Capturing coal’s carbon can ease pain of India’s energy transition

Nearly two fifths of India’s districts depend on the coal sector and a rapid phasedown would be devastating for millions of people

Carbon capture technology can ease India's energy transition

A coal power station in the outskirts of Chennai in 2017 (Photo credit: Sajan Ponappa)

By

While it pursues renewables, India is right to invest in carbon capture technology for its coal plants in order to ease the pace of the transition and protect its citizens.

Although it is fast emerging as a global leader on renewables, India’s continued coal dependency has raised many eyebrows in the global community.

But much of India, particularly the poorest parts of it, rely on coal for jobs, tax revenues and pensions.

Developed nations have eased their way out of coal, giving their coal regions time to adjust to their new economies. It’s only fair that India does the same.

But coal is the dirtiest energy source. To protect the climate and coal-reliant regions, India should keep investing in carbon capture technology, which can suck the emissions out from the smokestacks of its coal-fired power plants.

Coal reliance

Over two-thirds of India’s electricity comes from coal but it’s not just an energy source but a community resource.

A recent study found that nearly two-fifths of India’s districts are dependent on the coal sector in one form or another.

This includes districts where citizens who have been affected by mining get pensions from the government and where people work in the mining sector, either directly or indirectly.

Some of India’s poorer states like Assam, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh are heavily reliant on taxes from coal businesses.

State-owned company Coal India operates in 80 areas and has nearly a quarter of a million people working for it.

Transitioning away from coal too fast would be devastating for these people and these regions, many of whom are among the world’s poorest.

Renewables and CCS

India’s non-fossil fuel capacity has more than quadrupled over the last nine years and, with the cost of renewables falling, this trend looks set to continue.

That will be needed, as India’s total energy needs grow. Despite government claims, not everyone in the country even has access to electricity yet.

But renewables cause problems too. They are intermittent, they take up space that could be used for farming, they’re often far from the electricity’s consumers, grid improvements are expensive and they threaten nature.

Coal can help solve problems like intermittency – what to do when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. Particularly as India’s energy storage options are currently limited. And carbon capture can make coal cleaner.

So it’s good that India is setting up two national centers for excellence and is providing government support for carbon capture projects.

The state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) and Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited are piloting the technology too, as are private firms like Dalmia Cement.

Carbon capture is not a long-term solution to decarbonisation. But it can drive a just transition with an ease that has been accessible to other countries over the years as they reduced their dependence on coal.

As India expands its energy mix to lunge towards a sustainable future, it is important to be reminded of the United Nations climate convention’s principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities”. We must picture each country‚Äôs own advantages in racing to the finish line.

Anusha Arif is a research associate at the Social Policy Research Foundation in New Delhi

Read more on: Fossil Fuels | India