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India’s Coal Reliance And Global Warming Hypocrisy

By Dr EAS Sarma & Shankar Sharma

28 June, 2013

An oft repeated statement in recent years is that the continued reliance on coal power is essential to lift the poor people in India from the clutches of poverty. The government and many people in the position of influence have been repeating this statement so often that it seems to be attaining the status of “Goebbels’s Truth”. One such statement has been reported in the article “Indian, U.S. leaders tout 'critical' natural gas partnership” published on May 15, 2013 in ‘Environment & Energy Daily’ and attributed to Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He is reported to have said: "If you look at Indian policy, the most important element of it is to get rid of poverty," and "Why would we not be entitled to finance that's available for generating power, as long as you are continuing to burn large quantities of coal?”. This statement,if true, is highly unfortunate at a time when the international scientific community including IPCC body itself is strongly advocating for a low carbon global economy.

Advocacy for coal power against global scientific advice

While drawing the attention of the international community to the possibility and the consequences of a 4°C warmer world, the President of the World Bank, Dr. Jim Yong Kim has said “A 4°C world can, and must, be avoided.” ..and “The World Bank (WB) Group will step up to the challenge.” But he also is reported to have stated subsequently that WB funding should continue in coal power sector to address the issue of energy access for the poor.

The ‘expert group on low carbon strategies for inclusive growth’ which was set up under the Planning Commission of India has in its interim report assumed coal power to be the least cost option, and that the coal power capacity needs to be increased to 230, 000 MW from the present level to address the issue of energy access to all. It states: “… This willrequire an annual coal supply of at least 1,000 million tons, two and a half times the present level. Domestic mining will have to increase considerably otherwise imports willhave to meet a large fraction of coal demand.” The embedded GHG emissions in increasing the installed power capacity by about 120,000 MW have not been discussed in the report.

When the harsh realities of coal power in the true context of global warming and the overall welfare of our communities are objectively reviewed, the hypocrisy behind such statements/reports will become obvious.

The fourth assessment report of IPCC had clearly mentioned that the emissions of the greenhouse gases must fall by 2050 by 50-85% globally compared to the emissions of the year 2000, and that the global emissions must peak well before the year 2020, with a substantial decline after that.It is well known that within the energy sector the largest chunk of emissions in India has been from electricity generation amounting to about 65% of CO2 equivalent in that sector. During the year 2012-13 coal power has contributed to about 75% of the total electricity generated in the country corresponding to a huge percentage of GHG emissions in the sector.

A survey report by Prayas Energy Group released in 2011 has estimated that there are more than580,000 MW capacity coal power plants waiting to be built in the coming years. This is more than 4.7 times of the present coal power capacity of 121,600 MW. In this context it should be clear as to how coal power will continue to be the predominant source of GHG emissions in the country’s share to the global warming. With about 75% of electricity generated in the country coming from coal power, it should not be hard to imagine the vast increase in total GHG emissions in the country, if this humongous amount of coal power capacity is to be added.

With so much of additional coal power capacity in the pipeline, one will shudder to think the consequences of mining, transporting, burning and ash disposal of such vast quantities of coal in addition to the huge increase in total GHG emissions. In the Indian context, which is already a water stressed country, the additional demand for water, people’s displacement, and potential destruction of thick forests, below which about 30% of the country’s coal reserve are known to be located, are all matters for serious concern.

A report of the International Energy Agency has opined that if we want a 50-50 chance of staying below 2° of global warming increase, we have to leave 2/3 of the known reserves of coal, oil and gas underground; if we want an 80% chance, we have to leave 80% of those reserves untouched. In this context the hypocrisy of making tall claims on measures to mitigate global warming on one hand and the patronising the coal power sector on the other hand should become clear.

The IPCC report, ‘Special Report Renewable Energy Sources’, has projected a very critical role for moving away from the overreliance on coal. This report has projected that the renewable energy could account for almost 80% of the world's energy supply within four decades. The report has said that if the full range of renewable technologies were deployed, the world could keep greenhouse gas concentrations to less than 450 parts per million, the level scientists have predicted will be the limit of safety beyond which climate change becomes catastrophic and irreversible. The latest findings have shown that the average daily concentration of atmospheric concentration of CO2 has already crossed the limit of 400 parts per million.

In the context of these facts it is difficult to reconcile Dr. Pachauri’s various statements on global warming as Chairman of IPCC and his latest statement of support to the massive addition of coal power capacity in the country against the sane advice of IPCC itself.

Can coal power really address the issue of poverty?

Whereas the successive governments continue to say that coal capacity addition is necessary to provide electricity to all, and through it to eliminate poverty in our country the reality as seen since independence is vastly different. Whereas the total installed power capacity in the country has increased from about 1,000 MW in 1947 to about 212,000 MW in 2013, and the national per capita electricity has increased from less than 100 kWh in 1947to about 800 kWh in 2013, about 300 Million people in the country have no access to electricity. Despite such massive growth in coal dominated electricity grid about 75 Million families have no electricity at all in 2013 as against the Planning Commission’s target of 30 kWh of electricity per family per month as life line energy by 2012,

The reasons given by the official agencies for not being able supply electricity supply to all is that it is not economical to extend the grid power to all villages. Since coal power is economical only in large size grid connected mode, the hollowness of the claim that coal power is needed to electrify all houses becomes clear. A large number of people are living without electricity even in the close vicinity of coal power plants.

A conveniently hidden fact about coal power is the inherent gross inefficiency associated with the coal power. The losses involved in coal burning, steam making, generating, transmitting and distributing electricity is so high that only about 20% of the coal energy reaches the end consumer in the form of electricity even with the best technologies.

Communities across the globe are getting increasingly concerned on the health effects of coal pollution in the form of toxic mercury, arsenic, smog, soot, and other emissions. According to a recent report from Greenpeace India and Conservation Action Trust coal industry causes roughly 100,000 premature deaths annually in India. It is clear that most of these deaths are amongst the poor. These impacts are simply too high a price to pay for the dirty energy.

So it is anybody’s guess how coal capacity addition can provide electricity to the poor, and through it eliminate poverty.

Can coal power be sustainable?

The state agencies keep saying that coal is abundant in India. Integrated Energy Policy of the Planning Commission in 2006 has said that if the domestic coal production continues to grow at 5% per year, all the total extractable coal reserves will run out in about 45 years. At a break neck speed, during 2005-12, the govt. has cleared more than 160 coal blocks. In the context of Supreme Court’s investigation into ‘Coal gate Scam’ even if we assume that 50% of these coal blocks may get cancelled, the increase in coal extraction rate is likely to reduce the reserve to less than 25 years. India’s domestic coal supply infrastructure has been consistently failing to meet even a week’s demand of coal in most of the power plants.

The vexatious issues of coal import are too many to be wished away easily. The recent case of two large size coal power plants on the West Coast seeking upwards revision of already contracted price for the electricity produced due to changes in Indonesian coal market; reports from Australia that many of their coal mines are facing closure due to drop in coal demand from China; low efficiency of a large number of coal power plants in the country; popular opposition to additional coal power plants etc. are all clear indicators that investments in coal power plants is going to be risky.

Dr.Pachauri has repeated the tired argument that the India should continue to build new dirty coal plants because the US and other developed countries continue "to burn large quantities of coal." His statement does nothing to move us forward in addressing India’s energy deficit or providing power to 300 million rural Indians. It is a known fact that the United States has abandoned 177 coal plants over the past decade largely because they were too expensive and because local communities protested their toxic impacts. Now the country is going even further to retire 55 Gigawatts of existing plants.

The economic, social and environmental concerns associated with other conventional sources such as natural/shale gas, dam based hydro and nuclear are equally serious, if not more, when we look at them from the perspective of overall human welfare. Hence a very diligent and transparent approach is needed in all such cases.

The way forward

India is endowed with a vast potential in renewable energy sources. The ‘expert group on low carbon strategies for inclusive growth’ states that “solar power is one of the critical technology options for India’s long term energy security. Several parts of India are endowed with good solar radiation and deploying solar even on 1 percent of the land area could result in over 500,000 MW of solar power.”

Assuming an average of 1,000 Sq. ft of roof surface area for each of 30% of the houses in the country, the total potential for installing SPV systems on such a total surface can be about 1,000,000 MW @ 1 kW per 100 Sq. ft of roof surface. If even 10% of roof top surfaces in each of the other categories of building are considered for this purpose, the potential is enormous; running to millions of MW. Such a policy can transform our power sector scenario with minimum impacts on the land, water and the general environment.

Other renewable energy sources such as wind and bio-mass too have huge potential, and are much more suitable to Indian way of life than the conventional energy sources.

In this background the statements such as that by Dr. Pauchari’s advocating for more coal power capacity addition can serve only to defend a corrupt sector and its coal gate scandals. We, in India, need to take a much more holistic view of the energy needs of the people vis-à-vis all-round welfare of communities. We should build new clean energy sources regardless of what the West does because it’s the cheapest, cleanest, and best solution for our people. It’s time our ‘leaders’ focused on India’s clean energy future and dropped support for a corrupt dirty coal sector.

Dr EAS Sarma is Former Union Power Secretary

Shankar Sharma is a Power Policy Analyst





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