Clean coal – the silver bullet for India’s carbon emission reduction

Context

The power sector across the globe is going through a transition to reduce its carbon footprint. Environmentalists have targeted coal as one of the chief villains of global warming. It is true that coal is the dirtiest fuel with the highest carbon emission coefficient, but it presently plays a vital role in electricity generation worldwide. Coal-fired power plants currently produce 41% of global electricity and are responsible for 46% of the world’s carbon emissions.

India’s Carbon emission

  • India is the third largest carbon emitter in the world after US and China. The government of India has an ambitious plan to add 175 GW of power from renewable energy sources out of which 100 GW is expected to come from solar by 2022.
  • However, a new possibility emerges when one considers the fact that Indian coal-fired power plants are some of the most inefficient and polluting ones in the world.
  • This is because around 80% of these plants are still using obsolete subcritical technology. Experts and policy-makers have suggested that the environmental harm caused by burning coal can be minimised by adopting high efficiency low emission (HELE) technologies such as supercritical and ultra-supercritical combustion technologies.

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Why SPVs are not preferable to India?

  • India’s solar programme is heavily dependent on imports. In 2015-16, India imported $2.34 billion worth of solar cells, out of which 83.61% were from China.
  • India also lacks a robust manufacturing base for solar cells and associated components. Moreover, India does not have any infrastructure for raw material production and the bulk of the SPV industry is dependent on the import of critical raw materials.
  • Domestic solar cells are 10-15% costlier than their Chinese counterparts as solar manufacturers in China enjoy cheap capital, subsidised power, land and other export incentives to keep prices artificially low.
  • Due to the price differentials, Indian solar manufacturers have less than 10% market share and are struggling to survive. Increased reliance on thin film solar technologies has augmented the dependence on specific metals mined in only a few geographic locations.
  • Since China controls approximately 97% of the world’s ‘rare earth’ market, it has market power to manipulate the price of thin film solar cells. Solar power, apart from failing to provide the least cost option for carbon emission reduction, also enhances import dependence and, thereby, jeopardises India’s energy security.

Way forward

The coal-based ultra-supercritical technology and not SPV is the preferable option to reduce carbon emissions. The government needs to review its capacity addition target based on large scale solar plants; and emphasis should be given to roof-top solar power and decentralised applications of renewable energy resources, which can complement coal-based power generation.

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