Time to De-COALinise India, and FAST!

— Shashwat DC

Imagine, you are working on a laptop, working on something very critical, like say a business plan for the coming quarter or like, filing your tax returns online. Out of the blue, there is this blue pop-up that appears on the screen, warning you that the battery is low and advising you to either connect it to a power source or save your work. What follows isCoal-Warning fairly typical across the length and breadth of this planet, a mad scramble for the charging chord, a plug point, etc. More often than not, such mad-dash have positive outcomes, but in the few that they don’t, the user is pretty left to his own staring at a dark-dead screen, losing all his ‘unsaved’ work and can be heard using not-so-polite words for a plethora of things, life in general and battery-life in particular.

Were we to extrapolate this small scenario on a much-much bigger scale, say on a national level, India is facing a somewhat similar crisis. We are running on low battery on the electricity front. In fact on one hand, the increase in electricity consumption across the board is coercing the government to augment capacity and while on the other we are running short of resources to generate energy. The honest fact is that steadily we are running out non-renewable resources at a catastrophic rate, especially when it comes to coal.

And the culprit is electricity. As of June 2013, the total installed capacity of electricity in India increased from 132,327 MW in 2006-07 to 2,25,793 MW. India has the 5th largest power generation portfolio worldwide and is the fourth largest energy consumer globally. Yet, the generation is not sufficient to meet the demands. According to government figures, the peak deficit was 9% in 2013, leading to a decision to add generation capacity of 88,537 MW, import 82 million tons of coal, etc.

Now importing crude oil, should not be an issue, but importing coal should be, especially, when India is the 3rd largest producer of coal, and it has been estimated that it has some 7% of coal deposits globally. Imagine, if tomorrow say Iran were to start importing crude oil for its own domestic consumption, it would be travesty. But then, India’s dependence on coal is only rising, according to estimates coal accounts for 55% share as the primary fuel for electricity generation. The consumption and dependence on coal is only rising. Take the case of the Tata Mundra Ultra Mega Power Project (UMPP), which was embroiled in a long-drawn tussle with the state bodies asking for an increase in per unit tariffs, as the cost of coal which was imported from Indonesia, had gone up significantly. The story is more or less similar, across the board.

Only recently, Coal India Limited (CIL), which happens to the largest coal producer company in the world and contributes around 81% of the coal production in India, had got into a slugfest with Greenpeace which had come out with a damning report. According to Greenpeace, CIL was not coming clean on its coal deposits, hiding the true extent of them. Coal-Mines_0The report estimated that instead of 21.7 billion tonnes of extractable coal reserves as claimed by CIL, the actual extractable deposits were only about 18.2 billion tonnes. The shocking revelation was that, based on current estimates the coal deposits will be exhausted in around 17 years.  Of course, CIL on its part was quick to debunk the report, and call to question the motives of Greenpeace in bringing out such a report.

If that was enough, at an event in Chennai, former Union power secretary E A S Sarma, estimated that based on the current consumption patterns, India will run out of its coal deposits in the next 15 years, at best 20 years and not more.

And that should bring us to a moot question, if indeed coal is our addiction and we are running out of coal, why are we not doing something about it? Do we have a national plan to deal with this crisis? What will happen when these thermal plants are no longer able to sustain themselves, and need to import coal at a much steeper price from foreign shores, what will be the impact on electricity charges?

Sadly, the only thing that the present government did on the coal front was to embroil itself in the one of the largest scams ever in the history of free India, Coalgate. According to the Comptroller and Auditor General arbitrary allocations of 57 coal blocks to 75 cherry-picked private companies between May 2005 and July 2009, led to a presumptive loss of Rs 1.86 lakh crore. The government embroiled and embattled on the coal front, did what governments do when they are in a spot like this; Do Nothing!

total coal consumptionLittle wonder, while problem has exacerbated, as the supplies dwindle, India is adding still more and more coal-dependent thermal plants only increasing our dependence. And were it only economics here, one could have understood. But there is a lot more at stake on the altar of coal, thousands, possibly millions of lives; their right to live in a clean healthy environment. The nation’s future is being jeopardised by this inaction.

To illustrate the dangers that await us, let’s talk China first. Now, when one thinks of China, what comes to mind is the sheer size of everything, the Chinese never do anything small, from the undertaking to build a long-long-very-long wall in ancient times, to creating a manufacturing engine that powers the globe in modern day. The skyscrapers of Shanghai are a testament to the fact, as to how the relentless zeal of man can create wonders in matter of decades if not centuries. But these days, there is a new China that is being seen by the world in dread and fear. A smoggy-polluted China, where the sunrise is viewed on giant screens in the park (The picture here is actually one from the park, posted on Time.com).

The economic growth model of China paid huge dividends until now, but the costs of growth are now accumulating in the environs of the all the various cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Jilin, Changsha and elsewhere. The situation is so bad that residents have been advised to stay indoors, companies have been closed. The grand Chinese story is now a global tragedy. It is like one of those tales, where the fantasy turns into a nightmare.

The Chinese nightmare could be a rude awakener to India. Globally, India’ is the world’s 4th largest CO2 emitter, with 2012 emissions having increased by 6.8% to 2 Billion tons. Beijing sun riseAnd a large part of the blame for this rise lies with coal. India is a virulent guzzler of coal in all those thermal plants. When coal-fired thermal plants are reducing world over, even in China, India for very strange reasons is going on adding new ones.

Ever wondered how we will fulfill the needs of these new plants? By digging up and destroying our limited jungles. Recently, the Environment ministry found itself entangled in a controversy over allocating a virgin forest in Madhya Pradesh, named Mahaan. The proposed mining by Essar will destroy no less than 1200 hectares of Sal forest, leading to immense loss to flora and fauna. The ministry and the corporate group has been facing much piercing questions over the hurried allocation, all for just 16 years of coal-supply.

The danger is, to satiate the hunger of the thermal plants; the limited forest cover that India has would be destroyed in quest to dig out the coal. The Mahaan tussle is a wake-up reminder of how critical the danger looming over us is. With some 36% of Indians who still having no access to electricity, the deficit is only going to rise. And any attempt to match the same with additional imports of coal will only add to our climate woes.

So, what is the answer, one may ask? Simple renewable sources of energy are. As of January 2013, wind power accounts for 8.5% of India’s total installed power capacity, and it generates 1.6% of the country’s power. Largely, wind power projects have been in the southern states of India like Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Solar energy is the next big story – thanks to the proximity to the equator, India has an average annual temperature that ranges from 25–27.5 degree Celsius. This means that India has huge solar potential. Going by the sheer potential, about 5,000 trillion kWh per year energy is incident over nation’s land area, with most parts receiving 4-7 kWh per sq m per day, makes India one biggest case of solar power. Recently, the government announced an ambitious plan to produce more electricity from renewable sources as a part of its target to add 10 gigawatts of solar energy by 2017 and 20 gigawatts by 2022.

CoaldepositNotwithstanding the sheer impact in terms of energy security, renewable energy can play a much bigger role in reducing CO2 emissions. While the current thermal capacity is going to continue, any further additions need to be made from renewable energy. It is a known fact that a single wind turbine runs practically emission-free power for up to 20 years. According to one study, in India, wind energy is expected to generate up to 338 TWh of electricity in 2020, which would reduce CO2 emissions by 203 tons. India could achieve 46-74% of the emissions reductions required in the energy sector by wind energy alone.

But for that to happen, we need will and we need vision. Unlike nuclear power, that has still a lot of ifs and buts around it, renewable has none. The only factor is the initial capex. Secondly, and rather more importantly, we need urgent reforms on the distribution side. As of today, it is estimated that we lose some 50% of power in distribution, there can be no justification or excuse for that. And finally, subsidies on power should go. This egalitarian approach, where power is provided free to certain segments or discounted to others, is proving to be a bane. No one values things that we get for free.

Also, the cost of electricity needs to factor in the destruction cost. Imagine, if every unit of electricity that was consumed, resulted in burning coal and planting trees. We need to work out a mechanism like that.

Coal is an addiction for India, and we need to quickly come to grasp. Or else, the day is not far when smog will block out the sun and the moon for us. And sadly, we haven’t reached a development stage, wherein giant screens could be erected to display sunrise. If we ever get to that stage, the only thing that will happen is scores and scores of death all around. Should we wait for that Armageddon?




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