Turn towards green, but make the best of black gold now

Green technologies such as cheaper solar power and better energy storage are turning India into a renewable energy powerhouse. But for now, we can make smarter use of our huge coal reserves.
For representational purposes
For representational purposes

To be or not to be with coal is the question that confounds its proponents and opponents amid the country’s pursuit for energy. The question leads to a broader debate. Disheartening as it may sound from an ecological point of view, coal, a historic polluter, still sits on a high pedestal in India as the undisputed energy leader.

Whether one likes it or not, coal may not lose this position in the medium term, though there will be an advent of more disruptive technologies in generation and storage. So, a good option will be to have a proactive policy framework and exploit the coal reserves.

The country’s planners are rightly batting hard in favour of renewables. India ranks fourth globally in installed renewable energy capacity, according to a 2023 report.

Renewable energy sources are fast encroaching on coal’s domain, with solar prices down from ₹17 a unit a decade ago to ₹2.50 today. Slowly yet steadily, wind energy capacity additions are rising. Solar energy is the stronger twin. With energy storage solutions becoming increasingly cheaper, cost-effective green power available round the clock is the new reality. Another disruption shaking the world is the rooftop solar solutions where consumers become prosumers. India, too, is no exception.

With the Net Zero by 2070 plan gaining credence, it is important to look at how India can best use the limited window of opportunity for optimal utilisation of its large coal resources—comprising in the proved and measured category an estimated 187 billion tonnes, which is only about half of our estimated geological resources.

If untapped, there is a danger of losing this locked up sovereign energy resource forever. Even when coal’s role will wane, the dry fuel can be used in synthetic coal gasification and its downstream chemical products. So, there should be aggressive acceleration in coal mining and a medium-term plan to invite investments involving the latest technologies. Private sector participation should result in fast-tracked exploration, validation and optimisation of resources, apart from a transparent marketing process and the setting up of a regulator that can bring in the necessary oversight and coordination with a dedicated focus.

Towards this end, India should go ahead with the rating of its resources, which will be done by the United Nations Framework Classification (UNFC) and Joint Ore Reserve Committee (JORC) code. These are international standards for estimation and validation of mining potential to give investors more confidence to make substantial investments.

Coal India Limited (CIL), the world’s largest coal producer, spearheads India’s coal output with other smaller peers such as Singareni Collieries Company Limited (SCCL), captive miners and the recently allotted commercial miners.

Last financial year, India’s overall coal production was 893 metric tonnes, clocking a robust 15 percent year-on-year growth. Over 75 percent of the coal output of government-owned entities like CIL and SCCL is routed to the power sector, and the balance is given to non-power sectors.

There are still some power plants located near coal mines, but these do not operate to their capacity and sometimes do not function at all. Supplying coal to them on a priority basis will meet economic and energy goals and the objective of pollution abatement in transport. The idea should be to transmit power but not carry coal.

Coal can meet the rising energy demand. It is imperative to facilitate development of coal mines and attract major investors and operators to India’s coal mines.

Land is the major resource and is sometimes called the raw material for coal production. After mining is over in line with the approved mining and mine closure plan, restoration has to be directed by the same company. It will therefore make sense if existing public sector coal companies extract from reserves contiguous to their areas of operation.

The competent authority should set ambitious timelines for production and development of evacuation logistics, linking the latter to the market. This would help conserve the available reserves which could otherwise get sterilised in batters and barriers of nearby mines by others.

The other areas where proven reserves that have UNFC and JORC certification can be integrated into internationally viable lots and offered for using quick-extraction technology and evacuation. This would attract participation by big players who have proven expertise and capacity, be it domestic or international.

Coordination with the concerned state government in whose jurisdiction the land lies is sine qua non. A national-level steering committee comprising representatives of the central government and governments of the coal-producing states should be put in place to attain the synergy for accelerated development in the sector.

Like the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission for power, the concept of a central coal regulator is not new. The coal regulator should be endowed with power to create a transparent mechanism for coal marketing—ensuring transparency in quality and price—and be the technical authority for approving and monitoring mining and mine closure. The regulator could also be the authority for redressal of consumer grievances. It will create a level playing field for both public and private stakeholders in coal production.

Sutirtha Bhattacharya

Former chairman, Coal India and West Bengal Electricity Regulatory Commission

D N Prasad

Former adviser, Union ministry of coal

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