Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
This week, the UK scrambled to ready its coal plants as wind turbines froze in extremely cold weather. It is no surprise as coal is one of the most reliable, affordable and abundant energy sources in the world.
In fact, coal is still the largest contributor to global power generation. Leaders of Asian countries know this and are not inclined to risk their objective of economic liberty with overreliance on highly volatile and expensive “renewable” technology.
A country soon to become the world’s most populous, India faces a plethora of challenges, and it does not want to add to the troubles of a sometimes-fragile energy system. So it is that strategists are keen on increasing the country’s dependency on coal despite global calls to reduce emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels.
Coal’s Critical Role in 20th-Century Poverty Alleviation
Abundant and economical energy is necessary to meet basic needs such as lighting, cooking, and powering appliances that can improve the quality of life for millions of the poor and even prevent early death. Hospitals, schools, water systems and industrial facilities need reliable access to electricity if they are to play a role in alleviating poverty and deprivation.
As a fuel, coal is plentiful and relatively cheap. Coal-fired power plants are a reliable and established technology for generating electricity. Technologies like wind and solar are inherently intermittent and relatively expensive. They rely on machines that have comparatively short life spans and require many times the materials and acreage to generate equivalent amounts of electricity. At best, these so-called green technologies are suitable for limited applications but certainly not for the baseload supplies of large populations.
In Asia, the need for sustained economic growth outweighs fanciful visions of a “carbon-free” utopia, making coal the obvious choice for at least several decades.
Coal Helped India Soar into Prominence; Will Continue to be the Go-To Fuel
India’s gross domestic product grew from $390 billion in 1990 to $2.6 trillion in 2020, representing a compound annual growth rate of 6.7 percent. This was possible only because of the rapid increase in the use of coal for electricity and industries. In 1971, just 50 percent of India’s electricity came from coal. By 2015, the share had grown to almost 76 percent.
This is a particularly steep increase given the concurrent rise in electricity demand from just 34.2 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) in 1970 to a massive 1,236 billion kWh in 2020. The per capita consumption of electricity grew by around 10 times between 1974 and 2020, from 126 kWh to 1208 kWh, with coal meeting most of this demand.
“India’s coal consumption has doubled since 2007 at an annual growth rate of six percent – and will be the growth engine of global coal demand,” writes Jacob Koshy of The Hindu news outlet. It is because of this coal proliferation that India could supply the industrial sector with power and achieve electrification in all cities and villages by 2017. There simply is no good reason for the country to turn its back on coal.
“China has 1,000 gigawatts of coal power installed capacity. India has 200 gigawatts of coal installed capacity for the same amount of people. The scale of expansion is totally different,” says Aarti Khosla of Climate Trends. India wouldn’t stop scaling up its coal power sector, and it should not.
India’s current subsidies for fossil fuels are nine times more than that for so-called clean energy. “Energy security is my first priority…I will not compromise on the availability of power for this country’s development,” said India’s power minister, R.K. Singh, hinting at an uncompromising stance on coal use.
India expects its power plants to burn about eight percent more coal in the current fiscal year of 2023-2024 even as the country missed its 2022 renewable energy goal by more than 30 percent. As of January 2023, India’s coal production is up by 16.4 percent from the previous year. India’s thermal coal imports went up by 15 percent in 2022. India’s coal ministry has said that it plans to produce more than one billion tons of coal during the year 2023-24.
With all of that, India’s per capita electricity consumption is still 10 times lower than that of people living in countries like the U.S., Canada and South Korea. Indians are just as entitled as people of developed countries to use as much energy as they can produce to achieve the prosperity they deserve.
Vijay Jayaraj is a Research Associate at the CO2 Coalition, Arlington, Virginia. He holds a master’s degree in environmental sciences from the University of East Anglia, UK and resides in India.
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