New Thermal Power Plants: What about India’s Promise to Diminish Coal Dependence? 

Author: Anusha Arif

Amidst international pressure for a large-scale shift from coal, India has pledged to reduce its coal consumption, aiming to generate 50% of its power from renewable sources by 2030. Yet, six years before the goal year, coal still accounts for 70% of India’s electricity generation. In fact, in February 2024, the utilisation of coal was driven up to 90%. In the wake of the heatwaves and the national election, coal-fired electricity generation has gone up in the first quarter of the current year as well. 

As opposed to its international promise, the Central Electricity Authority has anticipated that the continued use of coal is unlikely to diminish till FY2032, with an additional need for 19-27 GW of coal-based power to meet its peaking demand. 

Deemed as a climate-proactive country, India is now among the top five emitters in the world. This juxtaposition cannot be resolved through simple measures in a country with the population size and demands of India. However, the government’s continued investment in coal assets is a growing matter of concern. In recent months, the coal ministry has given the green light to set up massive power plants around its coalfields in Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and Jharkhand, each with a capacity of 5,000 megawatts, through joint ventures between the government, private sector companies, and state-owned electricity enterprises.

This move’s central goal is to reduce the transportation costs of coal, and the project is already underway with land banks and land acquisition taking place near the coal mines.

Despite the aspirations for solidifying the coal industry, these moves raise some alarming questions. Firstly, will these new projects expose an ecosystem already fragile due to coal mining to further environmental degradation? Secondly, will the new mega thermal power plants and delayed decommissioning of the coal power plants push India’s climate goals further into the future? Most importantly, how long can India maintain its position as a climate-proactive country with its continued dependence on thermal energy?

Environment Clearance and Vulnerability of the Area 

Environment clearances are some of the foremost requirements for coal-fired thermal power plants in the country. According to the EIA notification of 2006, the coal-fired power plants must provide the details regarding land requirement, distance from power plants of coal source, transportation modes, etc. Between July 2014 and April 2020, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has already granted over 28 environment clearances to power plant projects and 85 ECs to coal mining projects, some of which are either in protected areas or within 10 kms of protected area boundaries. 

At the same time, the new mega plant projects underway are concentrated in and around the impoverished states of Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Jharkhand, all of which have already been exposed to massive vulnerability due to coal mining activities. In Chhattisgarh, the issue of large-scale tree felling became a political flashpoint ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. More than 98,000 trees have been cut down in the state for the second phase of the Parsa East Kete Basan (PEKB) coal mining project and some political parties have joined protests, led by locals and activists, against this.

Without carbon capturing technology, as can be expected, most thermal power plants cause various types of anthropogenic emissions. Studies have also found an association between environment and human health risks due to the operation of power plants in the area.

A report about the impact of Nagpur’s operating thermal power plants on the villages highlights the threat to the health and water security of the villagers. The power plants have led to air pollution from fly ash from chimneys, dry fly ash ponds that flow in the wind, and the fly ash blowing while being transported in uncovered trucks. The drinking water availability in the region has also diminished significantly; in 2021 almost every water sample collected from the region did not meet the standards for drinking. 

Criticism for Coal Dependence and Way Forward

The international efforts to “phase-out” fossil fuels was watered down due to insistence by large emitters, India and China, at the Conference of Parties 26. However, during the COP26,  India was criticised over its continued coal dependence. The international community raised questions about what the effects of the expected energy demand over the next 20 years can mean for coal reliance in India. The status of access to uninterrupted electricity was also questioned; however, more than anything, these questions point to the obvious energy inequality across the country. While India is focused on rapidly expanding its renewable energy demands, the challenges of intermittency betweens hours and seasons remain. Yet, in the midst of a global push for “phasing-out” and India’s process of “phasing-down” of coal; new thermal power plants raise not only a question but also concern. 

The experts in the field have also previously shared concerns about India committing to a western timeline to meet its goal to phase out coal. In the larger scheme of things, this standardised timeline is neither equitable nor practical with the country’s current and expanding energy demands. Nonetheless, the internal harms caused by the continued use of coal must be monitored. 

While coal remains a large resource for the country, it is essential to look at alternate energy mixes in a more stable and sustainable manner. This would include research and development in new renewables, exploring and expanding storage for RE, developing systems to limit the harm caused by coal such as through carbon capturing, and setting more realistic goals.