Home/ Opinion / India’s coal concerns

Coal is India’s main energy source but we have to be very careful.

After the historic Sino-US accord on climate change signed in Beijing between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping 12 days ago, China has unveiled further details on what it plans to do in regard to coal consumption, the primary source of carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming. The accord commits China to peak its carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 or so. Now it appears that China will cap its coal use at about 4 billion tonnes by 2020 itself. Currently, its coal consumption is in the region of 3.5 billion tonnes. In addition, the energy mix envisages no more than 60-62% of electricity generation from coal by 2020, down from the present level of approximately two-thirds.

What does this mean for India? India has the world’s third or fourth largest reserves of coal, although the quality is poor with high ash content which makes for lower energy value. Our energy policy has always been anchored in coal, but that was at a time when environmental and climate change concerns were not in sharp public focus. Today, India consumes about one-seventh the amount of coal that China does and if current plans are anything to go by, this could well reach one-third of China’s current consumption by the end of this decade and, perhaps, between two-fifths to a half by 2030. Thus, the world will be carefully watching India’s coal use. Today, about 65% of our electricity supply comes from coal and most optimistically this can reduce to around 56% by 2030. The reduction in the share of coal depends, of course, on whether we are able to accelerate the contribution of hydel, nuclear, solar and wind to electricity generation beyond the present level collectively of slightly over 25%.

Actually, we have no option but to ensure that non-fossil energy sources expand aggressively in the years ahead.

More coal-based power generating capacity is what might be called a double whammy. Coal-based power plants emit carbon dioxide, which is the most preponderant greenhouse gas. In the Indian context, because of high ash content, the combustion of 1 tonne of coal will result in an emission of around 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide. More than this, much of the new coal reserves and mines are in rich forest areas in states like Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. An analysis of nine major coalfields in the country that had been carried out in 2010 revealed that anywhere between 30% and 45% of the coal blocks fall in what might be termed “no-go" areas, that is areas with a high forest cover. Their extraction will lead to considerable deforestation and, thereby, to a loss of a valuable carbon sink. It is well known that forests absorb carbon dioxide and deforestation leads to global warming. And compensatory forestation through plantations can never compensate for the loss of natural forests with their rich biodiversity.

Clean coal is a contradiction in terms but we must certainly strive relentlessly for cleaner coal. One of the far-reaching decisions taken in 2008 was for India to invest heavily in supercritical technology which leads to a reduction of emissions of at least 5% over conventional power plants. Supercritical plants operate at much higher temperatures and pressures. After 2017, that is the end of the Twelfth Five Year Plan, all new coal-based power plants were to be based on supercritical technology, a decision that will undoubtedly be endorsed by the present ruling dispensation as well.

What else can be done? Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as it is usually called has been talked about and recently Canada announced the launch of the world’s first commercial scale CCS power plant with a generating capacity of 110 megawatts (MW). Theoretically, carbon dioxide from the flue gases can be captured and used in this manner or combined with ammonia to manufacture urea. But what appears attractive on paper may not be feasible in practice and, truth be told, CCS is still a far way off. IGCC is another technology that might hold promise. IGCC stands for integrated gasification combined cycle where the efficiency can go up to 45% and more. Since coal is converted into gas, emissions and pollutants are significantly reduced. The foundation stone for India’s first IGCC facility was laid in Vijayawada six years ago to be put up by Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd (Bhel) but sadly, that facility has made no progress whatsoever—yet another example of how India doesn’t lag in knowledge but fails in translating that knowledge into commercial technologies in time. IGCC is an area crying out for bold moves.

There are other concerns inherent in the greater use of coal. Indian companies (including giant public sector enterprises themselves) have demonstrated great insensitivity to concerns of local communities in coal mining areas. Their track record in matters relating to land acquisition, resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) and restoration of mined areas inspires no confidence, and that is why they face public agitations and protests. Apart from this, new pollution concerns have arisen. India is already the world’s second largest emitter of sulphur dioxide (and nitrogen oxides) for which there are no concentration standards as yet. Sulphur dioxide emissions have a deleterious health effect in regions beyond the vicinity of power plants since they stay long in the atmosphere and get transported long distances. In power generating clusters like Singrauli, emissions of mercury have also started adversely impacting the health of the local population. Unfortunately, this is another instance where concentration standards are absent.

India needs to expand its electricity generation capacity, and coal will continue to be the sheet-anchor at least for the next decade-and-a-half. But business as usual in coal mining and utilization will spell disaster for us both domestically and globally. The sooner we recognize this reality the better.

The author is a Rajya Sabha MP and a former Union minister.

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Updated: 24 Nov 2014, 12:35 AM IST
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