Home / Industry / Energy /  India turns to coal again despite climate woes

NEW DELHI : India plans to expand its coal-fuelled power generation capacity after a six-year gap as a spike in demand caused by scorching summer temperatures triggered blackouts in some parts of the nation.

State-run NTPC Ltd, the country’s largest power producer, invited bids to construct one such plant to meet the growing electricity demand, a top company executive said.

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Several state generation utilities, including those in Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, are also considering setting up new coal-fired generation capacities.

NTPC last called for capacity-raising bids in 2016 as the company pivoted to building greenfield renewable energy projects in sync with India’s push for clean energy.

The renewed push for using coal, considered one of the dirtiest fuels, to boost power production amid growing demand is a setback for India’s green energy aspirations.

The spike in electricity demand because of extreme weather across India, attributed by many experts to climate change, has ironically pushed India to expand coal-fired capacity, a move that may exacerbate climate change risks.

The tender for awarding 1.32 gigawatt (GW) supercritical coal-based capacity at Talcher in Odisha is expected to be invited in the next few weeks, with NTPC also evaluating new capacity at its existing power stations—Lara in Chhattisgarh and Singrauli in Uttar Pradesh.

NTPC plans to import 20 million tonnes (mt) of coal in the current financial year, with the Union power ministry directing all power generation companies to import coal for blending up to 10%. It also plans to raise output from its captive mines by 86% this year to 26 mt.

The shift of focus to thermal power assumes importance, given the ability of these plants to maintain grid stability amid a widescale mismatch in demand and supply. With power from renewable sources being intermittent and not enough to meet the growing demands of the Indian economy, coal-based capacity totalling 210.5GW remains the country’s mainstay for meeting the baseload and accounts for more than half of India’s power generation capacity.

While India was looking to halt new coal-based power units to meet its COP26 commitments, proposals to enhance fossil fuel-based power generation capacity are being considered for brownfield projects. Setting up brownfield expansion projects makes financial sense for NTPC, given the lower cost of generation from these projects, the NTPC executive cited above said, requesting anonymity as the plans are still under discussion.

Queries emailed to an NTPC spokesperson on Tuesday remained unanswered till press time.

Though the drop in temperatures in north India has reduced electricity demand for now, a crisis may be triggered again on account of the long summer ahead. From a record high of 207.11GW on Friday, the peak demand met came down to 204.45GW on Monday. It was 191GW on Sunday. With the fall in demand and improved fuel position at power stations, the peak shortage on Monday fell to 1,773MW from over 8,000MW last week.

NTPC had slowed Lara and Singrauli’s expansion plans after the electricity demand faltered during the pandemic. In Talcher, NTPC was operating one of its oldest plants—a 460MW unit— that was shut last year in March after generating electricity for 54 years. It now plans to award 1,320MW comprising two supercritical units of 660MW each. At Lara in Chhattisgarh, while NTPC had planned 4GW capacity with an investment of over 20,000 crore, only 1.6GW is operational. The state-run firm is now looking to add three more units of 800MW each. The plan for Singrauli is to add another 1.32GW near the existing 2GW plant. NTPC’s playbook is to boost its fossil fuel and renewable generation mix to equal levels by 2032 from the present fossil fuel share of around 80%.

In response to a query about whether India will go for new coal-fuelled power projects, Union power secretary Alok Kumar in a January interview said if such a need arises, the country will go for it. “I will say, if need be, we will go for," he said. “But coal power plants can be set up by states without taking permission from the Centre.

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