Renewable Energy

India’s renewable shift: Why re-training the coal-dependent society is key

Stalling coal, no matter how important for India’s Net Zero goals, will have a cascading social impact

By Maitreyi Karthik
Published: Tuesday 15 November 2022

Coal's dominance in India's energy sector is here to stay even as the country makes great strides towards switching to renewable energy. 

The fossil fuel makes up for over half the installed energy capacity in the country and is expected to touch around 266 gigawatts by 2029-2030, according to the projections by Climate Action Tracker.

Domestic coal requirement is expected to rise to 1,018.2 million tonnes by 2031-32 from 678 MT in 2021-2022, according to the draft National Electricity Plan by the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) released in September 2022. This means coal consumption will increase 40 per cent in India, the report mentioned. 

But stalling coal may have a cascading social impact and may not be sustainable. 

The coal regions in India have had livelihoods dependent on its extraction for generations and quitting the sector is not an option for them. Farming is also not an option for families living near the mining areas, as the adjoining soil becomes unfit for cultivation. 

The coalfields in Vidarbha in Maharashtra, for instance, are barren and covered in rubble, soot, sand and dust, according to reports. 

Jharkhand’s Jharia coalfield, with its frequent accidental fires, have left the land charred and coal mining in Hasdeo forest in Chhattisgarh has impacted the environment and displaced the population of the elephants as well. 

The families living in the areas surrounding coal mines are exposed to a toxic environment and have access to poor electrical connections to meet their day-to-day activities.

Research has shown that access to electricity and clean cooking fuels are key factors in the reduction of poverty, improvising health and education benefits and improving productivity. 

Empowering the renewable energy transition

A key step in establishing a post-coal economy is re-training the coal-dependent society. The American federal transition programmes like solar training and education for professionals and the Partnerships for Opportunity, Workforce and Economic Revitalisation dislocated worker grant can establish precedence for India to design and develop its own schemes. 

Recognising the need to train the workers who have been displaced by their profession is the need of the hour for employment opportunities in the renewable energy sector.

The clean energy transitions for India could be financed by the development financing institutions, with investments made by the Climate Change Finance Unit for the promotion of policies, green financing and capacity building.

The demand for electricity has been growing in India steadily to achieve socio-economic development. Due to rising concerns about the environment and climate change, the alternatives available for power generation have changed their focus globally and thereby, modifying the generation mix. 

Coal is regarded as one of the most polluting fossil fuels and was in the spotlight at the 26th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as one of the largest contributors to global warming. 

A last-minute mediation, during the discussions, helped in the modification of India’s coal commitment to the climate pact of Glasgow.

Though the preliminary version of the draft spoke about completely abandoning coal energy, India’s need for modification in the pact culminated in a toned-down version that spoke of “phase down” instead of “phase out”. This meant India would cut down its carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes by 2030 and achieve Net Zero emissions by 2070.

India’s coal shortage has only served to spur this debatable decision. Some of the rationales behind the coal deficit have been mentioned below:

  • Shift in energy consumption during the pandemic: India’s power sector during COVID-19 saw a massive shift in the demand pattern. The energy consumption during the initial lockdown dropped. The year-on-year energy demand in September 2020 was around 3 per cent higher than in September 2019, primarily due to agricultural, industrial and commercial loads.
  • Continued rainfall in the eastern and central parts of India: Heavy monsoons in the coal-rich states of Odisha, Jharkhand and West Bengal have affected the mining regions and transit systems.
  • Coal price fluctuations: According to an analysis by CSE, the price of coal had quadrupled during the pandemic. One of the reasons for this price rise is the increased energy demand from coal-rich Asian countries.

Upon the completion of a power plant, the next major step will be to operate the plant at a high Plant Load Factor (PLF). 

PLF provides an estimate of the plant's output, compared to the maximum output that it can generate. Higher PLF means that the output of the plant is more and the electricity is generated at a low per unit cost. PLF is also one of the measures of the performance of the plant.

Over the years, PLF of Indian power plants has declined. It fluctuated from 60.5 per cent in 2017-2018, 60.9 per cent in 2018-2019, 55.9 per cent in 2019-2020, 54.6 per cent in 2020-2021 and 58.8 per cent in 2021-2022, according to CEA.

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