Is Clean Coal the Answer to India’s Energy Security Needs?

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Written by Frank Maxwell

Did India’s new energy strategy – which promises to exceed its COP21 commitments by a whopping 50% – signal that the world’s largest democracy is joining hands with conservationists and moving away from fossil fuels? Can this bastion of fossil fuels, where coal still accounts for 61% of its energy mix, kill the two birds of economic development and public health with one stone? That seemed to be the case, judging by the flurry of headlines that came out in December praising New Delhi’s audacity. After all, this was a country that a little over a year ago was locked in a high-profile struggle with the developed world over its reliance on fossil fuels.

Is it really feasible for a country with such an abundance of coal reserves to turn its back on that cheap source of energy? As it turns out, not really. Much of the media coverage was driven by hype and by wishful thinking that pushed some to believe that renewables are the only way towards protecting the planet from environmental disaster.

Which is why the second part of the story was grazed over by the media – that far from abandoning coal, India will look to ways to improve the efficiency and reduce the carbon footprint of its coal-fired plants. Eleven GW of aging, inefficient plants will be replaced with new, supercritical technology, which comes fast on the heels of the roughly 33GW that were already converted over the last five years. This technology relies on boilers operating at higher temperature and pressure to generate steam and turn turbines more efficiently. What’s more, 50GW of coal based power projects are currently in various stages of development and will come online before 2022.

In addition to these supercritical plants, India is also spearheading carbon capture and storage technology – a recent plant in Chennai showed that CCS is cost-competitive even without subsidies. The plant plans to capture 60,000t of CO2 from a 10 MW power plant and turn the captured gas into soda ash that can be used as fertilizer. According to the company, the patented solvent they use can capture the gas at a cost of $30 per ton. If these kinds of carbon neutral coal plants can be rolled out nation-wide, it would safeguard India’s energy security while also working towards limiting CO2 emissions.

What these developments show is that India’s immediate challenge is not so much replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy as is providing electricity to its 300 million, largely rural dwellers who still have no access to the grid. Earlier this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to bring electricity to all of India’s villages by May 2018. This massive feat of rural electrification would mean bringing electricity to 200 villages a week for over a year. However, the plan stops short of promising electricity to every home – an important distinction, as proven by the 2011 census which showed that in villages categorized as having access to electricity only 55% of homes actually used it as their primary source of power.

The renewable revolution advocated by Modi comes with one major drawback: panels can only generate electricity during sunny, mid-day hours (roughly speaking, between 8am and 4pm). Since storing solar energy is a fairly expensive process, during evening hours – when power demand peaks – India will have to rely on coal power plants that are able to produce an equivalent amount of energy. What this means is that the capacity of thermal power plants can’t fall behind solar – anything else would severely hamper the country’s already fragile energy security. The national power grid is woefully inefficient and the country is often crippled by power shortages and blackouts like the one in 2012 where three of India’s five grids failed, leaving 20 of its 28 states and 700 million people without electricity for hours. Public services and private enterprises were forced to shut down as disgruntled citizens rioted in the streets.

All things considered, India will not abandon its thermal power plants and coal will very much stay an integral part of the country’s energy mix. This shouldn’t be construed as a bad thing – major technological leaps such as supercritical plants and CCS are the only elements that can solve India’s development dilemma and do so without raising the country’s CO2 footprint.

About the author: Frank Maxwell has almost two decades of experience working in Central and Eastern Europe and is currently a Competitive Intelligence Correspondent based in Warsaw.