried out, it will likely require imports to meet the government’s targets.

In 2010 Turkey purchased some 27m tonnes of hard coal from overseas, mostly from Russia, while Colombia, the US and South Africa supplied the rest. Some 73% of hard coal is consumed by industry, including steel producers, according to Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources data from 2009. Power generation takes 23%, and 3% of coal is used for heating purposes.

“Attaining energy independence by relying solely on coal resources is not realistic, and there probably isn’t anyone saying that it is,” said Kayadelen. “But in the search for new resources, coal has great potential, despite some drawbacks. Besides reducing dependence on foreign energy, it can create jobs and bolster local industry and prevent migration to urban centres. So it is the right choice to maximise the use of coal.”

Liberalisation

Turkey’s growing economy has drawn considerable interest from international energy players, and the government is doing its part by pushing privatisation of its energy assets. The effort started in 2005 when legislation was passed that allowed private companies to mine coal and acquire coal-fired power plants. Currently, 86% of known lignite sources and 100% of known hard coal are licensed to the state-controlled General Directorate of Turkish Hard Coal Enterprises. Coalfields not operated by these two agencies can be licensed to private entities on the condition that a thermal power station be built.

In early 2013, Ali Babacan, the deputy prime minister responsible for the economy, announced that Ankara would boost investment in power station infrastructure with a focus on those plants designed to burn locally produced lignite. As part of those efforts, 19 new coal-fired power plants that could provide as much as 18,000 MW of power by 2023 have been licensed.

The biggest single source of coal in Turkey is the enormous 4.4bn tonne Afşin-Elbistan field in south-east Turkey. To exploit reserves there, EÜAŞ inked a $12bn deal in December 2012 with Abu Dhabi-based Taqa, to renovate one 1400-MW plant and build another similarly sized plant alongside it. Separately, nearly 2bn tonnes of reserves were recently discovered near Konya. Significant finds were also announced in January 2013 in the European province of Thrace and in the southern Anatolian province of Kahramanmaraş.

Public Outcry

The size of the fields and their geographic distribution point to Turkey’s considerable coal potential, but not everyone is enthused by the renewed emphasis on coal. In recent years, opposition to new plants has gained traction. Since 2009, protestors worried about pollution have managed to thwart plans to build a coal-fired 1200-MW thermal power plant near the Black Sea town of Gerze. In response to the criticism, the government has modified plants in western Yatağan and southern Kahramanmaraş, which had been creating excess waste. Turkish courts have also stepped in to halt construction of coal-fired plants after ruling that they had not conducted adequate environmental impact reports.

The problem is that, while plentiful, Turkey’s coal is also dirty. According to the US Energy Information Administration, between 75% and 90% of coal is lignite or “brown” coal, which contains more sulphur and produces far less cleanly than hard coal. Lignite deposits are scattered across the country, although the Afş in-Elbistan field alone accounts for nearly 40% of the national total. Reserves of cleaner-burning, hard coal from Zonguldak are limited. Turkey currently imports 90% of the hard coal that it consumes.

Experts say environmental concerns are justified because coal-fired plants in Turkey lack the requisite pollution-control devices. Although all the plants have devices to control particulate emissions, only a few feature flue-gas desulphurisation systems and none have devices for nitric acid and mercury.

Economical

As Turkey seeks to expand and diversify its energy mix, the case for coal is compelling. Despite advances in drilling and extraction technologies for natural gas, locally mined coal remains a cheaper energy source. By turning to this domestic resource, Turkey would lower its energy import bills, which have been the single largest contributor to the country’s growing current account deficit.

All of this is true, but in the rush to develop indigenous energy resources, Turkey is confronting a more vocal environmental movement. Efforts to develop the resources should be coupled with advances in clean coal technology and upgrades at existing plants. At the same time, Turkey’s largest potential source of energy remains renewables, including hydroelectricity. Environmentalists are of a mixed mind about dams, but any sensible effort to meet the rapidly expanding demand for electricity will have to pursue a balanced approach.

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The Report: Turkey 2013

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