India is the second-largest importer,t consumer and producer of coal and yet on October 6, it had enough coal stocks to generate electricity for barely four days. On October 10, this number was updated to one days’ worth of coal reserves, and since coal produces nearly 70 per cent of India’s electricity, there was widespread panic of a mass blackout.

This shortage threatens India’s post-pandemic economic recovery and the welfare of its citizens.

The present coal shortage is a classic case of demand-supply mismatch. With the recent jump in economic activity, power consumption rose to around 17 per cent in the past two months year-on-year. On the supply side, monsoon-induced disruptions and flooding of mines interrupted domestic coal production. It’s hard to meet this shortage through imports as global coal prices are up by 50 per cent and India’s coal imports are at a two-year low. To further add to the woes, countries like China are aggressively buying more coal from the global reserves, adding pressure on global prices.

Some policy options

Reduction in coal consumption is a long-term process and cannot be achieved in one day. So any immediate solution will comprise of increasing declining coal reserves in whether through push in domestic production, diversion of coal from industries like steel, cement and construction, or purchase of expensive global coal. The Union and State governments are already struggling with either one or a combination of these solutions.

For the medium term, solar power can be promoted through subsidies and promotions and the recent innovations have made it cost-effective to considered as a viable replacement of coal. The only drawback is that the alternative works only when the sun shines. Wind power through windmills can also be harnessed to generate electricity.

But, much like solar power, this solution also only works in the presence of wind. Nuclear power can overcome these drawbacks as it produces energy through the process of nuclear fission. However, these plants operate at a much larger capacity than the coal- or renewable energy sources-operated power plants, making the storage of management of electricity produced difficult. All the options are clean as they produce no carbon dioxide (like the fossil fuel plants), but also need more research to address their respective downsides.

Another alternative could be waste-to-energy treatment plants — using garbage/liquid waste to produce steam to generate electricity. India produces nearly 1,50,000 tonnes of solid waste per day which is the third-highest in the world.

Of this waste, only 70 per cent is collected and 20 per cent of this collected waste is processed and the remaining is dumped untreated on the landfills or burned causing more air pollution. This waste can be used to produce electricity.

Furthermore, this solution even supports for Swach Bharath mission 2.0 guidelines call for better management of solid and liquid waste (SLW) management in the cities. These solutiona have been used in the local and global levels.

The Amberpet plant in Hyderabad treats the city’s faecal sludge by converting it into biogas which produces electricity, and the remaining sludge is converted to compost which is sold to the farmers.

A local start-up Sanivation in Kenya can convert faecal waste into briquettes which can be used for cooking or heating. Scaling up this technology for generation of electricity can be explored. Similarly, SasiSana in Ghana, Green Toilets in Kenya, among others have already developed efficient technologies which once scaled up can be used to convert SLW intro energy in a clean manner.

But there are critical barriers to their realisation. Coal and coal-dependent sectors are providers of livelihood, infrastructure and cost-competitive electricity. The transport of coal contributes to 44 per cent of Indian Railways’ freight revenue and since it is India’s largest employer, any transition from coal is met with strong opposition.

Therefore, for the long term, such concerns about the phasing out of coal to produce electricity from the communities in the coal mining regions should be duly acknowledged and adequately addressed. This undertaking would become easier if a national task force is set-up, including representatives from not just the industry and academics, but also community leaders, activists, and members of the grassroots organisations. This task force can design policies which can accelerate the transition to cleaner technologies while preserving the livelihood of coal-dependent families.

The above mentioned alternatives can be adopted only as a long-term strategy, but the current crisis could be considered as a window of opportunity to not go back to producing more coal but to begin the transition to exploring green and renewable methods of producing energy.


Seth is an economist researcher at Tata-Cornell Institute and a PhD Scholar at Bennett University, and Jain is an associate professor at Bennett University.