The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Facing a power crisis and searing heat, India falls back on coal

A stack of coal at a wholesale market in Mumbai on May 5. Production of coal, the fossil fuel that accounts for more than 70 percent of India’s electricity generation, has not kept pace with unprecedented energy demand from the heat wave and the country’s post-pandemic industrial revival. (Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg News)
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NEW DELHI — Prime Minister Narendra Modi has long touted his vision of turning India into a leader in renewable energy. Recent weeks have revealed a more complicated reality.

In the past month, as India broiled under a historic heat wave and consumed a record amount of electricity for cooling, the Coal Ministry announced it would reopen old mines and increase output by 100 million tons. As cities went into rolling blackouts because of electricity shortages, the Power Ministry ordered plants that burn imported coal to run at full capacity.

The environment ministry has given coal mines permission to boost production by up to 50 percent without seeking new permits, according to a May 7 memo. The memo attributed the relaxed environmental regulations to “huge pressure on domestic coal supply in the country” and said “all efforts are being made to meet the demand of coal.”

The developments highlight the persistent, even growing, reliance on coal in the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases — and one of the foremost victims of climate change.

Although analysts acknowledge that India faces a genuine dilemma in how to meet its soaring energy demands, many say the government is sending mixed policy signals by promoting coal mining and power generation as it trumpets its green ambitions on the international stage. In the run-up to the 2015 Paris climate agreement, Modi pledged to install 175 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2022. He later raised that target to 450 gigawatts by 2030.

But India has installed less than 100 gigawatts of solar and wind power so far, and most Indian analysts say the 175 gigawatt goal is beyond reach this year.

Had India stuck to its pledge on renewables, it would not have faced a power shortage this spring, according to estimates from the Climate Risk Horizons consultancy in New Delhi. Even on April 29, when Delhi reached 110 degrees — the second-highest temperature for that month in 70 years — and peak electricity demand hit a record high, India could have met the need had it been on track to install 160 gigawatts of solar and wind power by the end of the year, said Ashish Fernandes, the consultancy’s chief executive.

“India’s continued support of coal mining and power plant expansion is worrying,” Fernandes said. “It would be a pity if India’s entrenched coal lobby forces the government to go slow on its energy transition plans, as analysis shows that any continued coal growth will in fact undermine India’s renewable energy targets and climate commitments.”

How India manages its energy transition is of paramount importance because of its size and rapid growth, say international researchers and climate policy officials. President Biden’s climate representative, John F. Kerry, made repeated visits to New Delhi last year ahead of the COP26 climate conference to nudge the Modi government to make more ambitious pledges to cut coal and reduce emissions, with scant results.

In November at the COP26 meeting, India and China watered down the language in the summit’s final statement, which ultimately said participating countries pledged to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal power. The last-minute change sparked international criticism and an apology from COP26 President Alok Sharma, who described the summit’s conclusion as “deeply disappointing.”

Like India, China has also raised its annual coal production target in recent weeks — by 80 million tons — while its miners broke a one-day output record.

India’s coal production is widely expected to expand in the coming years as the government looks to meet surging power demand and secure energy independence. The country is the world’s second-largest coal producer behind China, according to the International Energy Agency, and will contribute the largest increase in global coal output in absolute tonnage between 2021 and 2024. About 80 percent of its coal output comes from Coal India, the state-owned giant.

Speaking publicly this month, officials defended their coal policies as necessary to meet the nation’s thirst for electrical power. The coal minister, Pralhad Joshi, predicted that India’s coal requirements will double by 2040. His deputy, Anil Kumar Jain, said the government was being unfairly blamed — both for producing too much and too little — and he urged more private companies to enter the mining business.

“Earlier we were hailed as bad boys because we were promoting fossil fuel, and now we are in the news that we are not supplying enough of it,” Jain told reporters.

The country of nearly 1.4 billion is expected to see its demand for electricity more than double by 2030, according to the IEA. By 2050, the agency estimates that India will consume 15 times more energy for cooling than in 2018, largely because the number of air conditioners in use will skyrocket. Even though India is building out renewable energy sources, it still derives 70 percent of its power from coal, an abundant natural resource.

But state-owned Coal India saw its production stagnate from 2019 to 2021, because of a failure by the government to appoint senior management and fund mining expansions, said Anil Swarup, a former coal secretary. If anything, he predicted, India will be scrambling to increase output.

“The current crisis will perhaps be managed,” he said. “But I’m quite sure this crisis will surface again if long-term planning for ramping up coal production is not done.”

This spring showed how India’s power crunch could be further compounded in a world that is only getting hotter. Heat waves in northern India are 100 times more likely in the era of anthropogenic climate change, according to an analysis by Britain’s national weather service.

Beginning in March, India’s power plants, which had already been importing less coal because of high global commodity prices, underestimated how much of the fuel they would need to keep in stock just as temperatures in parts of north India suddenly spiked, analysts said. By the end of April, government data showed that India was consuming 20 percent more electricity than in April 2019 — the last comparable month before the pandemic.

“Nobody anticipated a two-month-long heat wave across the country,” said Swati D’Souza, an energy researcher at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, who described the government approach as doubling down on both coal and renewables.

The wild card, she said, will be extreme climate.

“These events will be a lot more frequent than they were in the past,” she said. “So we need to start preparing for them.”

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