The UAE emirate of Ras al-Khaimah (RAK) is set to not only become the site for the Gulf’s first clean-coal power plant, but also one of the cleanest coal-fired facilities in the world.

“It will be the first full-scale carbon-capture plant worldwide,” says Richard Menezes, managing director at the local Utico Middle East, which is co-developing the project. “There are others in pilot systems, but this will be the first plant to be completed.”

Coal currently accounts for about 65 per cent of global power generation, but has not been utilised in the Gulf to date due to the region’s rich oil and gas reserves. But with electricity demand rising rapidly, and the cost of liquefied natural gas (LNG) imports rising, Gulf countries are looking to position coal as a key energy source in coming years. The RAK scheme will provide a blueprint for the future of coal-fired energy production in the UAE and the Gulf.

Carbon capture

The AED1.5bn ($408m) power station is being developed by China’s Shanghai Electric and Utico, and is supported by the RAK government. The plant will generate 270MW of power, and is scheduled to enter service in 2015. Its carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is designed to capture 80 per cent of carbon emissions, rather than releasing them into the atmosphere. Subsequent emissions are stored underground permanently.

The world’s first pilot plant using CCS technology was commissioned in northern Germany in 2008. However, to date, the substantial cost of developing and implementing the technology has meant that no large-scale carbon capture plant has been developed.

“The technology has been around for many years but it has been a white elephant,” says Menezes. “It has not been pursued because it is not commercially viable and is dependent on efficiency levels and operating costs.”

According to Menezes, the team responsible for developing the power plant have worked alongside the Federal Electricity & Water Authority (Fewa) to develop a funding model based on a stand-alone tariff resting within the UAE government model, to make the scheme economically viable. The funding strategy has attracted interest in neighbouring Dubai, which plans to employ coal-fired plants to meet 12 per cent of its energy requirements by 2030.

“Our model has surprised many parties and they are keen to share our know-how,” says Menezes. “We‘ve shared this information with Dewa [Dubai Electricity & Water Authority] to see how it can help with coal plans.”

Clean coal forms a key part of Dubai’s long-term strategy to diversify its energy mix by 2030. In May 2011, Dewa commissioned a study to evaluate the possible use of coal to generate electricity. The team selected to advise on the first phase of the study included McKinsey & Company and Black & Veatch, both of the US, and UK law firm Allen & Overy.

The first planned coal plant in Dubai would be located at the Hassayan site, which is also the proposed location for the emirate’s first gas-fired independent power project. The plants would have a generating capacity of 1,800-3,000MW.

By 2030, Dubai’s domestic energy needs will be met by clean coal (12 per cent), nuclear power (12 per cent) and solar schemes (8 per cent), with natural gas remaining the predominant power resource.

The issue of sourcing feedstock for power generation has become a pressing issue in the emirate. Dewa receives all of its natural gas supplies from fellow state-owned entity Dubai Supply Authority (Dusup), which in recent years has experienced a shortage in supply. As a result, the price of gas has increased sharply. While gas supplies for electricity generation have tightened, coal can be sourced relatively cheaply from India, Indonesia and Australia.

Coal test

The adoption of clean coal and carbon capture technologies is important if the UAE is to slash its carbon dioxide emissions. In 2008, the country emitted 24.98 tonnes of carbon dioxide per capita, significantly greater than the 17.96 tonnes per capita emitted by the US, according to data from the World Bank.

As with all breakthrough projects, the proposed RAK plant will attract its sceptics. But Menezes is confident Shanghai Electric’s technical expertise and experience will help ensure the project fulfils its objectives and is delivered to schedule.

“Shanghai Electric is the largest coal plant manufacturer in the world and also holds the world record for lowest coal consumption,” says Menezes. “It has a proven track record so delivery won’t be a problem.”

The coal plant will not only put RAK on the global power map, but will provide a key test of whether clean-coal is a commercially viable method of power generation in the Gulf.

Key fact

In 2008, the UAE emitted 24.98 tonnes of carbon dioxide per capita

Source: World Bank