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Borneo Can Say "No" to Coal Power

By Jeremy Hance

Mongabay.com | March 22, 2010

CREDIT: Jeremy Hance © 2010.

Plans for a coal power plant in the Malaysian state of Sabah in northern Borneo have run into stiff opposition. Environmentalists say the coal plant could damage extensive coral reef systems, pollute water supplies, open rain forests to mining, and contribute to global climate change, undercutting Sabah's image as a "green" destination. The federal government contends that the coal plant is necessary to fix Sabah's energy problems, yet a recent energy audit by the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at the University of California, Berkeley shows that pollution-intensive coal doesn't have to be in Sabah's future.

"We found that energy efficiency, biofuels, hydropower, and geothermal provide immediate advantages for the region over fossil fuels, and that in time both solar and ocean energy could provide even more energy than coal, while building jobs and a clean environment," Professor Daniel Kammen, director of RAEL, told mongabay.com.

Commissioned by Green SURF (Sabah Unite to Re-Power the Future), a coalition of NGOs that oppose the planned 300 MW coal plant, Kammen examined Sabah's energy options, including traditional fossil fuels, biomass waste, hydropower, solar, wind, and geothermal. The analysis also looked at the cost of each of these options to consumers, taking into consideration that an independent energy producer would require a certain return on their investment.

Alternatives

The study found that using biomass waste from Sabah's extensive oil-palm plantations could provide a significant boost in energy to the state while being cost-competitive with coal. This solution would also deal with a waste-disposal problem for the oil-palm plantations.

"The large scale of palm oil, and other biomasses means that this 'waste' is a huge resource," says Kammen, though he also stresses that oil-palm plantations are not without their own environmental problems. "The challenge is not the technology, but in managing a wider issue, the growth in palm oil estates that have their own significant negative impacts on the region, despite their economic benefits."

Using 2008 data from the palm oil industry, Kammen's report found that by 2020 oil-palm waste could provide a staggering 700 MW. 400 MW (one hundred more than the planned coal plant) would be achievable under a proposed 4-year program.

Hydropower was also found to be cost-competitive with coal and more environmentally friendly, while geothermal was found to be only slightly more expensive than coal. A location has already been identified on the east coast of Sabah for a 67 MW geothermal power plant.

Kammen adds that Sabah shouldn't rule out solar energy. "Solar energy is a far better but a bit longer-term resource than is widely appreciated today," he says.

The cheapest way forward overall is to pursue reduction in energy demand, according to the analysis.

Coal Fears

Despite the many environmental problems known to accompany coal power, the coal plant is being pushed by both the federal Tenaga Nasional Berhad and the state energy company, Sabah Electricity Sdn. Bhd.

Opposition from locals has forced the coal plant to move its location—twice. Now the plan is to build it on Sabah's east coast, within the Coral Triangle, an area known for astounding marine biodiversity. In addition, conservationists fear the coal plant's transmissions will cut through some of the region's last intact rain forest in Tabin Wildlife Reserve, home to a number of endangered species including the Bornean orangutan and the Sumatran rhino.

Environmentalists also warn that sulfur dioxide emissions from burning the coal could trigger acid rain that would impact nearby rain forests and agriculture. In addition, discharge of chlorine sulfates into the ocean would boost the likelihood of regional eutrophication and algal blooms, resulting in massive marine die-off. Currently, the area is home to many fishermen who depend on the oceans for their livelihood.

Locals have said that they fear the coal plant will turn the east coast of Sabah into America's coal states, where water pollution, air pollution, coal ash dumps, deforestation, and destructive mining have devastated the local environment and wildlife. They point to the coal ash spill in Tennessee in 2008 as an example of what they don't want to become.

"The environmental problems of [the planned coal project] are only the beginning," says Kammen. "The renewable energy resources in Sabah could lead to a path that invests in the people and sustaining the land, and not in expanding the dependence of the region on imported, dirty, coal."

Moving Forward

At Copenhagen last December, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, pledged a 40 percent cut in carbon dioxide intensity by 2020. By moving forward on coal energy, Malaysia would make meeting this goal even more difficult, since coal is the most carbon intensive of the fossil fuels.

Kammen says that the choice between coal and renewable energy doesn't have to be an either-or choice: either cheap or expensive, either job creation or job loss.

"The people of Sabah are keenly aware of the need for jobs, and of their incredible natural resource base. Renewable energy supports that positive development, and a coal project in the region fights that positive, clean, growth," he says.

Sabah, its people, and its policymakers are facing a decision similar to many places of the world: How do we move ahead on energy? Kammen says that if Sabah chooses renewable energy over traditional fossil fuels it could help spark a clean-energy revolution.

"Economies in all parts of the world can look carefully at their resources, develop partnerships, and build a clean-energy, job-creating path that protects the natural legacy of each state and province, and our shared global legacy to leave the world a better place for our children," said Kammen. "So far, our society, globally, has not lived up to that charge," he explains, adding that "Sabah can take a stand, profit from the choice, and chart a new path."

© 2010 Mongabay.com. Republished with kind permission.

Read More: Agriculture, Business, Development, Economy, Energy, Environment, Technology, Malaysia, Asia, Oceania

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