Work has begun on the 7th largest coal reserves in the world in Thar, and the shock-value of the unity displayed by the federal and provincial governments is astounding and largely responsible for making people hope that this might actually be the real long term answer to the energy crisis. Before we all start thinking of this as our equivalent of the industrial revolution, there are some concerns that the government must address.

The coal that lies under the surface in Thar is called lignite, and contains moisture levels of up to 49%. Brown coal or lignite is also considered to be the poorest type of coal owing to the minimal amount of heat it generates. This does not mean that the deposits are worthless. Indeed, they are invaluable to an energy-starved nation, but are not the black gold they are made out to be.

When brought to the surface, this type of coal usually dries up at an exponential rate and is highly unsuitable for hauling across distances due to the very likely possibility of spontaneous combustion. Hence this form of coal must be used almost immediately as it is brought up to counter any potential instability, or it can be stored underground, through the Underground Coal Gasification process. The previous government has already tested this process in Thar, but it remains to be seen whether it is possible or even feasible to do this continuously and effectively over a long period of time.

In essence, the project in Thar is no small feat considering that the government has to extract the coal on a regular basis, store it underground by turning it into gas or use it immediately in the power plants. The power plants themselves have to be maintained and cared for indefinitely, and the government has to ensure that the supply of energy from Thar is provided to all areas of the country since the coal itself cannot be moved. The task seems gargantuan. As Shahbaz Sharif declares a “big project” involving power generation from coal in the Punjab, and hints at the Chinese investment package as a benefactor, the country hopes the right kind of policy and technological decisions will be taken to make coal power generation a real and viable possibility.