Explained National

Emission Reduction is Not an Either-Or Choice between Coal and Solar

The Hindustan Times article “Clean coal, not solar, is the silver bullet for India’s carbon emission reduction”, published November 2, 2017, talks about using low emission technologies in the thermal sector rather than solar power plants as the way forward in reducing India’s carbon emission. The article tries to argue that efficient thermal power plants would cost less than solar power plants. But is it the best way forward to peg one type of energy source against another, instead of improving all available and developing technologies to cut down emissions cohesively? It may be the case that emission reduction is not an either-or choice between coal and solar.

Making Coal Efficient

There’s no denying that thermal power plants are a big contributor to carbon emissions when it comes to the power sector. According to the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) data, the total installed capacity of thermal power is 66.6% — and coal is at 58.7%. The dependence on coal in India is big and this may need to be reduced over the ling term.

At the same time, evidence shows that concerted efforts are being made to improve the quality of coal. There were concerns about the quality of coal, as it increases the quantity of coal required for power generation. The government had introduced third-party sampling of coal for assessing the quality. The independent agency is supposed to analyse samples at the loading stage on behalf of both the supplier and the power plant. As per the report card released by the ministry, 41.9 crore tonnes have been assessed so far.

Another important step towards improvement of the quality of coal supplied by Coal India is the decision to only provide crushed coal to power plants. The improvement in coal quality and supply have been instrumental in achieving a 9% decline in the amount of coal required by our power plants to produce a single unit of electricity over the last three years — from 0.69 kg per unit in 2013-14 to 0.63 in 2016-17.

Where Renewable Energy Comes In

The article appears to suggest that India’s investment in solar energy production can be diverted to using efficient thermal power technologies. If a sector does well, surely it can exist parallelly as a source of energy rather than being substituted?

Moreover, investing in renewable energy is more a future safe option as it is a clean source of energy. According to CEA data, the total installed capacity of RES (Renewable Energy Sources) is at 17.7%. This is only likely to increase. As of now, India depends highly on imports from China for its solar power needs. But if the capacity is to increase, this may also push domestic production of solar cells.

Renewable energy has made great strides in the last few years. A target is being set that by 2030, 40% of India’s energy needs would be met by renewable energy. The following points showcase the trend in changing power production patterns:

  • Wind power tariff in India touched lowest level of Rs 2.64 per kWh in the second wind auction conducted by the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI). This is much lower than the first wind auction, which concluded at Rs 3.46 per kWh in February this year.
  • In 2016-17, the net capacity addition of renewable energy was higher than that of conventional energy.
  • A target of 175 MW from renewable sources of power has been set for 2022.
  • 2016-17 also saw 5,400 MW of capacity addition to wind power, a record high.
  • Also, it must not be forgotten that India is heading the International Solar Alliance.
  • The cumulative solar energy capacity installed, as on 31.07.2017, was at 13,652 MW while the same at the end of 2014-15 was 3,743.97 MW. Solar power capacity increased 370% in the last three years. The sector also saw the lowest tariffs at Rs 2.44 per kWh this year.

Apart from the increase in renewable energy capacity, there are other energy efficiency schemes that are being taken up, which showcase India’s commitment to reducing its emissions. Here are some of them:

  • Under UJALA (Unnat Jyoti by Affordable Electricity for All), more than 27 crore LED bulbs have been distributed. It has helped save Rs 14,173 crore in electricity bills and reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by over 2.87 crore tonnes annually.
  • Under SLNP (Street Lighting National Programme), over 37 lakh conventional streetlights have been replaced with LED lights nationwide. This has resulted in 14,60,239.935 kWh average energy savings per day and a 1212 TCO2 GHG emissions reductions.

For its on-going economic development, India is justified in using coal for thermal power. But, at the same time, India has made its commitment to climate change action quite clear and assumed a global leadership position in the same. Therefore, looking to the future, India is also building its new and renewable energy capacity, which includes solar as one of its important components.

Hence, it does not seem that an either-or choice between coal and solar is what India has opted for, but a more comprehensive plan to optimise and diversify its energy basket. This appears to be directed at meeting several ends together – economic development, growing energy needs, environmental protection and climate change mitigation.

Also read our earlier articles:
Bringing the Coal Sector on Track and The Map of Solar Energy: A Review