December 8, 2015

Cole on coal

AMONG the many gifts God gave to Nigeria is an abundance of coal. Many years ago when we were told about gas, we were also told that our coal was not cokeable; was of lower quality, could not produce the high temperature needed for power plants, etc. As for gas, we were told that it was associated with oil and had to be burnt or flared, that it was dispersed over a large area and would cost too much to gather and piped for domestic or commercial use.

These statements were made by our own engineers, echoing what the International Oil Companies, IOCs, had said. As for coal, we were told it was next to useless, cost too much to extract. Yet we conveniently forgot that there were six ships that shipped coal from Port Harcourt to Lagos for the power plant there which gave uninterrupted power to half of Nigeria.

The civil war produced a perfect reason for abandoning the Enugu coal fields; a few years before we learnt that we have plenty of coal in Itakpe which didn’t need the mines of Enugu, since Itakpe coal was good for strip mining. The interesting point about Enugu was that South Africa, Argentina and other Latin American countries continued their interest in Enugu coal. If ever there was one issue which was killed by lack of political will, it was coal.

By 1976, it soon dawned on us that there was no way we could industrialise without coal. The Ukrainians came to build a steel plant in Ajaokuta but political interference, Ukrainian, Nigerian and Russian greed, will not allow this project to be finished. The plant to build the flat steel was never completed, meanwhile the machine tools factory had been built in Osun State. This was an integral part of the Ajaokuta steel project. We had built six direct reduction steel plants all over Nigeria waiting for the steel ingots that would spew out of Ajaokuta.

One day someone got up and told us that this entire project is uneconomical and moth balled them. Mittal, the biggest steel producer of the world bought the remnant of the steel plant but government intervention and insensate request for back handlers slowed him down. It is believed also that there were two Mittal brothers and we sold to the wrong one. Typical, he was accused of stripping the steel plant and the whole of the steel project died, just as the paper mill project and the aluminum smelting plant were more or less dead.

Let me invite you to the project awaiting the Ajaokuta steel plant: these are the six direct reduction plants, awaiting steel ingots from Ajaokuta, the Ogbomosho Machine Tools Factory, the railway line from Ajaokuta to Sapele/Warri, 100 million Nigerians waiting for steel to do two million jobs. In China, the construction of a 700cc power generation plants is targeted for 2018, completion with new alloys. Another innovation in the coal fields is something called “circulating fluidised bed combustion” for power generation. This technology was designed by a university in China and taken over by the government of China with university participation. More exciting research has followed coal. The researchers are talking about “poly generation“- using coal as feedstock to generate many products- electricity, chemicals, liquid fluid, natural gas, etc. There is even talk of using coal as a hybrid power generation option. I obviously do not understand the technicalities involved here. But I don’t understand one thing- our coal is lying useless in Enugu, Oji, Itakpe and elsewhere.

Our coal fired generators has been out of service for over 20 years. The Ministry of Mines and Power has little to show for the coal industry. No one is thinking of generating electricity with coal; no one is even studying coal as an electricity fuel. There are great number of environmentalists who regard coal fired generators for electricity as a no. Do they know that the UK today has 39 per cent of the power produced by coal; the over 45 per cent of US power is coal-based. Forty-five per cent also in Germany. But in Nigeria, it is zero per cent.

Let me end by telling you a story of a Nigeria enterprise which went to South Africa to invite South Africa Synthetic Oil Liquid, SASOL,-the world famous SASOL that helped South Africa beat the oil embargo by producing oil from coal. Our South African friend’s partners arrived after we had agreed to one of these bilateral agreements to cooperate. Our minister saw them for 10 minutes. The next three years were spent finding time for the minister to meet them. When they eventually met the South African asked what was the estimated volume of the coal reserves in Nigeria. Katakata burst! Why should South Africa want to know our reserves? If South Africa needed to know they should pay for the survey? What was the Enugu reserve figure? Either the minister did not know or he bluffed his way through; again this was the job of the company, not the ministry!!!

China is the largest coal producer in the world. In 2012, China produced 3.7 billion tons. Proven reserves of coal in China in 2010 were 114.5 billion tons. Coal fired generators in China account for 86% of China’s needs. By 2020 China’s coal consumption for energy will still be 55% of its energy mix compared to 74% in 2014. China is pushing ahead with coal generators with little environmental deficiency, improved efficiency and reduced emissions, etc, through the support of clean coal technology which has lately vastly developed: “The future is in highly developed and efficient ultra-super critical pulverised coal plants”.

All the conversion coal points should be examined, converting coal by working different chemical processes – gasification and new combustion processes. More details about new discoveries in coal generation could be given but unnecessary.

What we have in the ground is not doing us any good. We need to exploit our coal for all it is worth, follow new studies and give us cheaper electricity and cheaper steel. Is gas a more useful tool for electrification and even for production?

Nigeria needs a gas policy, a coal policy even if we still have to meet world environmental standards. What we cannot do is to delay the matter much further.

 Ambassador Patrick Dele Cole , a commentator on national issues, wrote from Lagos