Cleaning coal instead of wishing it away

Even with growth in renewable energy generation, coal will remain indispensable. The solution lies in better utilisation by moving towards more efficient power plants.

September 09, 2015 12:54 am | Updated September 03, 2016 04:21 am IST

DHANBAD, JHARKHAND, 15/01/2014: Generating power: The government will have to collate a clean coal policy with respect to exploration, mining and use. Picture shows coal workers in Dhanbad, Jharkhand. 
Photo: Manob Chowdhury

DHANBAD, JHARKHAND, 15/01/2014: Generating power: The government will have to collate a clean coal policy with respect to exploration, mining and use. Picture shows coal workers in Dhanbad, Jharkhand. Photo: Manob Chowdhury

The World Bank recently announced that short of exceptional circumstances, they would no longer fund coal in developing regions. The U.S. and other nations are also contemplating, if not making, similar choices, driven in part by concerns about climate change. This view may be impractical, if not myopic, given that at least for India, coal isn’t going away anytime soon. Even with a very high Renewable Energy (RE) future, there will be an inevitable growth of energy from base-load power sources, which will likely be coal.

Coal is polluting, and studies by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), which recently came out with a benchmarking exercise, point out that many plants don’t do very well in terms of local air pollution. CSE’s head, Sunita Narain, mentioned that as an environmentalist, she would love to see coal power disappear, but it is not likely to do so, and perhaps in the short run there isn’t an easy alternative.

Not only are there a lot of old and cheap plants already installed, many new ones are under construction or planning. However, many of them aren’t run optimally, either from an efficiency perspective or from an environmental one. Instead of trying to wish coal away, a better strategy would be to improve and clean up coal combustion.

Phasing out inefficient plants

Commenting on such funding restrictions, Coal India Limited — which received a World Bank loan to help reorganise and improve operations, and repaid the loan early — has said thank you, but we don’t need funding any more. But, utilisation of coal continues under a business-as-usual approach, which is likely to be non-optimal and inefficient.

Use of less efficient and even dirtier plants is not unique to India. While India has strived for better performance and larger and more modern plants, China’s initial growth of coal power was based on regional plants of a “small” size (often under 50 MW), and it is only now that these plants are being phased out — more over local air pollution concerns than carbon per se. Of course, India is in a different league than China when it comes to carbon emissions from coal power plants; data from 2012 indicate that coal usage led to more than five times greater emissions from China than India.

Better coal utilisation is at multiple levels. If one is concerned about carbon, then simple efficiency improvements are key, like using less coal for more output. This means moving India away from its present sub-critical coal power plants to super-critical and ultra-super-critical ones. This could reduce coal usage by perhaps more than 15 per cent in new plants. This by itself will help reduce other pollutants.

Reducing local environmental impacts is an area where power plants should be helped, especially in relation to water use and particulate emissions, not to mention treatment of waste ash. Global assistance for this would go a long way in improving the quality of life of Indians, and leave them better off and willing to engage on broader carbon reductions.

So called “clean coal” is under development worldwide. But carbon capture and sequestration is some years away from commercialisation, let alone competitive commercialisation. Thus, “cleaner coal” — in the form of more efficient coal plants — requires innovation to work well with Indian (high-ash) coal. Such efforts need support, ranging from technology, to policy support and financing. Another need unique to India is for innovative coal plants that can better harmonise with varying grid conditions. With limits to hydropower growth, and little gas (let alone cheap shale gas), India’s coal plants will have to perform some level of grid balancing even in a high-renewable world, at least until the grid transforms through measures like deployment of ancillary services markets, storage technologies and smart grids.

CSE’s benchmarking was focussed extensively on local air pollution and pointed out that a lot of India’s power plants were now being built away from the cities, so “someone else” is burdened. This is classic NIMBY (not in my backyard).

BANANA advocacy

At a recent talk, Ms Narain jokingly mentioned that the best way to get enforcement of existing standards would be have plants built in urban areas, maybe next to the Prime Minister’s home. However, the global push to “end coal” appears to be a manifestation of BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything), which is sometimes aimed at limiting dangerous forms of growth but often ends up being against all new growth.

Advocates of BANANA conveniently ignore history, and the history of aggregate consumption indicates India’s “fair share” of carbon emissions (if there is such a thing) to be decades away. Of course, the aim isn’t for India to reach emission levels close to those of China and the U.S but not to limit emissions at the cost of limiting human development. While carbon is a global pollutant, views on BANANA cannot override a nation’s choices regarding NIMBY. With or without state-of-the-art technology for lower emissions and higher efficiency, new plants are going to be built in India. Without global support and a push for improvements, the only result would be suboptimal and more polluting plants.

( Rahul Tongia is a Fellow at Brookings India, and adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University. All views are personal. )

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