Coal better than renewables for India: WCA CEO Benjamin Sporton

Sporton says high-end coal-based power plants using advanced technology will be as environmentally friendly as a renewable power project of similar investments


Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

New Delhi: India’s goal of reducing carbon emissions and supplying affordable electricity to nearly 237 million people with no access to power is best served by coal-based power plants using the latest technology, rather than renewable energy projects which are less reliable and have huge additional costs, a top official at a global organisation of coal miners said.

Benjamin Sporton, chief executive of London-based World Coal Association, said high-end coal-based power plants using advanced technology will be as environmentally friendly as a renewable power project of similar investments, and yet produce about four times more power. Considering that solar and wind power projects are intermittent due to weather conditions, these sources of energy need systems to manage this unpredictability, which will add to the actual cost of power generation.

“What we often do not consider in the cost of renewable power generation is the system costs for installing back-up (for supplying power when there is no sunlight or wind), power storage facilities and a smart grid that can manage voltage fluctuations. We do not factor in any of these when we say solar power has reached cost parity with coal-based power,” Sporton said in an interview.

Compared to an older inefficient coal-based power plant, a new high-end ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plant can bring significant emission reduction at about 20-30% extra capital cost, but it helps in lowering the use of fuel over the life of the plant and in recovering the extra cost, said Sporton. Solar power will help in emission reduction, but generates a lot less electricity at the same level of investments, he said.

“If you are trying to achieve the objective of a lot of electricity and reducing emissions, then coal-based plants using clean technology helps in meeting both the objectives,” he said.

India has set a renewable energy capacity target of 175 gigawatts (GW) by 2022, but has maintained that coal will continue to play a leading role in the energy basket as it is abundantly available in the country, unlike natural gas, which is in short supply.

As per WCA estimates based on planned and under-construction projects in India, coal-based power generation in the country will rise significantly in absolute terms by 290 GW in 20 years, although its share in the energy basket will decline slightly. At present, about 60% of the country’s over 307 GW of power generation capacity is based on coal.

“Coal’s share in world’s energy mix will drop to 31% by 2040, down from 41% now, but since the world’s energy pie and consumption of every source of electricity is growing, coal consumption too will grow in absolute terms from present levels,” said Sporton, citing an estimate by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

According to IEA’s World Energy Outlook 2015 report, India has 237 million people with no access to electricity. According to executives in power companies, 70% of those without access to electricity or with intermittent access to it are in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand.

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