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Published on: Nov. 13, 2022, 5:29 p.m.
Coal remains an invincible force
  • Coal is the preffered fuel for power generation in the country; Photos: Sajal Bose

By Sajal Bose. Executive Editor, Business India

Coal remains the predominant energy source in the country. The energy security of the country is intricately linked to coal. What make coal the preferred choice of fuel is its abundance, availability and affordability. The one burning question that seems to occupy many analysts and energy experts is the role of coal in India’s energy mix in the future. Despite the fact that coal meets around 51 per cent of the country’s primary commercial energy requirements, the cry for coal’s exit emanates basically from the environmental point of view.

With environmental concerns intensifying the world over, eco-activists are seeing red with fossil fuel use. As the rallying cry against coal’s use is getting more strident, phasing out this fossil fuel from the global energy mix has become a priority, globally.

Coal India Limited (CIL), the state owned Maharatna company, accounts for nearly 83 per cent of India’s entire coal output and fuels about 137 thermal power plants. 135 of them are monitored by the Central Electricity Authority. Close to 80 per cent of CIL’s overall supplies stoke the coal-fired power plants of the country. CIL holds around 54 per cent of the country’s entire coal resources base of 326 billion tonnes.

Commercial primary energy consumption in India has grown by about 700 per cent in the last four decades. Driven by the rising population, expanding economy and a quest for improved quality of life, energy usage in India is expected to rise. Considering the limited reserve potentiality of petroleum & natural gas, eco-conservation restrictions on hydel projects and the geo-political perception of nuclear power, coal will continue to occupy the centre stage of India’s energy scenario.

As per the recent World Energy Outlook by the International Energy Agency, India is likely to see the world’s biggest rise in energy demand this decade. Coal generation is projected to expand in absolute terms and peak in 2030. Coal will continue to be the primary source of energy generation. 

‘India becomes the world’s most populous country by 2025 and, combined with the twin forces of urbanisation and industrialisation, this underpins rapid growth in energy demand, which rises by more than 3 per cent per year in the Stated Policies Scenario (STEPS) from 2021 to 2030,’ IEA stated. It revealed that India became the world’s second largest coal producer in 2021 (in energy terms), overtaking Australia and Indonesia, and that it plans to increase domestic production by more than 100 million tonnes of coal equivalent (MTCE) by 2025 from the current levels.

At present, India accounts for just over 10 per cent of global coal consumption, after China, which accounts for 55 per cent. Coal demand in India has risen rapidly due to the fact that increases in electricity demand are largely met through coal-fired power.

The Indian power sector is undergoing a significant change that has redefined the industry outlook. Sustained economic growth continues to drive electricity demand in India. It has increased its electricity generation capacity from 1,362 MW in 1947 to 3,95,600 MW as of 2022 of which renewable energy is over 38 per cent. 

  • Coal will continue to play a key role in the energy mix in India

The Government of India’s focus on attaining ‘Power for all’ has accelerated capacity addition in the country. In order to meet the increasing demand for electricity massive additions to the installed generating capacity are required. The government emphasises rural electrification, but 13 per cent of the more remote villages in India still do not have access to grid-connected electricity. They use non-grid sources or don’t use electricity at all.

The invincible coal

A new generation coal fired power plant called Ultra Super Critical Plant is becoming popular. This high efficiency plant results in less coal consumption for generating the same amount of electricity and reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 3.3 per cent. In 2019, NTPC had adopted the technology and set up India’s first Ultra Super Critical Plant in Khargone in Madhya Pradesh. It has a capacity of 660 MW.

At the current rate of coal production, even after taking into account projected growth in the coming years, the present coal resources under CIL’s fold will enable it to meet the expanding coal demand of the country to a considerable extent in the future. Also, more than 90 per cent of the 195 coal plants being built around the world are in Asia, according to data from Global Energy Monitor USA, of which 95 are in China, 28 in India and 23 in Indonesia.

“Even though India continues to make great strides with renewables deployment and efficiency policies, the sheer scale of its development means that the combined import bill for fossil fuels doubles over the next two decades in the STEPS, with oil by far the largest component. This points to continued risks to energy security. Coal generation is projected to continue to expand in absolute terms in the STEPS, peaking around 2030, though its share of electricity generation falls from just below 75 per cent to 55 per cent over this period,” says the IEA report.

There is an equal divide between proponents and opponents of the use of coal, each clinging to their own convictions. There is a great deal of truth on both sides. Realism dictates that a humongous energy contributor like CIL cannot disappear from the energy system abruptly. There is a great peril in that.

Notwithstanding the role of renewable energy sources, the demand for coal here will continue for at least the next two decades, if not more. As indicated by a KPMG study earlier, coal continues to be the dominant fuel in the country’s energy landscape in the foreseeable future. Though coal’s share may come down in percentage terms there will be an increase in volume terms, in the coming years.

Recently, the government unveiled its ‘Green Hydrogen Mission’ to make India the world’s largest exporter of green hydrogen with a 5 million tonne production target by 2030. To that effect, the government unveiled a Green Hydrogen Policy in February to boost the production of green hydrogen. As India imports 85 per cent and 53 per cent of its oil and gas requirements respectively, green hydrogen can help reduce the country’s dependence on imports.

In addition to reducing the carbon footprint, a hike in production of green hydrogen can help India to meet half of its energy requirements through renewables. But the government has to work hard to bring down the cost.

  • The burning of coal is responsible for 46 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide

Nuclear power is another source of energy. By November 2020, India had 22 nuclear reactors in operation in eight nuclear power plants, with a total installed capacity of 7,380 MW. A total of 43 TWh nuclear power was produced in 2020-21, contributing 3.11 per cent of total power generation in India. 10 more reactors are under construction with a combined generation capacity of 8,000 MW.

In October 2010, India drew up a plan to reach the nuclear power capacity of 63 GW in 2032. However, following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster there have been numerous anti-nuclear protests at proposed nuclear power plant sites. A PIL has also been filed at the Supreme Court.

Coal is the single biggest contributor to anthropogenic climate change. The burning of coal is responsible for 46 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide and accounts for 72 per cent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the electricity sector. 

Solar power initiatives

CIL has taken several initiatives to safeguard the environment. The company has stepped into clean energy. “Solar power generation sits high in our priority list of renewable energy. We have lined up solar power projects of 3,000 MW capacity by FY26 through joint venture models,” says CIL chairman Pramod Agrawal. Giving a boost to its solar power initiative CIL recently signed an MoU for setting up a 1,190 MW solar power project with Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RVUNL), the power generator of the state of Rajasthan.

This is the first time CIL has signed an MoU for a solar power project with any state government. With an estimated cost of R8,000 crore, CIL’s solar power project is slated to come up at RVUNL’s 2,000 MW solar power park at Bikaner, in a phased manner. The state government will ensure handing over the possession of encumbrance and encroachment-free land to CIL, to set up the project. The aim is to kick-start the solar project in 24 months. Currently CIL has solar installed capacity of 300 MW.

Also, in a major move to reduce environmental pollution in coal transport, the company has adopted mechanised coal transportation under First Mile Connectivity (FMC), to eventually replace road transport. FMC refers to the transportation of coal from CIL’s pitheads to despatch points. The coal will be transported by a conveyor to a silo in the coal-handling plant and will be loaded directly onto rail wagons.

Strengthening its network of eco-friendly coal transportation, CIL has initiated 17 more FMC projects under phase-III. At an estimated cost of Rs11,000 crore these projects have envisaged a loading capacity of 317 MTPA. It is also preparing a rollout plan to float tenders for the latest projects by FY25. Commissioning would take place by 2027. These are in addition to the 44 projects which already exist.

  • Coal is an affordable source of energy

Buoyed by the positive results in two of its open cast mines shown by a pilot study regarding the environmental and economic benefits of loading through FMC projects, CIL is actively pursuing this mode. The results have indicated a significant reduction in particulate matter, CO2 and other gaseous emissions compared to dispatch through rail sidings. 

CIL produced 622 mtpa of coal last year as against the country’s total production of 777 mtpa. The Maharatna company has set a production target for 700 mtpa for the ongoing fiscal. India also imports coal. Last year it imported 209 mtpa of coal. India is not endowed with sufficient reserves of the coking coal used in steel-making. This necessitates import of coking coal along with non-co.0king coal. Last year the country imported 57 mtpa of coking coal.

According to the ministry for coal, the demand for coal in India is still to reach its peak and the dry fuel will continue to play a key role in the energy mix till 2040 and beyond. The shift away from coal will not happen in the foreseeable future.

The ministry adds that though there are no immediate plans for a coal phasedown, companies involved in coal mining will have to manage the closure of abandoned mines. Coal companies will also have to manage those mines that will close normally in the near future in a manner aligned to ‘just transition’ principles to ensure the repurposing of land and infrastructure assets and the continued livelihood of workers.

The energy-source-mix after a decade is envisaged to be different from the present scenario, with renewable sources making inroads. However, coal will remain a robust energy source. Cleaner sources of energy are welcome from an environmental perspective. The writing is on the wall – renewables will dethrone coal in the long run. But the big question is – when?

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