VERA FILES FACT SHEET: Four things you should know about coal plants

President Rodrigo Duterte has called coal plants “clean energy” and urged the private sector to invest more in these types of facilities.

“To our friends in the private sector, I ask you to follow the lead of San Buenaventura Power by investing in the generation of clean energy,” Duterte said during the opening ceremony of San Buenaventura Power Ltd Co. coal-fired power plant on Oct. 16.

This contradicts his earlier policy statement of switching to renewable energy. In his fourth State of the Nation Address, he said:

“We recognize the urgent need to ensure the sustainability and availability of resources and the development of alternative ones. In this regard, I trust that Secretary Cusi shall fast-track the development of renewable energy sources, and reduce dependence on the traditional energy sources such as coal.”

Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office, 4th State of the Nation Address of Rodrigo Roa Duterte, July 23, 2019

San Buenaventura's 500-megawatt power plant in Mauban, Quezon is an addition to the 14 coal plants currently supplying electricity in the Luzon grid.

The power plant supposedly uses the first supercritical boiler technology in the country, which claims to significantly reduce emissions compared to the traditional coal plant.

Studies show that even with advanced technologies, coal plants still emit 15 times the amount of carbon dioxide compared to renewable energy.

Here are four things you should know about coal-fired power plants.

What is a coal power plant?

Coal power plants use coal, a non-renewable energy source mostly made of carbon, to produce electricity.

Electricity is generated by burning pulverized steam coal or thermal coal in a boiler in high temperatures, which produces heat. The heat is used to boil water needed to run steam turbines connected to generators, creating alternating current electricity.

According to the latest data of the Department of Energy (DOE), the Philippines is heavily dependent on coal-fired power plants, which make up the largest share in the country’s power generation.

What are the impacts of coal power plant to health and environment?

VERA FILES FACT SHEET: Impact of coal burning on health and environment from VERA Files on Vimeo.

Coal burning releases toxic substances such as mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, and other heavy metals that contribute to air pollution. Seven million people die every year due to illnesses caused by air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO reported nine out of ten people breathe air containing high levels of pollutants, which may also cause asthma, lung diseases, brain damage, cancer, and neurological disorders.

Carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide form acidic pollutants, known as acid rain, that harm animals and may lead to deforestation. Acid rain seeping into the ground may dissolve nutrients or cause aluminum to be released into the soil, making it hard for plants to absorb water and nutrients.

The aluminum released may eventually end up in lakes and streams, increasing the bodies of water’s acidity and levels that are deadly to aquatic wildlife.

Aside from the negative impacts of coal plants to health and the environment, coal power plants are the single largest contributor of carbon dioxide, according to the World Bank.

Carbon dioxide makes up 72 percent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which contributes to the rapid global warming, the abnormal rise of the planet's temperature.

Global warming results in serious alterations in the environment: rise in sea level, leading to loss of coastal land, extreme weather patterns like stronger storms and typhoons, increased risks of droughts and floods, more intense heat waves, among many others.

What is “clean coal” technology?

The World Bank defines Clean Coal Technology as:

“every option capable of reducing emissions in the upstream (materials needed for production), downstream (production and distribution), or within the power generation (energy conversion) process.”

“Clean coal” or high efficiency low emission coal or HELE refers to: 1) power plants that burn coal more efficiently; 2) use of pollution control technologies to capture sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides and other pollutants; and/or 3) technologies to capture CO2 emissions, known as carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Conventional coal-fired power plants use subcritical technology, which has about 32 to 38 percent efficiency in burning coal. With HELE, supercritical and ultra-supercritical power plants have higher critical pressure, therefore require less burning time and less coal to heat the same amount of water to generate electricity.

Supercritical power plant has an average of 45 percent efficiency, while ultra-supercritical technology exceeds 45 percent.

Meanwhile, CCS is a technology, promising to trap 90 percent of carbon dioxide by collecting, transporting, and burying carbon dioxide underground preventing its escape to the atmosphere.

Does modern coal plant really produce “clean” energy?

A study shows that even with CCS technology, coal plants still emit 15 times the amount of carbon dioxide compared to gas renewable energy.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report says while “clean coal” has the potential to reduce emissions, its impacts to help the environment are severely limited due to a number of factors.

Cited by the IUCN, a 2004 study noted, “there is no clear cut evidence that clean coal technologies are totally devoid of environmental problems. Clean coal technologies, particularly carbon capture and storage, are mainly transferring emissions from one waste steam to another, with no certainty of how to manage the end product. They added that there is evidence that carbon capture and storage could leak.”

Shifting attention and investment to renewable energy is seen as the most potent measure to address carbon emission, IUCN concluded.

Meanwhile, environmental groups Greenpeace, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Philippine Movement for Climate Justice (PMCJ), among others, insist, there is no such thing as “clean coal.”


Sources

Presidential Communications Operations Office, Speech of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte during the Switch on Celebration of San Buenaventura Power Ltd Co (SBPL) 500-MW Supercritical Coal-Fired Power Plant, Oct. 16, 2019

Presidential Communications Operations Office, News Release: President Duterte wants Congress to act on important legislations, tackle corruption, July 23, 2019

Presidential Communications Operations Office, The 2019 State of the Nation Address, July 22, 2019

San Buenaventura Power Ltd. Co. website, About Us

Department of Energy, List of Existing Power Plants as of June 30, 2019

Greenpeace, Greenpeace reactive to President’s call for investments in ‘clean’ coal, Oct. 18, 2019

Coal power plants

Impacts of coal to health and environment

Clean coal technology

Modern coal plants as “Clean” energy


(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)

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