Would repurposing old coal plants help India achieve net zero?

The recent COP26 in Glasgow, like every conference of parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), highlights the linguistic gymnastics all state representatives have to do to protect their interests. The most controversial highlight of the day at COP26 was the last-minute removal of “phase out” and addition of “phase down” by delegates of China and India. They reinforced the economic interest of prominent coal countries such as USA and Australia. The article of the resolution that was subsequently passed at COP26 does not even bother to engage in the monotonous debates about climate justice. The truth is that emerging markets still lack the robust infrastructure and suffer from red tape bureaucracy that makes it difficult to transition to renewable energy. Nevertheless, it does not mean that historical injustice should impede a former colony such as India from being ambitious to reach their net zero goals before 2070. Repurposing old coal plants is a viable solution for India to become more coal independent. Both on the grounds of cost saving and socio-ecological justice.

Cost savings

Coal is a critical energy resource on which the socio-economic development of India depends. In India, coal contributes to 75% of the total power generation. The coal sector has historically been a public sector owned industry in the federal state. The coal sector is governed by both the central and state government. However, the pandemic and general inefficiency in costs has led the coal industry to be typically underperforming. There have been studies suggesting that renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are increasingly becoming more affordable compared to coal. The old coal plants are increasingly becoming inefficient given the fact they consume more coal and need to be installed with pollution control technologies. The delay in closing such old coal plants means higher electricity bills and more pollution. Shutting down old coal plants means savings of $1.2 billion a year. However, shutting down old coal plants would mean major unemployment within the plant. In order to alleviate the poverty and potential job losses, India has partnered with World Bank to rehabilitate the old coal plants to be more efficient and eco-friendlier. The solution is pragmatic but it is not long-term in nature. Clean coal technology has been recommended only for short-term purposes to accommodate transition. Providing finance for old coal plants means more capital loss and lost opportunity to refunction the coal plants into generating more renewable energy.  The proposed repurposing of coal plants in India is the idea of Guru Nanak Dev in Punjab. It plans to repurpose the coal plants into solar power plant.

Socio-ecological justice

Repurposing helps avoid the cost of commission green projects by judiciously using the existing infrastructure such as turbines and other generators.   It is important to understand that a wide scale repurposing of coal plants is needed to accelerate renewable energy capacity target to 500 GW. It means surveying old coal plants in prominent coal mining states such as Chhattisgarh and West Bengal. The issue with the acceleration of the repurposing of coal plants is that the federal politics have different political ideologies. The coal producing region has been infested with extreme left-wing terrorist who often target mines as a way to voice the concerns of marginalized communities. This project to repurpose the mines can be helpful in creating more sustainable livelihoods thus weakening the insurgent’s control over the locals. It will help promote more socio-ecological justice in this area.  The local economies, especially in semi-urban and rural areas, will benefit from energy diversification.  However, it takes extreme political will power to overstep the cronyism in the coal sector. It means establishing networks for retraining coal mining workers to transition to renewable energy markets. Schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY is a skill development scheme by the Government of India) need to identify the gaps between labor supply and demand for the skills the coal miners have acquired over the years. It means retraining to boost their economic prospects.

It is important to note that transitioning to renewable resources is still a distant dream because mined coal is not only used for electricity consumption. It is also used as cheap fuel for poor households. Thus phasing out coal mining can’t be as drastic as one might like to think. It means prioritizing the coal plants repurposing instead of phasing out the physical raw coal mining activities.

Conclusion

The repurposing the coal plants is a viable solution for India. The underperformance of coal sectors over the years and renewable energy sector gaining significant number of economies of scale shows that it is time that India has to save its sinking coal assets. Instead of rehabilitating old coal plants, it would be more productive to repurpose them to achieve the target quickly. Coal miners can be retrained. Drastic transition should not, however, be undertaken, because of the effect on vulnerable communities.

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