Coal: The Real Source of Clean Energy

A lot is being talked about the recent government plans of increasing solar power generation to 20000 MW by 2022 and wind power generation to around 33000 MW. These figures might look impressive, but scratch the surface and they will turn out to be nothing more than a diversionary tactic just before the Copenhagen summit. Clearly, India wants to show that it is indeed working hard to make sure it will use clean sources of energy in future.

The 17th Electric Power Survey figures project a demand in the region of 300000 MW by 2022, and the total share of these renewable will add up to 50000 MW. For nuclear energy the best case scenario projections are around 70000 MW by 2022, while hydro may not contribute much beyond the 50000 MW. The rest will still have to be met by thermal sources. And, considering the past not-so-spectacular record of success of such grandiose government targets, junking out thermal energy is not the option that India has. Also, the cost which is close to $20 billion needs to be looked into. When India has cheaper alternative like coal available, should it really go for these costly solutions?

It is far more practical, cheap and easy if India makes generation from current thermal sources more efficient. India is traditionally a coal country, with currently estimated reserves at >250 billion tonnes (annual production close to half a billion tonnes, and a production to reserve ratio of 1 to 217 for proven reserves). Coal is the mainstay of Indian energy supplies. India meets close to 60% of its primary energy needs through coal.

Though, the quality of Indian coal is low, most of it with high ash content. This is currently mined through a wasteful and environmentally damaging open pit process. The high-quality coal often exists deep and there are problems of economic mining and utilization of this coal through conventional techniques. India needs to develop new technologies and methods which will allow it to utilize this resource in an efficient manner. One such technology is Underground Coal Gasification technique.

UGC refers to in-situ gasification of coal. In this process, instead of mining, coal is converted into combustible gases. This process takes place underground. This is achieved by pumping a mixture of required reactant gases directly into the coal bed through one well dug into it, while combustible gases are obtained at the other well head. UCG and similar coal gasification techniques can make coal much better cleaner energy source than other possible alternatives. It gives several advantages over conventional coal mining and utilization techniques.

Since, coal is used at the mine itself; it reduces the need for mining and transport. Also, the environmental impact due to direct combustion such as production of oxides of Nitrogen and Sulphur is reduced. UCG also allows for exploitation of very deep mines without the need for constructing mining shafts, and without requiring miners to go deep inside earth.

Although there are certain disadvantages with the current UCG technologies, it being fairly capital intensive, successfully implemented at few places, total environmental impacts still not well understood and economics of implementing it on a large scale still not worked out. Though many of these problems can be solved by proper site location, it will need some investment in refining the technologies as well.

Given the huge, indeed world’s third largest reserves of coal that India possesses, coal will continue to be the mainstay of its future energy supplies. India should rely on its core strengths instead of hedging with unreliable, untested technologies and sources. Coal supplies are not subject to same supply disruptions and geo-politics as oil, no technology constraints and barriers as nuclear energy, no costs and technological development uncertainties as solar or any other renewable source.
Solar power is expensive and there are little hopes of it becoming cost-effective, unless there is a new technological breakthrough, anywhere in near future. Even the most ambitious plans may see it making up to a maximum of 10% of our future energy needs. Same is the case for wind power, another renewable source touted as answer to all our problems. The recent problems faced by Tamil Nadu due to unreliable wind patterns, and the fact that wind is not available throughout the year, should be an argument enough for not making wind power a big component for future energy supplies. Nuclear power is still expensive, its waste disposal problems have not been properly addressed and the fuel supplies are unreliable. India is going to be dependent on oil imports for a really long time, so oil cannot be relied upon to become the mainstay of Indian energy needs.

This leaves only coal as the most abundant, cheap, reliable source that India has. Instead of investing in other technologies, India will be better off investing in clean coal technologies like UGC. Coal, efficiently used, is the answer to a clean and green future of Indian economy.

Shivraj Negi

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