Zimbabwe: Coal-Bed Methane Can Fire Up Development

5 August 2020
editorial

Zimbabwe needs more energy, especially electrical energy, first to catch up on all the power stations we never built and then to have extra in hand so the economy can grow swiftly without farmers, miners and industrialists continually complaining about inadequate power infrastructure.

And if we are to achieve the Vision 2030 goal of a middle-income economy, we are not going to do this if everyone is sitting in the dark. Assured supplies of electric power is a basic requirement, and the more sources we have the better, so we can cope with things like Angolan droughts cutting output at Kariba or a major coal mine running into problems.

For some decades the potential of coal-bed methane in the Lupane-Hwange basin has been aired as a potential source of fuel to generate electricity.

Reserves have been estimated, perhaps guesstimated would be more accurate, in the trillions of cubic metres.

Investors have been showing interest. Around six from Zimbabwe, South Africa and China now have the special grants they need to actually explore for methane and map the geology of the basin to get far more accurate estimates of reserves.

But as this is being done Zimbabwe needs to develop fairly quickly its national natural gas policy, something that will work for both the coal-bed methane in Lupane and the natural gas in Mzarabani if the exploratory wells do strike gas.

Natural gas is largely methane, so the same policy works well across the board.

The policy needs to make it clear what safety and environmental rules we want, and make it clear that markets will exist for both a chemical feedstock and, probably far more importantly, to run gas power stations.

We do not have to reinvent the wheel as we develop these policies.

Natural gas and coal-bed methane are long established products and best practices have been developed, sometimes unfortunately after disasters. But by coming late on the scene we can avoid a lot of the grief and just get the benefits.

Methane, regardless of whether it comes from a coal field or a petroleum field, is not easy to store.

Basically as it flows out of the ground it needs to be taken by pipeline to the users, mostly power stations although chemical companies in the Midlands have expressed interest in having a pipeline terminal nearby.

Gas power stations are the easiest and quickest to build. Shorn of ornamentation, a gas power station is basically a jet engine, and an old fashioned on at that, attached to a generator and covered by a shed.

The technology is off-the-shelf and given a site at the terminus of a pipeline a power station can be built and be on the grid within months.

Such stations can be brought onto grid very quickly, not as quickly as hydro-power, but still a lot more quickly than coal.

This helps when you see growing surges in demand at peak hours, although in Zimbabwe's case the Kariba station is better for handling such surges, allowing other technologies for generating electricity from gas.

You can also generate power by using the same sort of steam generation found in thermal stations, with just boiler conversions so that gas can be used instead of coal to boil the water.

Environmental factors have to be considered. Methane is a carbon fuel, but it produces significantly less carbon dioxide than coal for every unit of energy.

In fact, several countries are looking at converting coal stations to gas stations to cut their carbon emissions.

And while methane is a far more vicious greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide if vented into the atmosphere, the safety precautions in a national gas policy will obviously address this problem of venting.

You can say that by removing and burning the gas from the coal seams before you mine them, you are not only reducing methane levels that could be vented, you are also making the future coal mining safer, by taking out the "fire damp".

It has to be remembered that the present exploration is only a first stage.

Once methane is a proven resource then wells have to be drilled and pipelines laid to take the gas where it is needed.

This is why we need to start planning now, thinking carefully where we want to site power stations, thinking where we will need to lay pipelines, along with all those legal issues of right of way, and having the basic framework policies in place so investors, who should have input into their formulation, know exactly where they stand.

Basically the time for talk is over.

We need to start action, action at national level to ensure investors and consumer both get a square deal, and action on the ground to find out where and how much gas we have.

We need especially to remember that a middle income Zimbabwe will be needing several times the amount of electricity we generate now, and as we build further we need to have our power stations lined up.

We have resources in hydro, thermal, solar and gas, so we can create the right mix to make sure that as we develop the lights are always shining.

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