India has rightly clarified its position on coal use, underlined its energy security needs. It must now work on long-term energy plans
In an Idea Exchange with this paper last week, Union Minister of Power and New and Renewable Energy, RK Singh, underlined the importance of coal-fired plants in meeting developmental requirements. He clarified that India’s climate commitment to “phase down” coal use will not come in the way of expanding its coal power capacity. The share of this fossil fuel in the energy mix will come down in percentage terms, but not in absolute measure. About 50 per cent of the electricity generated in the country currently comes from coal-fired plants. This is expected to come down to 30 per cent in the next 10 years. But India is planning to ramp up its electricity generation capacity to 865 GW from 407 GW. About 40 GW of this additional power will come from plants that burn coal.
At the UNFCCC’s Conference of Parties (COP) in Glasgow last year, countries agreed to “phase down” their coal-based electricity generation. According to several experts, the meet’s final declaration watered down the language of an earlier draft, and India and China were accused of playing tough to “soften” the Glasgow COP’s anti-coal stance. The declaration of the just-concluded COP at Sharm El-Sheikh persists with the language of its predecessor. However, much has changed in one year. The Russia-Ukraine conflict has led to reconfigurations in the energy sector. In recent years, several EU countries had begun to substitute coal with relatively clean natural gas from Russia. But after February 24, several decommissioned coal plants in the EU have been re-evaluated. According to the International Energy Agency, the EU’s coal consumption rose by more than 10 per cent in the first six months of 2022, and it’s likely to increase in the coming weeks and months as winter intensifies. EU governments maintain that the fossil fuel’s comeback will be temporary. That may well be correct but the past nine months have shown the fragility of the world’s resolve on eliminating coal. If geopolitical considerations can force developed countries to bring back coal, can India be faulted for continuing to use this fossil fuel for its developmental needs?
In the past 10 years, India has made rapid strides in expanding renewable energy. However, given its unstable nature, the grid will continue to fall back on coal-generated electricity. Also, new coal plants are more efficient — they emit less GHG. That said, India must begin work on plans for an energy scenario which has a negligible role for coal. The commitment to becoming a net zero GHG emitter by 2070 will require that the country prepares for it.