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Coal: No easy exclusion from sustainable development

  • Published
    22nd Nov, 2023

In theory, the argument switching to renewable energy will generate investments and jobs is elegant but reality is something else.

Energy Dynamics:

  • Dependency on Fossil Fuel: The world is highly dependent on fossil fuels, which produce 80% of the total energy supplied.
  • World’s total energy: In 2022, oil, coal, and gas accounted for 30%, 27%, and 23% of the world’s total energy, while solar and wind energy sources together contributed only 2.4%.
  • Per capita energy: Further, the per capita energy supplied in India during 2022 was 37% of the global average, and only 26% of that of China.
  • Human Development Index: Since per capita energy is directly related to the Human Development Index, we can expect that India’s energy needs will continue to grow in the foreseeable future.

Energy Security:

  • Energy from renewables: Only 10.4% of the 36.44 exajoules of India’s primary energy consumption in 2022 are from renewables (hydroelectric, solar, and wind); coal and oil gas account for 55.1% and 33.3%, respectively.
  • Coal-fired thermal power plants (TPPs): It generated 74.3% of India’s electricity during FY 2022-2023; generation by TPPs continues to grow to meet demand.

Emissions from India:

  • Emissions from Fossil Fuels: India’s cumulative emissions from fossil fuels and industry between the start of the industrial revolution in 1750 and the end of 2021 are only 3.3% of the global total, far behind those of Europe (31%), the U.S. (24.3%), and China (14.4%).

The coal and renewable energy ‘s place in the electricity sector:

  • Renewable energy capacity: According to Central Electricity Authority (CEA) projections for FY 2031-2032, India’s national grid can absorb 924 TWh of electricity from various renewable energy sources by progressively adding 47 GW of battery storage capacity and 27 GW of pumped storage projects by FY 32.
  • Battery storage capacity: Any major increase in battery storage capacity in India will require the import of critical minerals like lithium, cobalt, nickel, and graphite, which are controlled by other countries (mainly China), posing significant risks to India’s energy security.
  • Domestic coal: Ninety-six percent of the coal used by TPPs in India comes from domestic mines and is key to why electricity is so affordable in India.

Does coal transport have environmental impacts?

  • Transport of raw Coal: The transport of unwashed raw coal to TPPs located more than 500 km from the mines also means transporting millions of tonnes of ash-producing non-coal material.
  • Supply of washed coal: The government can mandate miners to supply only washed coal to all TPPs located more than 500 km from mines or ports to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and other environmental pollution.

What’s the issue with flue-gas desulphurisers?

  • Low sulphur content in India: Indian coal – other than that from Assam and Meghalaya – has lower sulphur content than that mined in other coal-rich countries.
  • Effect of Sulphur emission: According to the U.N. IPCC, historical sulphur dioxide emissions have created a cooling effect by producing sulphate aerosols that block some of the incoming solar radiation and enhance cloud formation, masking global temperature rise by 0.5 degrees Celsius.
  • Power plant pollutants: The government can implement a ‘graded priority’ of power plant pollutants: particulate matter, carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury, in that order.
  • Reduction in particulate emissions: This way, India can reduce particulate emissions by 99.97% by installing the cost-effective, high-performance electrostatic precipitators and reserve FGDs for TPPs near urban areas.

Are there other low-carbon development strategies?

  • Supercritical technologies: Some 30% of the current TPP capacity in the country is from supercritical or ultra-supercritical technologies, which are also being installed in the 35 TPPs under construction.
  • Advanced ultra-supercritical technology (AUSC):TPPs based on advanced ultra-supercritical technology (AUSC), with a proven efficiency of 46%, will also reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 15% compared to TPPs equipped with supercritical technology.

Low Carbon Development:

  • Common But Differentiated Responsibilities: Such a challenge can be tackled according to the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ enshrined in the UNFCCC and in the Paris Agreement.
  • Long-term Low-Emissions Development Strategy: For India, low-carbon development is not a choice but a necessity, and the steps to achieve this are reflected in the ‘Long-term Low-Emissions Development Strategy’ it submitted to the UNFCCC.

Way forward:

  • The developed countries will take the lead in combating climate change and provide new and additional climate-specific financial resources and technology transfer to developing countries as under the provisions existing under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement.
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