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View PointOpinion: Why India cannot phase out coal

Opinion: Why India cannot phase out coal

Published: 2nd Dec 2021 12:34 am

By Dr Oruganty Prasada Rao

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In the recently concluded climate change summit COP26, India and China called for phase-down instead of phase-out of coal in the final text of the conference declaration. The reasons for it are:

Energy Resources: India is endowed with large reserves of coal, which can last for over 200 years at the current rate of production compared with meagre reserves of oil and natural gas (Table 1). As a result, India imports large quantities of oil and gas, spending more than 25% of foreign exchange.

Renewable Energy: India is blessed with abundant sunshine for 300 days annually in most parts of the country and has about 7 lakh Mw of power generation potential yet to be exploited (Table 2). The country is implementing several programmes to exploit solar energy such as ultra-mega projects, solar parks, Central Public Sector Undertaking Scheme, and grid-connected solar roof top programme. On the international level, India has launched the ‘International Solar Alliance’ in 2015 and put forward the concept of ‘One Sun One World One Grid’ and ‘World Solar Bank’ at the COP26 summit.

One Mw of solar power plant requires about 2.5 acres of shadow-free area, which is large enough compared with other generation modes but difficult to get in urban areas. Solar power plants situated far away from the consumer for want of space increases the cost of distribution. Only 3 lakh Mw of wind power is available in the country. Even though both solar and wind power are cheaper than coal, they are dependent on nature, cannot be relied upon, power generation is intermittent and requires large battery support for storage.

Hydropower potential is about 1.5 lakh Mw, of which only 30% has been exploited so far due to environmental issues. Resultantly, only about 8,000 Mw was added during the last decade in contrast to 1.18 lakh Mw of thermal power during the same period. Hence, hydropower may not contribute in a major way to future capacity addition. Solar and wind will be the main contributors to renewable energy with their combined potential of about 10 Gw.

Electricity Capacity, Generation: The share of electricity generation from coal will continue to be higher than renewable energy till the 2030s. In 2040, renewables would occupy the top position with about 60% share. Increase in nuclear power is uncertain since it depends upon environmental and safety issues and people support. (Table 2)
Coal India Ltd accounts for 83% of country’s coal production, hence its economics dictates the economics of India’s coal industry. It provides employment to over 2.5 lakh people. The financial performance of the company is very good as it generates large profits (Rs 12,702 crore for FY21), return on capital was above 16.2-22.6% during the Covid pandemic years.

India’s GDP for the last 3 years (2018-2020) was $2.87 trillion, $2.66 trillion and $2.95 trillion as per statista.com. Total energy consumed from all energy sources during the same years was 30,993, 32,639 and 32,514 petajoules (Energy statistics 2021). Extrapolating the data, India needs about 1.7 times of 32,514 petajoules of energy by 2025 to become a $5-trillion economy.

The energy demand in India in 2040 will be about 2 billion tonnes of oil. Equivalent of nearly 50% of this energy will come from coal. The forecast indicates increasing coal usage beyond 2040.

Control of CO2 from Coal: India cannot do away with coal at least for the next 3 to 4 decades. The main issue in its use is that coal is more carbon-intensive, which means coal produces 2 and 1.4 times more carbon dioxide upon combustion compared with oil and gas of equivalent energy. Two technologies that can be immediately employed to reduce the emission of CO2 per unit of power generated are coal washing and improving the efficiency of power plants.

Indian coal contains high ash (45-50%). The Environment Ministry issued a notification to use washed coal in power plants from January 1, 2014, which need to be implemented strictly across the country. The efficiency of existing power plants can be improved by better management and replacing the old equipment.

Increasing the forest cover is another option. The forest cover in India in 2009 was 6,45,724 sq km, which has increased to 7,12,249 sq km, representing 21.7% of India’s geographical area. CO2 has many industrial uses in chemical and pharmaceuticals, electronics, oil industry and carbonated beverages. CO2 from the flue gases coming out of the chimney of power plants can be captured and used for these industrial applications. Technologies are available for separating and absorption of CO2 from waste gases.

Carbon sequestration is an emerging technology to use coal in which CO2 is captured and either used or stored in the deep sea, underground geologic locations, abandoned fossil fuel reservoirs etc, but expensive and commercially not yet fully developed. It is possible to have a zero polluting coal-based power plant by adopting carbon sequestration and clean coal technologies.

GDP growth is dependent on energy consumption and achieving a $5-trillion economy requires a huge amount of energy that cannot be met without using coal on large scale.

Thus, coal is inevitable in the energy mix of the country in the foreseeable future. It is a myth to believe that renewable energy can meet all the energy needs. Till new sources of energy are developed, India has no option but to depend on coal.

(The author is a retired scientist,CSIR; former guest faculty TERI University; and adjunct faculty, ICFAI University)

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