Ambitious plans to reduce GHG emissions in coal sector needed to tackle climate change: CSE

India’s coal-based thermal power sector is one of the country’s biggest emitters of CO2 (carbon dioxide).

It spews out 1.1 gigatonne (Gt, or 1,100 million tonnes) of CO2 every year – this is 2.5 per cent of global GHG emissions, one-third of India’s GHG emissions, and around 50 per cent of India’s fuel-related CO2 emissions.

“Coal use by the world, which depends on it for powering its energy needs, is a major contributor to climate change. Coal use in power plants adds to toxic air pollution. There is no question, therefore, that the use of coal for energy needs to be stopped immediately in the industrialised world,” said Nivit K Yadav, programme director, industrial pollution unit, CSE at a webinar here today on ‘Reducing CO2 footprints of India’s coal-based power sector’.

The webinar, organised by CSE, brought together some key experts from the field (see the webinar link above) to discuss the issue.

“Obviously, the coal-based power sector is bad news for an India that is claiming to lead the world in emissions reduction,” adds Nivit K Yadav. “But the fact is that we cannot do away with coal so quickly. India’s growing energy needs means coal is here to stay for at least this decade. Even in 2030, coal will contribute around 50 per cent of the electricity generation mix. How, then, can the country move ahead on a path where it can use coal efficiently to reduce its share of GHG emissions? Our new analysis — Reducing CO2 footprints of India’s coal-based power sector – which we have officially released at the webinar today, puts forth a few feasible measures.”

 The CSE analysis points out that India’s targets in its INDCs (intended nationally determined contributions) mostly focus on an ambitious deployment of renewable power.

Yadav says: “This is not enough. We believe the coal-based power sector needs to take major initiatives if India wants to reduce its GHG emission. Similar ambitious plans are needed in this sector as well.”

What the CSE analysis asks for

In its analysis, CSE has put forth a bouquet of suggestions. Says Nivit K Yadav: “We need policies for decarbonizing coal power. If these get implemented, CO2 emissions from the coal power sector can be reduced by up to 22 per cent in comparison to a business-as-usual scenario.” These suggested actions are as follows:

  • Improve fleet technology and efficiency, renovate and modernise: According to the CSE analysis, India has one of the youngest coal fleets in the world, with around 64 per cent of the capacity (132 GW) less than a decade old. Maintaining efficiency of this large fleet will be crucial as it is going to be operational for at least the next 15-20 years. The government’s renovation and modernisation policies need to play a key role in maintaining the efficiency of this fleet. Says Vinay Trivedi, senior research associate with CSE’s industrial pollution unit: “We have an opportunity here to ensure that all coal-based thermal power plants are ultra-super-critical or advance ultra-super-critical. The cost increase to do this would be marginal, but the advantage will be that we will become far more resource- and emissions-efficient.”
  • Plan for the old capacity: In 2015, over 34 GW (gigawatt) of capacity in India was more than 25 years old, and 60 per cent of it was highly inefficient. Increasing India’s renewable electricity generation can help further the cause to accelerate the retirement of old and inefficient plants. Says Nivit K Yadav: “The current retirement strategy is poor — retirement targets of old and inefficient fleet are being continuously missed. Lack of holistic approach to strategically utilise the resources of old units is leading to significant delays in the retirement process.”
  • Propagate biomass co-firing: Biomass co-firing is a globally accepted cost-effective method for decarbonising a coal fleet. Only one plant currently co-fires biomass in India, informed Trivedi. “India is a country where biomass is usually burnt on the field – this reflects an apathy towards resolving the problem of clean coal using a very simple solution that is readily available,” he points out.
  • Invest in carbon capture and storage (CCS): Globally, carbon capture and storage has struggled to pick up – the CSE analysis notes that India’s prospects appear to be dim at least until 2030. CSE analysts recommend that businesses should invest in indigenous research and development to bring down the costs of CCS.
  • Bring back coal beneficiation: “This is another missed opportunity on which we need a course correction,” says Nivit K Yadav. A 1997 environment ministry notification had mandated the use of beneficiated coal from 2001 with ash content not more than 34 per cent. However, in 2020, overturning the good work, the government allowed use of coal irrespective of the ash content.

The CSE analysis also recommends that India should use both carbon tax and carbon trading system effectively to push for decarbonisation in the coal sector. Says Trivedi: “As per global experience, an efficient trading mechanism takes years to mature and yield results on the field – but India seems to have no plans for carbon trading as of now.”

Speaking about CSE’s standpoint on coal, director general Sunita Narain clarifies: “We need an energy transformation through which we would realize the co-benefits of local and global emission reduction. We also need the right to energy for all, as energy poverty and inequity is not acceptable. At the same time, we recognise the fact that coal is still very much a part of India’s power needs.”

Narain goes on to list the following imperatives to ensure the coal India uses is clean and less climate-unfriendly:

  • Meet the 2015 emission standards in all coal power plants by the given deadline of 2022.
  • Use a ‘first-run’ strategy to incentivise clean coal power
  • Ban the use of coal in individual industrial boilers, and shift to gas or electricity
  • Ramp up the renewable energy targets – not just for grid-based power but also for decentralised sources
  • Do not invest in new coal-based power plants – there is no need, as the currently operational coal power plants in India are already working well below capacity and might get curtailed even further

“We have policies in place, but realising the benefits of those policies requires significant efforts from all the stakeholders. We need to focus on incentivising decarbonisation steps in the coal power sector. This sector is crucial for the country’s energy security; it has the potential to develop a benchmark that can set the standards for other industries,” asserts Nivit K Yadav.