Why the solution to India’s energy challenge lies in coal power plants

13th Jan 2017

India’s huge development and energy challenges mean there are economic and development arguments  for investing in new coal power plants for the foreseeable future. 

More than 240 million people in India have no electricity, and even for those who have, the quality is far below standards acceptable in developed countries.  India’s residential electricity consumption lags behind the global average and is, according to the IEA, ten-times lower than that of OECD countries. For example, average residential consumption in Bihar state is around 50 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per capita per year, which equates to an average household use of a fan, a mobile phone charger and two compact fluorescent light bulbs for less than five hours per day.  

Historically the most important source of energy has been coal which is abundant and affordable, making it ideal from a cost perspective, as a fuel to expand energy access in India. The industry is also a major employer with more than 1.5 million people working in the coal sector. 

As India diversifies its means of power generation it is important to question whether it is genuinely possible to bring electricity to all households and feed industry too with intermittent renewable energy.  Excluding coal from the energy mix is not a realistic option. 

Indeed, renewables have an important role to play but coal remains the driving force behind electrification and industrialisation and according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), coal will continue to make the largest contribution to electricity generation in India through to 2040 

The Indian government has been clear that all sources of energy will be needed to power up the economy including coal. India’s ambitious renewable expansion will take place alongside (not in place of) growth in coal consumption. Coal per kilowatt is still far cheaper than renewables. However, this should not be a popularity contest between coal and renewables – both are needed for India's development.  

India has contributed less than 3% of cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, and the reality is that in as much as the country wants to contribute to climate action policies, it also needs to bring electricity not only to those not currently served but also to the millions more who are underserved.  In the words of Harjeet Singh of ActionAid, development of coal resources “is not an obsession for India, it’s a compulsion.” 

The Indian government is transitioning to more efficient and cleaner technologies as it makes every effort to meet climate commitments as well as provide energy access and security for its population.  To this end they have planned that all inefficient thermal power plants, older than 25 years, will be replaced with modern, efficient and cleaner technologies. This involves what is known as high efficiency, low emissions (HELE) technologies. Several power plants currently producing around 11,000 MW are scheduled to be replaced within five years. We welcome and encourage this as a clear and achievable goal. 

The recent news headlines suggesting India would suspend construction of new coal plants for the next 20 years sit in stark contrast to a national electricity report advising that additional coal-based capacity will be needed to fulfil India’s future electricity requirements. The World Coal Association encourages a plan to incorporate cleaner coal burning technologies into India's energy mix in order to meet the country's huge development issues and ambitions. 

That’s why projects such as Adani’s Carmichael mine development in Queensland remain essential, because they will supply high quality coal into India for use in modern HELE power plants. Indeed Adani’s management has been clear that they see the Carmichael project as part of an integrated approach across the company. Coal from Carmichael will be used to fuel Adani’s power plants in India.

Benjamin Sporton

CEO, World Coal Association

First published in City AM, 13 January 2017