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Balancing Sustainable Energy Goals with Coal Realities

  • 27 Nov 2023
  • 9 min read

For Prelims: Coal, Sustainable Development, Renewable energy, Paris Agreement, Thermal Power Plants

For Mains: India's Reliance on coal in its Energy Portfolio and its Impact, India’s renewable energy

Source: TH

Why in News?

In the evolving landscape of renewable energy, the clash between traditional and eco-friendly practices is evident.

  • Coal, a widely used yet highly polluting energy source, stands as a major hurdle for global sustainability goals.
  • Despite efforts to embrace cleaner alternatives, coal remains a significant challenge for achieving sustainable development worldwide.

What is the Role of Coal in the Energy Mix?

  • Coal in Global Global Energy Mix:
    • In 2022, oil, coal, and gas accounted for 30%, 27%, and 23% of the world’s total energy, while solar and wind energy sources together contributed only 2.4%.
      • Coal supplies just over a third of global electricity generation even though it is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel.
  • Coal in India’s Energy Context:
    • Only 10.4% of India's primary energy consumption is from renewables; coal and oil gas dominate at 55.1% and 33.3% in 2022.
    • Coal-fired thermal power plants (TPPs) generated 74.3% of India's electricity during FY 2022-2023, and generation by TPPs continues to grow to meet demand.
      • 96% of the coal used by TPPs in India comes from domestic mines and is key to why electricity is so affordable in India.
      • India's National Electricity Plan projects that TPP capacity in India will reach 259-262 GW by FY32, from 212 GW in FY23.
    • India's per capita energy supply stands at 37% of the global average, highlighting a growing energy demand that aligns with the Human Development Index.
      • To balance this with India's long-term goal of reaching net zero by 2070, the country must continue to implement clean coal technologies to reduce the power sector's emissions.
    • The efficient operation of TPPs (thermal power plants) is crucial for India to ensure continuous and affordable supply to meet peak and off-peak demands.
    • India’s cumulative emissions from fossil fuels and industry between the start of the industrial revolution in 1750 and the end of 2021 are only 3.3% of the global total, far behind those of Europe (31%), the U.S. (24.3%), and China (14.4%).

What are the Environmental and Social Impacts of Coal?

  • Coal Quality and Transportation:
    • Indian coal contains high levels of fly ash compared to coal from other major coal-mining countries.
    • Burning coal with more ash leads to erosion and failure of boiler tubes, affecting plant availability, efficiency, and performance leading to an increase in emissions.
    • Transporting unwashed raw coal to power plants located over 500 km away congests transportation systems and results in carbon dioxide emissions and environmental pollution.
  • Sulphur Dioxide Emissions:
    • Indian coal other than that from Assam and Meghalaya has lower sulphur content compared to coal used in Chinese power plants.
    • According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, historical sulphur dioxide emissions have created a cooling effect, masking global temperature rise.
  • Flue Gas Desulphurisers (FGDs):
    • Retrofitting existing power plants with FGDs increases specific coal consumption, lowers energy efficiency, and leads to higher emission intensity and temporary plant shutdowns.
      • FGD is a process that removes sulfur dioxide (SO2) from exhaust gases.
    • Retrofitting FGDs has been delayed in India due to the inability to shut down operating power plants.
  • Employment and Industry:
    • The coal sector plays a vital role in industries like power, steel, cement, and aluminium, employing millions.
      • Transition to cleaner energy could result in an imbalance in the preservation of jobs and economic stability.
  • Energy Access and Affordability:
    • Coal contributes significantly to electricity generation, ensuring access and affordability for a large population.
      • Transitioning to renewables must consider maintaining affordable and reliable energy access.

What are the Strategies to Reduce Coal's Impact on Sustainable Development?

  • Efficiency Enhancement in Thermal Power Plants (TPPs):
    • Invest in research and development to increase the efficiency of existing coal-fired TPPs.
    • Implement advanced technologies and operational improvements to reduce emissions per unit of electricity generated.
  • Promotion of Clean Coal Technologies:
    • Allocate resources and incentives for the development and implementation of clean coal technologies.
      • Prioritize technologies that significantly reduce carbon emissions and improve overall environmental performance.
  • Diversification of Energy Sources:
    • Accelerate the deployment of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, to decrease dependence on coal.
      • Develop policies that encourage a diverse energy mix, ensuring a gradual transition towards cleaner alternatives.
  • Global Cooperation for Critical Minerals:
    • Collaborate with international partners to secure a stable and diversified supply chain for critical minerals required for battery storage.
      • Most of the critical materials required for grid-scale battery storage are controlled by the top three producers – especially China.
    • Explore diplomatic avenues to mitigate risks associated with import dependencies on countries like China.
    • Batteries might only become cost-effective after 2030, necessitating a focus on other strategies in the interim.
  • Nuclear Energy Expansion:
    • Increase investment and support for nuclear energy as a low-carbon alternative to coal.
      • Encourage research and development for small modular nuclear reactors for enhanced efficiency and safety.
  • Pumped Storage Projects and Grid Integration:
    • Enhance pumped storage projects to efficiently integrate intermittent renewable energy sources like solar and wind into the power grid.
    • Develop smart grid technologies for better management of variable energy inputs.
  • Washed Coal Mandate:
    • Enforce regulations mandating the use of washed coal in TPPs located more than 500 km from mines to reduce environmental impact.
    • Integrate coal-washing charges into the tariff determination process to ensure economic feasibility.
      • This reduces carbon dioxide emissions and environmental pollution.
  • Incentivizing Low-Carbon Technologies:
    • Approximately 30% of current power plant capacity in India is based on supercritical or ultra-supercritical technologies.
      • Advanced ultra-supercritical technology (AUSC) reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 15% compared to supercritical technology.
      • Integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) power plants have efficiencies of 46-48% and can capture carbon dioxide.
    • Incentivize projects to prove IGCC or AUSC technologies at scale before 2030.
    • Encourage NTPC to repurpose some power plant sites for small modular nuclear reactors for zero-carbon electricity generation.
    • Low-carbon development is not a choice but a necessity for India, as reflected in its 'Long-term Low-Emissions Development Strategy' submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and Paris Agreement.
    • Encourage research initiatives to explore and develop carbon capture technologies for existing TPPs.
    • Transitioning to renewables must consider maintaining affordable and reliable energy access.
  • Particulate Emission Reduction:
    • Implement a 'graded priority' approach for power plant pollutants, prioritizing the reduction of particulate matter.
      • Deploy cost-effective electrostatic precipitators to achieve a 99.97% reduction in particulate emissions.

UPSC Civil Services Examination, Previous Year Question (PYQ)


Q1. Consider the following statements: (2020)

  1. Coal ash contains arsenic, lead and mercury.
  2. Coal-fired power plants release sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen into the environment.
  3. High ash content is observed in Indian coal.

Which of the statements given above is/are correct?

(a) 1 only
(b) 2 and 3 only
(c) 3 only
(d) 1, 2 and 3

Ans: (d)

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