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If India’s need for energy security (reduction in energy imports) seems at odds with its need for clean energy (reduction in energy related air pollution), can indigenous coal provide some relief to a large and complex problem? The answer is yes, if new technologies are adopted for gasifying coal and usher in the methanol economy.

The lyrics of the Kaala re (coal bazaari) song from the 2012 film Gangs of Wasseypur 2 centres around coal being dark and dirty. The song aptly describes the concerns about our coal. Indian coal has gained this reputation due to its high ash content and there is a global campaign to phase out coal completely.

India’s gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to have grown at 6.7% in 2017-18, which could rise to 8% in the future depending on the effectiveness of economic reforms. As GDP growth is positively correlated to energy requirement, we can expect strong energy demand in the coming years. Given that India is rich in coal reserves, there could be a way in which we can create clean energy security through coal to meet our growing demand.

India’s energy consumption is projected at 33,899 Terawatt hours (TWh) by 2047. The energy consumption is expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.87% from the current 8,133 TWh. The worrying part is that energy consumption growth is weighted towards fossil fuel (coal + crude oil) consumption, which is an environmental challenge.

The challenge is greater because of our excessive dependence on the import of crude oil (81% of total crude oil consumption), and because Indian coal comprises mostly of inferior non-coking coal (67% of total coal deposits) which causes more air pollution.

Coal to methanol will help reduce the air pollution that our cities battle with-

It may give an impression that India’s energy security needs are at odds with her Conference of the Parties 21—Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (COP21-INDC) targets. However, we can achieve clean energy security by adopting technological advancements in converting coal to methanol, a liquid fuel. Methanol, which can be derived from coal, can be blended in petrol. Dimethyl ether (DME), which can be further derived from methanol can be blended in diesel, as well as in liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for cooking.

Collectively, this coal conversion to methanol and its derivatives is referred to as “methanol economy", advocated by George A. Olah, and suggests a future economy in which methanol and DME could potentially replace fossil fuels. China had embarked on a journey to convert coal to methanol, using various types of gasifier technologies (not just Chinese, but American technologies, including fixed-bed, fluidized bed and entrained flow gasifiers) for different types of coal.

China produced 42.919 million metric tons of methanol (in 2016) as feedstock for manufacturing various polymers. India could adopt this approach to meet her energy requirements. Niti Aayog has laid out its vision to blend 15% methanol in petrol (M15) and 20% DME in diesel (DM20). The Union minister for road transport and highways, Nitin Gadkari, announced this at the recent coal summit. Thus, there is recognition that using Indian coal to produce methanol can generate a huge positive impact on the Indian economy and environment. With the reduction of import dependence of crude oil and utilization of our own resources, we will enhance our self-reliance in the energy sector.

Coal to methanol will also help reduce the air pollution that our cities battle with. According to the World Health Organization’s Global Urban Ambient Air Database, nine out of the 20 most polluted cities are in India for PM2.5. India’s current focus on upgrading to Bharat Stage-VI fuels will require significant technology improvement in automobiles, without which there will hardly be any impact on air quality. Another initiative—shifting to electric vehicles (EVs)—will take significant time as it is not a mainstream technology either globally or in India.

Compared to these, implementing M15 and DM20 blends can enable the existing fleet of automobiles to reduce emissions with minimal retrofit modifications, thereby making a much bigger impact than any prospective technologies. Further, the conventional burning of coal in thermal power plants releases particulate matter, whereas particulate matter emission is almost eliminated in case of converting coal to liquid fuels.

Traditionally, coal has been burnt in thermal power plants to generate electricity. As electricity cannot be stored economically, it must be sold instantaneously at the price prevailing in the electricity market, leading to losses for distribution companies (discoms). However, liquid fuels (methanol and DME) can be stored economically over a long time and command a higher value in the commodities market.

With the rising focus on renewable energy, the average plant load factor across states and private thermal power plants has gone below 60% and resulted in poor offtake of coal, thereby jeopardizing the future of over 300,000 personnel working directly or indirectly in the coal sector. Coal-to-methanol fuels could potentially turn around the dwindling fortunes of the coal industry and save it from obsolescence.

Shalabh Srivastava is country director, RTI International-India.

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