If India's Power Sector Goes Coal All the Way, Then Disaster Awaits

If India builds all its proposed coal-based power plants, then it might not fulfil its promise made under the Paris climate agreement.

If India builds all its proposed coal-based power plants, then it might not fulfil its promise made under the Paris climate agreement, a recent study conducted by University of California, Irvine (UCI), and CoalSwarm, a coal-tracking portal, has found.

To this day, 144 nations have signed the Paris climate agreement and it came into effect in November 2016. It aims to limit global temperature rise to under 2° C above what it was between 1850 and 1890 by the end of this century. A more ambitious target, of limiting the rise to under 1.5°C , doesn’t look likely anymore.

Each signatory to the agreement has had to declare its actions and goals to meet the terms through the so-called intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs). These actions include a slew of measures to bring down the emission of greenhouse gases – especially carbon dioxide – that warm the globe and drastically alter the climate.

As part of its INDC, India aims to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released per unit of GDP by 35% of the amount emitted in 2005. The country is currently the fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, and its largely-coal-based energy sector contributes two-thirds of those emissions.

Moreover, coal based power plants emit 41% of all carbon dioxide released by human activities, making them the largest carbon dioxide emitters on Earth. At the same time, India also needs this energy to build its infrastructure and improve its citizens’ standard of living.

According to the study, published in the journal Earth’s Future on April 25, India has planned 370 coal-based power plants to be switched on by 2025 or sooner. They have a collective capacity of 243 GW. While 65 GW’s worth of them are under construction, 178 GW are still in the planning stage.

If the 2º C threshold agreed upon at Paris is breached, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has predicted that those already living in poverty will be ‘most vulnerable’ to these changes. India is home to a globally significant fraction of these people.

And all of this is assuming ‘2º C’ is some kind of lakshman rekha holding calamity at bay – which is not the case because the threshold is not entirely scientific and said calamity could ensue much before the planet warms by that much (on average). Moreover, according to Nagraj Adve, an expert on global warming, the planet’s already on course to warming by 1.7º C.

Steven Davis, an associate professor at UCI and coauthor of the study, said in a statement that India’s dilemma was “of its own making”, and adding, “The country has vowed to curtail its use of fossil fuels in electricity generation but it has also put itself on a path to building hundreds of coal-burning power plants to feed its growing industrial economy.”

The study estimates that if all the proposed plants are built, India will have 123% more power generated from coal than it does today. Next, if it also meets 40% of the country’s power demand from renewable sources of energy, then India will be officially producing more power than it needs. As a result, many power plants will have to sit idle, precipitating financial losses and wasted resources. The researchers peg these losses at Rs 1.2-15.37 lakh crore (depending on the capacity at which the plants run). According to their paper, 30 GW’s worth of coal plants had already been stranded due to lack of demand in June 2016.

While agreeing with the broad points that the study makes, Adve isn’t sure about the underlying assumptions. “The fact that India has proposed 178 GW [of coal plants] does not mean they will necessarily be built,” he told The Wire. He also pointed out that India has made tall claims of expanding nuclear energy’s share in power generation in its INDC but that it will not be able to realise them.

In the same statement, Christine Shearer, a senior researcher at CoalSwarm, said that the proposed coal plants are “already incompatible” with India’s INDC and “simply unneeded”. Her group found that if power demand in the country grew by 7%, in line with the government’s projections, and the plants run 65% of the time, then India will not meet its goals. If it wants to, then power demand growth will have to be kept to 6% and the plants, running at 75%.

Adve questioned such conclusions: “India’s commitments are not very ambitious, and it has already reduced its emissions intensity by 12%.” He believed that India should be able “to meet its target without much exertion” because more efficient energy technologies will arise in modernising economies. He also advised against putting the onus solely on India “given the levels of coal production and use in US and China”.

The use of high-quality coal and cutting-edge technology can make those power plants that are already in use more efficient and help cut their emissions. Currently, only 4% of the proposed plants are equipped to operate at high efficiencies, consume less fuel and emit less carbon dioxide. The rest are either super-critical or subcritical plants.