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Is coal import dependence of more than 50% by 2047 of any relevance to India?

By Shankar Sharma* 
I have read the article "Building Resilience in India’s Power Sector" by N Vedachalam, released by the Observer Research Foundation, with a lot of interest. I expected it to provide few useful recommendations to our authorities in charting out a sustainable pathway to green energy transition much before the climate catastrophe push our communities to the precipice. But I am sorry to say that the overall discussions or the message implied in the article disappointed me.
I was expecting the article, coming from an engineer with past experience in the power sector, to discuss the much needed recommendations to put the power sector on a sustainable developmental pathway. But I could notice mostly technical jargon and a lot of statistical information, which may already be available in the public domain. 
 The article also seems to have simply accepted what some of the official agencies seem to have indicated as inevitable for the power sector in our country; such as the continued reliance on fossil fuels, nuclear power, large size hydel power, and ever growing complexity of integrated power networks. 
While it has also referred to some new technology issues of topical interest, such as smart grids, EVs and energy storage batteries, the article seems to have unquestioningly accepted the official line of thinking (which has remained mostly unsubstantiated since many years despite repeated questioning on the same by civil society) for the future, which can be stated as largely based on the continued reliance on fossil fuels, nuclear power, large size hydel power, and the ever growing complexity of integrated power networks.
Whereas many such articles, which appear more or less as portraying a large size power sector scenario in the country, have been appearing in the media in recent years, it is very unfortunate to notice that almost all of them have missed the opportunity to seek many clarifications on the associated policies/ practices from the perspective of the overall welfare of our people, environmental sustainability of the same, costs/benefits to the larger society, and most importantly the climate change perspective. 
Whereas, it appears that a token reference has been made in the present article to issues on international obligations on GHG emission reduction, COP26 recommendations, Paris declaration etc. just for the sake of global context, they seem to have become futile in the context that the article says: "The coal-based power generation capacity in India is projected to reach some 380GW by the year 2047....", and in the context that it has simply accepted what appears to be the official line that the share of fossil fuels (coal + gas) in electricity generation capacity can come down from 62% in 2021 only to 36% in 2047. 
Additionally, with hydro power (with 10%) and nuclear power (with 3%) of power generating capacity in the power sector projection scenario by 2047, most of the social and environmental concerns associated with the conventional technology power generation sources and the associated infrastructure such as dams, mines, power plants, transmission lines, waste management facilities etc. will continue to devastate our communities as they have been doing all these decades. So, where is the question of building resilience to our communities? 
Even within the power sector, to continue with such a heavy reliance on conventional technology power generation sources cannot ensure resilience of any kind. A lot can be written as to how such a scenario cannot ensure resilience in the power sector; but it is enough to state that such a power sector scenario cannot be the one suitable for our people by 2047, if we objectively consider the climate emergency prevailing now, and which can only become worse by 2047 in a BAU scenario of high GDP growth rate economic paradigm.
The article has failed to indicate as to how the 'Coal Import Dependence' of more than 50% even by 2047, as projected in the article, can be of true relevance to India.
The article also seems to decry the present scenario that India has not fully exploited its so-called potential in coal and gas reserve (including coal bed Methane, shale gas, shale oil and gas hydrates); and is seeking to increase the same by considerable margins, as well as exploiting the full hydro potential of 120 GW by 2050; of course without bothering even to mention the social, economic and environmental consequences.
It is very unfortunate that the article seems to acknowledge coal gasification and CCS technologies as inevitable for India even by 2047, despite the fact that the global scientific community has been crying to halve fossil fuel usage in the power sector by 2030, and to eliminate it entirely before 2050. It is another matter altogether that these technologies have not been acknowledged as mature enough, as economically attractive, and as environmentally sustainable.
It is also futile to compare our per capita energy consumption to the global average; refer to per capita emissions and emission intensity w.r.t GDP, because it is the total quantities/ volume at the national/global level which are critical in the context of global warming and climate emergency. Since both the population and GDP in India is expected to grow considerably by 2047/50, such per capita figures can only be of a tiny relevance even to a futile set of arguments.
The article seems to focus largely on engineering technologies and the associated capital finance to meet the unabated electricity demand by 2047, but without adequate focus on issues associated with the demand side management, overall efficiency improvement, energy conservation, and social and environmental costs to the larger society. 
Whereas the article acknowledges that the total electricity demand by 2047-50 may get doubled in a BAU scenario as compared to what it is now, it should be emphasised that unless effective measures are taken to contain such a runaway demand, the actual demand by 2047 may even increase by 1.5 to 2.0 times. Such a high demand for electricity, if allowed to increase indefinitely, can make it impossible to completely eliminate fossil fuels even by 2070.
Additionally, on an objective consideration of the global experience of attempts and failures to address our ecological concerns only through technological solutions during the last few decades, and on the basis of numerous science based studies/ computer simulations on the environmental degradations, the global scientific communities are clearly of the consensus that the only way to effectively address the climate change threats is by vastly reducing the global demand for materials and energy. The above article has not even referred to such a critical need.
The article seems to have simply accepted the India Energy Security Scenario 2047 (IESS 2047), an energy scenario modelling and simulation tool developed by NITI Aayog, but has completely ignored the social, environmental, economic and intergenerational consequences of moving towards such a scenario by 2047, and even completely ignoring the global cry to move away from conventional technology electricity sources from the context of climate emergency.
There is a critical need to take a fundamentally different but holistic approach to our power sector issues, especially the ever growing demand, for the future; say by 2047-50.
Whereas the ongoing global crises, as a consequence of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, can be represented by a sort of energy crises leading to vastly increased usage of fossil fuels and a lot more focus on nuclear power, which can only mean furthering the global climate emergency, what is critical for the global community is not to lose the much-needed attention on the climate change front. 
Whereas these crises seem to have given another opportunity to a few vested interests among the global corporate world to make money through these old and costly energy technologies, there are also few developments to indicate that a diligently planned and honestly implemented action plan towards net-zero target at an early date will bring massive benefits not only for the local communities, but also to the global society. Some of the associated news links are as below.
But the trillion dollar question is whether our political leaders, having chosen to adopt a myopic view of economic development, and the bureaucrats, who seem to be too happy to toe the political line of their bosses, will really care to objectively consider these developments, and make honest efforts to modify our action plans accordingly? 
In their obsession with the high GDP growth rate paradigm, they seem to be completely ignoring the harsh reality that the unabated demand growth for materials and energy, is the root cause for most of the global crises, and certainly for the global climate emergency.
They should be repeatedly reminded that it is techno-economically feasible, people friendly and environmentally sustainable to aim for early green energy transition and/or net zero carbon emission target.
Germany and Japan are reported to be considering reviving some of their nuclear power plants, which were destined to be closed down. China is reported to be only increasing its ambitions on nuclear power. Our own NITI Aayog "experts" are advocating for widespread usage of small modular reactors (SMR) to provide a considerable percent of electricity through nuclear power without considering the overall costs, risks and impacts on our communities..
The global societies seem to be more than keen to accept any associated risks and costs in investing more in such technologies, instead of reducing their energy demand slightly, and to modify their lifestyles; even though some of these risks can be life threatening in nature. 
A 10-15% reduction in the AT&C loss in India's electric power network is both essential and techno-economically attractive
Whereas, a modest reduction in the overall energy demand (and hence in material demand) is socio-economically feasible and hugely attractive, and is vastly more sustainable and green, the increased usage of fossil fuels and nuclear fuels seem to be the most preferred options for our authorities. Costs and risks to the larger society seem to be of no concern to them.
For example, a 10-15% reduction in the Aggregate Technical & Commercial (AT&C) loss in India's electric power network is both essential and techno-economically attractive, a considerable reduction in the legitimate demand for electricity (say 20-30%) is both desirable and socially acceptable. By doing so with all the seriousness possible at all levels of our society, our country can completely eliminate the need for any nuclear power plants (including the existing ones), and can drastically reduce the total number of fossil fuel power plants in the next 10-15 years, and to eliminate most of them by 2040-50; certainly much before 2070.
Some of the recent newslinks, as below, should drive home the need for urgent actions in this regard.
Many computer models and academic studies have been acknowledging this techno-economic feasibility/ attractiveness (early green energy transition and/or net zero carbon emission target) repeatedly in recent years. But our authorities are offering many lame excuses for not going ahead with this concept.
In the Indian context, there seems no credible study to challenge such techno-economic feasibility. So, our communities are being burdened with the disastrous BAU scenario, without any clear plan and without any cohesive policies, and only based on multiple, unsubstantiated and myopic policy decisions: such as more of coal mines and coal power plants; the controversial mandate to states to import coal; irrational policies on unacceptably high cost nuclear power plants and hydel power plants, and large size solar/wind power parks. Can civil society afford to continue to ignore such disastrous approaches in the critical energy sector ?
It should be highlighted that way back in 2017, Professor Mark Jacobson and colleagues from Stanford University published a scientific paper outlining a roadmap for 139 countries to transition to 100 percent renewable energy. 
Prof Jacobson, an expert in renewable energy and climatology, describes how this paper, along with many other studies, make up a "body of work, carried out by over 85 authors and 35 peer-reviewers, [which] is further supported by an additional 30 peer-reviewed studies that find it is possible to match demand with supply with 100 percent or near-100 percent renewable energy systems."
It may be termed as a serious let down of our people that none of the authorities, whether it is NITI Aayog, or Ministry of Power, Or Central Electricity Authority, have deemed it a critical need, from the overall welfare perspective of our people, to closely examine such global reports or simulation studies, and seriously undertake similar studies to reflect our specific conditions, constraints and strengths, so as to hasten the action plan towards the much needed green energy transition. The so-called net-zero target of 2070 for India, as announced at the global platform of COP26 with much fanfare, will undoubtedly be too small and too late.
It should be a matter of great concern to all right thinking intellectuals in India, that the absence of a diligently prepared energy policy, and an effective action plan to achieve early energy transition for the country should indicate the callous indifference towards the need for a cohesive set of enabling policies and a serious lack of concern to the long term welfare of our people.
Hence, the haunting question: how can articles, such as the one discussed above, be of much use to our people? There is a need for our civil society to ask our authorities some searching but vastly relevant questions on the suitability of the power demand-supply scenario which is projected for 2047-50; much more attractive or suitable alternatives available to our communities; the overall costs and benefits to our society; true relevance from climate emergency perspective; and the complete absence of societal level consultations.
Three discussion papers, as enclosed (click herehere and here), may provide a basis for further discussions in the larger context of the overall welfare of our country.
---
*Power policy and climate change expert based in Karnataka

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