Malaysia: A Coal Plant in Paradise
There are worse places to be than in the eco-paradise of Sabah, a state on
the northeast tip of Malaysian Borneo. To one side is the Coral Triangle,
home to the world's richest ocean diversity; to the other is the Heart of
Borneo, a 22-million-hectare rain forest. In the middle is a vast swath of
1,100 palm plantations. Every year hundreds of thousands of tourists visit
Sabah to explore its marvels of biodiversity, hiking elephant paths,
spotting shy orangutans and scuba diving with hammerhead sharks.
It's hard to imagine a worse place for a brand new 300 MW coal-fired power
plant than here. But it will be a real challenge for Sabah to get by
otherwise. And there, in a Southern Pacific garden spot, are all the
world's eco-tensions writ small.
Malaysia has taken clear steps to make environmental health a national
priority. In the fall of 2009, Prime Minister Najib Razak pledged at the
U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen that his country, already a
Kyoto Protocol signatory, would reduce its carbon emissions by 40% by
2020. It is one of the few countries in Southeast Asia with renewable
energy standards, despite the fact that it has reliable stores of
conventional fuels; its oil, gas and energy sectors accounted for 10% of
the country's GDP in 2009.
But Malaysia is also a land of pressing energy needs, and Sabah tells that
story better than most places. Officials anticipate a 7.7% annual energy
demand increase through 2020, which Sabah Electricity, the state power
company, has proposed meeting by adding seven new energy facilities to the
17 already in existence. Most are fueled by natural gas, followed by
hydropower and diesel. One of those new facilities, promised by Razak just
months before his pledge in Copenhagen, is slated for the Sabah palm
plantation region. And this one will be fired by coal — Sabah's first such
Twice before in the last three years, the local electricity utility, a
subsidiary of Tenaga Nasional Bhd (TNB), which owns 80% of Malaysia's
power generation, had lobbied to build a coal-fired plant. Both times the
plans were shot down by the federal Department of Environment (DOE) and
This latest plant, however, is different. Not only is it slated for
federally owned land, it also has the backing of the prime minister.
Sabah's environmental groups formed a coalition to fight the plant, but
they kept hearing the same thing over and over again: Ini Najib mau. Najib
Still, what Najib wants is not necessarily what the rest of his government
wants, and in August, the DOE once again stepped in, rejecting a detailed
environmental impact assessment for the plant. TNB is expected to submit a
revised statement early next year and when the company does,
environmentalists fear the jig could be up; this time a coal plant may
actually get built.
It doesn't have to be this way, environmentalists say. Some 60% of
Malaysia is rain forest, the vast majority of it found in Sabah and its
neighbor state, Sarawak. Though renewables currently account for only 1%
of the country's energy production, mostly from hydropower, Sabah's
abundant sunshine, geothermal sources, extensive network of strong rivers
and a long coastline give it the potential to make Malaysia a regional
leader in clean energy.
These resources are underdeveloped, however, and until the renewables
sector can get itself ginned up, the threat of a coal-fired plant looms.
One stopgap for Sabah would be to build the power plants it needs but fuel
them with palm oil production waste. Sabah currently produces about 30% of
Malaysia's palm oil, which combined with Indonesia's, constitutes 90% of
the world's palm oil exports. A palm waste biomass plant could readily
meet the 300-MW target Razak promised, according to one recent energy
Of course, palm plantations — and their waste — do their own serious
environmental damage. In Southeast Asia, slash-and-burn land clearing has
destroyed vast forest regions to make way for monocrops like palms, a
practice that has been strongly implicated in global warming. That hardly
makes this region a good place to do more burning. Still, even greens
concede that palm burning is a step up from coal, if only because it
provides something to do with the 70 million tons of palm production waste
the country generates each year, most of which is dumped in mill ponds or
illegally burned in open pits.
Despite these problems, Malaysia still heads into the 2010 climate talks
in Cancun on Nov. 29 as one of the world's better-intentioned
environmental citizens. But it remains to be seen how these good impulses
will play out in Sabah's fragile and beautiful ecosystem.