Does the coal mine fuel the power plant enough at Barapukuria?
Barapukuria underground coal mine in Dinajpur district, the only coal mine in Bangladesh was established in 2005 with the main objective to fuel the mine mouth coal fired power plant. The power plant has a capacity of 525 MW power generations but has been chronically underperforming for most of its existence. For several months now it can generate only 150 MW of power, less than half of its capacity. Coal production continues to date to fuel the power plant. The question is, why the power plant under performing? Is the reason linked to a lack of coal supply from the mine? If so why is not the required coal coming from the mine?
The underground coal mine is running for about 16 years now and nearing completion in its central part. Thereafter the mining activity will be shifted to the northern part. The overall recovery is less than 10 per cent of the total coal reserve, a fact many considered too little at a time when coal contribution, mostly imported, is becoming significant in the energy mix of the country.
By any standard Barapukuria is a small underground coal mine running a modest power plant at its mouth. However, their importance is recognized in the north Bengal where a significant power demand is met by the power plant. Also the importance of the mine lies to the fact that it is a flagship of mining industry in Bangladesh and development of several other coal mine depend on the experience and performances of this mine.
The above is perhaps a lesser reason, for the Barapukuria coal mine to be known to the public, than the coal scandal that surfaced in 2018 from the loss allegedly by theft, of about 142 thousand tons of coal from the mine. The coal yard was almost empty and the power plant had to temporarily shut down. A number of inquiry committees investigated the cause of the coal loss and to point out responsibility. The results of the inquiries varied with range of suggestions from system loss to irregularities in coal moisture recordings as the cause of missing coal.
There was however no hint by any of the inquiry committees of an act of physical removing of coal using bags or sacks or truck or the like. Many observers believe that the act by the law enforcing agency of herding together all the previous managing directors of the Barapukuria coal mining company (BCMCL) to send to jail without any specific allegation, has been unjustified, considering the social status they held. While the investigation into the allegation of the alleged coal theft is yet to complete the Barapukuria coal mine returned to business as usual.
Barapukuria mine is overlain by thick water bearing sand aquifer and underlain by a regime of high heat flow, thus popularly known as a mine with "water above and fire below". At several coal production areas, the working condition of the miners is very bad with very high temperature and humidity- endangering the health and safety of the miners. However the underground mine has managed to be free from major accidental events like gas explosion, structural collapse and so on.
The Barapukuria coal based power plant started running in 2005 with two units, 125 megawatt (MW) each, with a total generation capacity of 250MW. The coal mine started producing coal from 2005 under a contract between BCMCL and Chinese contractor CMC which run consequently for three terms till date. During the first contract period (2005 to 2011), the average annual production was 608 thousand metric tons coal against an actual average annual demand of 444 thousand ton for the power plant.
During the second contract period (2011 to 2017), the average annual coal production was 920 thousand metric tons against an actual average annual demand of 540 thousand metric ton. Therefore the Barapukuria mine could supply the power plant with the required amount of coal to the power plant during the above time and could sell the remaining coal to the outside industry mainly brickfields.
In 2018, a third unit of 275 MW capacity was added to the power plant, thus increasing the total power generation capacity of the power plant to 525 MW. The coal requirement for running the power plant has now increased, but the coal production from the mine could not be increased consequently. According to the BCMCL, there was no assurance from their part given to the Power Development Board with respect to supply of additional coal to be required for the additional capacity installed in the power plant.
In fact, the average annual coal production during the third contract period (2017-2021) was 840 thousand metric ton against an actual average annual demand of 1200 thousand metric ton for the power plant. The reduction of coal production from the previous contract period, according to the BCMCL is due to the increased depth of coal and increased instability of coal faces in the 3rd slice.
The above discussion indicates that the Barapukuria coal mine cannot produce enough coal to supply for generation of available capacity of the power plant. And this situation arises from the fact that the third unit of 275 MW capacity was added to the power plant without getting an assurance of additional coal supply from the Barapukuria coal mine. The Barapukuria mine is about to complete its mining operation in the central part soon and will then move to the northern part. It is understood that the average annual production from the northern part in the coming years will decrease due to mining constraints. The power plant is thus faced with continued prospect of lesser coal supply than it would require for generating optimum power.
The question as to why the situation comes to this end so that a significant power capacity remains idle because of lack of coal. This leads one to think why is the additional power capacity of third unit added knowing that the coal may not be available to run it? Is this not a case of lack of coordination between governmental departments for which public money is wasted?
What is the future like for the mine as well as the power plant? The mine in its present form and design cannot meet the power plant's coal demand. The mine may increase coal production either by adopting to a different mode of underground mining or to limited open pit mining where coal occur at shallower depths subject to social acceptability.
At a time when Bangladesh begins implementing large scale coal based power generation, it is perhaps not rational to keep most of the own coal fields unexploited? At the same time, a very fertile soft land and a high population density where people depend on the land for agriculture means that one cannot perhaps be too aggressive on coal mining which may disrupt living and livelihood in a large scale. The challenge of Bangladesh for its own coal utilization therefore, is to strike a balance between technologically possible high productive mining and the social acceptability.
Dr Badrul Imam, Honorary Professor, Geology department, Dhaka University