'Coal will dominate at least for the coming 200 years'

ALEX C TOOHEY, a chemical engineer, is the chief executive of the World Coal Institute (WCI), London. The WCI is a non-profit, non-governmental association of coal producing enterprises, with memberships from all the 6 continents. The WCI's mission is to promote coal as an economic and environmentally sound energy source. It is committed to assisting in the dissemination of knowledge of current and new technologies leading to improved efficiency and environmental awareness in the mining, preparation, transportation and use of coal. It facilitates and supports technology transfer, particularly to developing countries. Toohey was in Delhi recently in connection with the International Conference on Energy (November 17-18, 1994), organised by the Indian Member Committee of the World Energy Council. Koshy Cherail discussed with him India's coal resource usage and recent technology trends.

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

The burning of coal to produce energy is said to be one of the primary reasons behind global warming. What is the basis on which the WCI advocates greater use of coal?
The total contribution of the world's coal-fired power stations towards enhancing the greenhouse effect is only about 8 per cent. Existing views on the earth's climatic conditions need to be revised in the light of specific satellite data available now. And the accuracy of climate model predictions is also questionable. Scientists agree that more research is needed into the greenhouse effect and the carbon cycle. Refined prediction models have provided estimates of CO2 emissions from coal combustion that are half the earlier values. I believe that by switching to more efficient coal technologies, co2 emissions can be reduced by up to 25 per cent. The wci is committed to promoting the transfer of such efficient technology.

Coal is destined to become the world's major fuel. Other fuels like oil will become scarcer and more expensive; coal will dominate at least for the next 200 years.

India is endowed with coal reserves. However, increased reliance on coal has been questioned because of its environmental implications. What is the best path India should take in judiciously exploiting its fuel reserves?
India is one of the few developing countries endowed with rich coal reserves. Looking at the global energy scene, there is no way the fuel reserves can be ignored. But they have to be used properly and efficiently, and in an environmentally sound manner. Coal is actually clean, efficient, cost-effective, plentiful, and also safe to transport, store and use.

The ash content of Indian coal is high, which poses problems for our industry and thermal power plants. How can you increase coal use and yet manage the problem of flyash?
The solutions are partly commercial. Indian coal can be treated to reduce the ash content to about 40 per cent. Many power stations the world over burn coal containing 30-40 per cent ash. Large power stations are built right beside the coal mines and the ash goes back into the open pit mines. To tackle this, a strong grid across the country and an efficient distribution system are necessary.

Indian utilities seem unwilling to pay a higher price for better quality coal, and yet do not care about transporting high-ash coal over long distances. That does not make sense economically or environmentally.

You need to let a proper market situation develop where some power stations may use imported coal. Such a trend is emerging in the southern coastal India, and in China, which has huge coal reserves.

How have other countries solved the problem of flyash collection, storage and disposal?
Every country and every utility solves its problems differently. In many cases, the ash is disposed off in their localities, or processed and used in constructions. In Japanese power stations, ash is a favourable by-product used for landfills. They are demanding that more power stations produce more landfill materials.

With the use of electrostatic precipitators with bag filters, it should be perfectly possible to extract up to 99 per cent of the ash from coal combustion. But, of course, the more the ash, the more expensive is the removal.

Indian coal industries and thermal power stations have a lot of scope to improve their image and efficiency by adopting newer technologies that allow high-ash coal burning. They work best if applied within the economic radius of the mine. Otherwise, the ash is turned into a major component in cement, or as landfill. Or once it has been processed, it can be used as bricks and in road constructions. In any case, coal should be washed first. This reduces the ash content, increases its energy content and burning efficiency. The utilities must realise they gain from higher quality coal. Not only do they have less ash disposal problem, they have less equipment wear and tear and greater thermal efficiency.

The other aspect about India's coal production is its labour intensiveness. The moment you talk about introducing capital-intensive techniques or some imported modern technology, you face the question, 'How much labour does it displace?' What is the optimum balance?
Germany has the same problem, and now Russia, too. The major problem is how to change at a socially acceptable pace.

But the industry may be destroyed if it is uneconomic and not competitive, and if it carries too many people. You just have to work out your own productivities to compare well with those elsewhere in the world. That is what is making imported coal appear cheap. The main thing is to get efficient and more productive workers.

I am concerned to hear about the vast labour force the Indian mining industry carries. It's a political as well as a social question. It is a question of drawing up a plan and acting on it steadily. Otherwise, the industry may eventually collapse. If the fuel is expensive, the upcoming private power utilities will find it cheaper to import coal.

India had to contend with its coal mines devastating the environment and displacing the local population. How does one work out an optimum rehabilitation package?
All energy exploiting activities have disturbed the environment in one way or another. Much of the development activities deemed acceptable and desirable 30-40 years ago are now turning destructive.

However, today's coal mining -- even opencast mining -- need not be so environmentally destructive. In many cases, rehabilitation can produce a better environment than before. Quite often, land which was not easy to plough improved after rehabilitation: the contours are better, the water table is higher.

Where should India look for the best coal technologies in an era where new and environment-friendly technologies are often governed by patent laws and may be unaffordable?
There are 2 aspects of coal technology: that of coal utilisation and coal production. In terms of coal utilisation, I think the newer technologies being commercialised in Europe should not be adopted by the developing countries until the European nations have built at least the first 10 plants and learnt to cut down the cost there. I am waiting to see those technologies mature a bit. Now those technologies are covered by patents; they cost hundreds of millions of dollars for the people who developed them, and they need to get their rewards.

When it comes to coal mining and exploration, no expertise is covered by any form of patents. International consultant firms, contractors or major companies are happy to set up joint ventures. They are ready to offer modern techniques of exploration, of computer simulation, and expertise for developing a mine plan from a geological model. The processors of opencast mining, the various equipment manufacturers, are all quite ready to make the expertise available. I think in India, too, you have access to the entire long-wall technology and alternative methods of underground mining.

But quite often where there is a state enterprise, as in Britain, decisions are not always based on commercial choices. Compared to other European countries, Britain was subsidising what were grossly uneconomic coal mines. Its subsidies were stopped. Germany, too, withdrew its subsidies from the uneconomic mines. If the people could choose their own technology, and had a good return on capital and a really strong commercial thrust, decisions might be quite different.

I know Coal India Ltd has several technical people able to take the correct technical decisions. Thereafter, it becomes a question of the availability of funds and taking the right management decisions in terms of maintenance and spares.

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