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The Coal Conundrum

No matter what, India’s use of coal will ­skyrocket in the next two decades.
October 20, 2015

India accounts for about 6 percent of global greenhouse-gas emissions. It’s not in the same league as China, the United States, or the European Union, but that could change over the next two decades (see “India’s Energy Crisis”).

Jairam Ramesh

India has the world’s third-largest reserves of coal. Coal now accounts for between three-fifths and two-thirds of the country’s electricity supply, and even with the most aggressive plans to develop nuclear, hydroelectric, and renewable power, coal will still account for around half the electricity supply by 2030.

Nuclear accounts for only around 3.5 percent of India’s supply. Raising this to even 5 percent over the next two decades would require heroic efforts. Hydroelectric power contributes around 17 percent of the power now, and although this could increase to around 25 percent by 2030, even hydro has social and environmental challenges. Renewables make up about 6 percent of the electricity supply, and current plans are to at least triple that in a decade and a half.

But even if India meets these bold targets, coal will still play the dominant role. With 50 million homes not yet electrified and with per capita electricity consumption at about one-third of Chinese and one-13th of American levels, India needs a huge expansion in generating capacity—another 15 to 20 gigawatts a year for the next two decades at least. Demographics can’t be overlooked: India will add 400 million people over the next 30 years to its current population of 1.24 billion.

This is India’s cruel coal conundrum. The country desperately needs to escape its dependence on coal, but it can’t do so for at least two decades. The best it can really do is minimize the environmental costs of mining, transportation, and combustion. How? Carbon capture and sequestration is one option, but the most realistic method may well be a technology called integrated gasification combined cycle, which turns coal into gas. Still, “clean coal” is really a contradiction in terms.

India could learn a lot from the German Energiewende, which made a country with no real advantage in solar energy a world leader in that area. It’s astonishing that Germany has 12 times the solar capacity of India. India’s 500-­megawatt fast breeder nuclear reactor is likely to be commissioned in 2016, paving the way for the use of thorium (a quarter of the world’s thorium resources are in India). But India still can’t wish away coal.

What India really needs is new research and technology development. And that won’t happen without greater investment.

Jairam Ramesh is a former Indian minister of power and environment and the author of Green Signals: Ecology, Growth, and Democracy in India.