How important is thermal power for India?

At present, thermal power accounts for almost 60 per cent of India’s total installed power generation capacity. It is produced by burning fossil fuels like coal, gas, etc. Of this, coal alone accounts for more than half of India’s installed electricity generation. It has been the centrepiece of India’s energy ecosystem for several decades and is expected to continue being so for at least a decade or two, largely because it is the cheapest natural resource and is abundant in India.

It plays an important role in determining transportation costs, thereby determining the price of the end product. India’s coal reserves are expected to last 100 years, compared to around 50 years for gas and about 16 years for oil. An expert group formed by NITI Aayog expects India’s coal-based power generation capacity to touch 250 gigawatts by 2030 from around 202 gigawatts currently.

Why is the world turning against coal-fired power plants?

Coal is the primary fuel for electricity generation in major power consuming countries such as China and India. It is also the most abundant natural resource for producing electricity in the world.

However, there is also a grim side to this picture. The 2018 report by the IPCC warned against climate changes in the coming decades and stressed on severely limiting the operation of coal-fired power plants by 2050 to limit global warming. Coal-based power plants are also a significant contributor to pollutants such as particulate matter (PM), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulphur dioxide (SO2).

Is India planning to halt new thermal power plants?

Yes. The government’s intention is quite clear in this regard. Various committees and expert groups formed by Ministries and Departments have suggested not adding more coal-fired plants. At present, total thermal installed capacity is around 234 gigawatt, 60 per cent of India’s total installed capacity.

Not adding any more thermal power capacity, apart from what has already been planned, is important for India keeping in view its commitment to become carbon neutral by 2070 and to have around 500 gigawatt of renewable energy (RE) power by the same time.

The expert group set up by NITI Aayog expects coal-fired power capacity to peak at 250 gigawatts by 2030. With growth in RE power generation, the share of coal-based thermal power in the total power generation mix will decline from the existing 72 per cent to a range of 50–55 per cent by 2030.

Also read: NITI Aayog expert group suggests scrappage policy for thermal plants

Is it also planning to scrap old coal-fired power capacities?

Old coal-fired power plants run on older technologies and are one of the main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. They also release a lot of pollutants like SO2 into the environment. Generally, coal-based plants are decommissioned after the completion of their useful life, which varies between 30 to 45 years in India.

CEO of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, Arunabha Ghosh, in an article in the World Economic Forum said that around 40 per cent of India’s greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to 633 individual thermal power units of 25 megawatt and above capacity operating at 189 thermal power plants. The think tank in a study suggested considering 30 gigawatts of India’s coal-based capacity for accelerated decommissioning.

The proposed plants overlap with those identified for retirement in the National Electricity Plan, 2018. Relegating them would also result in a one-time saving of ₹10,000 crore ($1.37 billion) by avoiding pollution control retrofits.

What challenges will India face in decarbonising its power sector?

India faces a twin challenge in decarbonising its power sector — replacing thermal power with RE sources in a phased manner and, at the same time, meeting rising demand for power.

The power sector in India accounts for 49 per cent of total CO2 emissions, compared to the global average of 41 per cent.

On the other hand, according to a research report by General Electric, electricity demand in India is expected to grow at a CAGR of 5 per cent during 2018-2040, which makes it crucial for India to urgently adopt cleaner technologies at scale and promote sustainable power generation.

The main challenge being faced in this direction is intermittency of renewable power — RE cannot produce power at all times during the day. Besides, the low-capacity utilisation of the transmission system is also impacting its growth.

Another operation issue is grid operations and creating the right mix of various power sources like RE, coal-fired, etc.

Optimum utilisation of transmission resources is also an issue — there is a need to have a clear picture of power requirements across the country and how an optimum mix of RE and thermal power can be devised to meet demand, especially during peak hours.