The Broad Mind | Reducing our coal addiction

In my previous post, I had mentioned that we are heavily dependent on coal to meet our requirement of electricity. Coal offers tremendous advantages. It is an indigenous resource, and India is blessed with enormous reserves. It is considered a low-cost fuel, and the pricing is fully within our control, with no fear of volatility. More important, coal-based power plants are true base-load plants, capable of generating power round-the-clock and for more than 330 days in a year. Coal plants can also be scaled up. Ultra-mega power plants of 4000 MW are possible.

A developing nation like ours needs to ensure that, at least, 70% of electricity demand is met by such base-load plants. The remaining 30% may be met by intermittent and peaking plants

To appreciate the difference between base-load and intermittent plants, we need to understand a few technical terms first. Every power plant is rated for a certain MW (mega-watts). A 1 MW plant has the capability to produce up to 1000 Kilo-watt hours (kWh) or units of electricity every hour. A 40-watt bulb in your home consumes 1 kwh of electricity if kept on for 25 hours.  Thus, a 1 MW plant running for 25 hours can help power a thousand 40-Watt bulbs during the same period.  But not all power plants are capable of running continuously and over a period of 1 year there are serious differences in terms of units (kWh) generated by each.

A 1 MW coal plant is capable of generating over 7 million kWh or units in a year. A 1 MW hydro-plant in India, due to non-perennial nature of rivers, may supply only 3 million units. A 1 MW wind turbine, due to seasonality of wind, generates less than 3 million units a year. A 1 MW solar plant generates around 1.5 million units.

 A problem with intermittent operation of plants based on renewable energy, apart from the poor annual generation, is also its unpredictability. As the base-load demand increases with the GDP growth and more inclusiveness ( lighting up rural India, for instance), it therefore appears a no-brainer that we must keep adding more coal plants. Right? 

Not quite. Coal has some serious negative points, which are becoming increasingly difficult to wish away.

First, despite the large reserves of coal, the production from mines has not kept pace with the demand. Environmental clearances are getting to be trickier and social issues such as displacement of people from lands getting more complex to grapple. Second, coal makes huge demands on infrastructure. It needs a railway corridor to move the huge quantity from mines,through multiple states. If we resort to importing coal, we have to beef up our port facilities. Third, coal plants have been identified as the largest emitters of carbon dioxide, a gas that causes greenhouse effect and climate change. This doesn’t just affect the immediate area around the plant. It has the potential to impact the entire globe.  Consciousness on the environmental damage of coal is growing by the day and all countries, including India, are under pressure to commit a reduction in emission of this gas.

So, assuming that development needs of India cannot be compromised and will continue to be fuelled by electricity, what are the alternatives to coal, if we are called upon to make a change?

Well, nuclear plants fit the bill well.

The biggest advantage of nuclear power is that there is no emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Second, it can match coal-plants in base-load, all-year operations. In terms of fuel logistics, it poses far fewer challenges. Consider these figures. To generate 10000 MW from a number of coal plants, a total quantity of 35-40 million tons are required per annum, involving a shipload or 20 trainloads per day. In contrast, 10000 MW of nuclear power needs just 350 tons of fuel per year. The cost of generation from nuclear power plants is also quite competitive. Also, thanks to an excellent three-phase program conceived by Homi Bhabha in the fifties, we can aim at reaching a stage where thorium, a fuel that is available in abundance in India, can eventually  ensure self-sufficiency.

(For an informative write-up on the evolution of nuclear energy in India, an elaboration of the three-phase program and the advantages of nuclear power, refer to this article by Mr P.C.Jain, CMD of Nuclear Power Corporation)

The modest proposal is to add 20000 MW of nuclear power plants by the year 2020, and to increase its share of the Indian power market to 8.6% by the year 2030 and 16.4 % in the year 2050.

This may prove to be a good bridging solution for 20-30 years, by when we can expect forms of renewable energy such as solar to mature and new storage solutions to be in place to overcome the problem of intermittency.

But isn’t nuclear power unsafe? Surely, radiation from such plants is many times more dangerous and harmful than greenhouse gases? Shouldn’t we draw lessons from Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and, more recently, from Fukushima?

We certainly should. We’ll look at that in the next post.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.