Renewable Energy is the future, government propagates, but coal will be the mainstay of energy, NITI Aayog, the think tank of India, recommends!!

Shashi Tharoor has rightly pointed out on numerous occasions that ‘India is a land of paradoxes’. There couldn’t be a better example than Draft National Energy Policy (DNEP) 2017 published by NITI Aayog to support his remark. After the withdrawal of United States from Paris Climate Accord, India received plaudits from leaders around the world due to its commitment towards climate change and transition towards renewable and clean energy as showcased in its Nationally Determined Contributors (NDCs). However, NITI Aayog’s prominence on ‘coal’ as the source for India’s future power needs is at variance with its commitment to promoting clean energy. 

Where does the policy topple downs?

NITI Aayog was bestowed with the task of laying out the policy recommendation to the Government of India. However the draft policy is orthodox in approach and conservative in nature while chalking out the strategies for the future.

Though NITI Aayog propagates promotion of energy efficiency and renewable energy to achieve energy security, however, the draft policy topple downs as a result of contradictions by projecting dependence on coal to meet energy needs even in 2040. Further, DNEP in its ‘ambitious action pathway’ estimated that to meet the country burgeoning energy needs, India would require to have installed capacity of 330 GW coal-based power plants till 2040. This implies that the country needs to install at least 80 GW of coal-based plants between the years 2027-2040. However, the requirement goes as high as 441 GW, if we take ‘business as usual’ scenario.

Further, the policy suggested that the fossil fuel share in India’s energy mix will go down by just 3% from 81% in 2012 to 78% in 2040. In addition, the share of renewable in power generation would be approximately 35% as compared to 48% of coal-based power generation. It  estimates an annual coal demand of 1.1-1.4 billion tonnes and forecasts that India would be an exporter of coal. This is, however, in direct conflict with the objectives of DNEP i.e. sustainability and security. 

There is a shocking drop in demand for coal from most of the industrialised nations which implicitly amplifies the need to promote renewable power. Moreover, dependence on coal in the future would be like vouching for Nokia’s old ‘Symbian’ software in the age of Android smart phones. The reliance on coal in present scenario would neither push India towards sustainable energy neither it would help in achieving India's NDCs and SDGs targets.

Coal’s muddled future

It seems incontestable that India's politico-economic scenario will be inconducive towards coal-based power plant in future. Further, in 2028 there will be second ‘global stocktake’ under Paris Agreement where countries have to instigate revised climate action plan. Consequently, India's proposed energy expansion plan might prove to be a tough nut for Indian negotiators at the global level to sell these estimations.  

However, this is perhaps not the only challenge for coal. The investment in renewable energy is on the roll. Dip in the generation cost coupled with a rise of efficient renewable technology has raised the viability of renewable power manifolds. The global political economy is moving decisively towards renewable energy, taking investments with it. Hence, it is difficult to forecast the future of coal with certainty. 

In addition, as estimated in DNEP, the expansion of coal-based power plants is not supported by other policy documents such National Energy Policy published by Ministry of Power, which promotes the generation of renewable energy. Even draft National Electricity Plan ruled out the possibility of expansion of coal-based plants till 2027. 

Perpetuating poor public health 

Nevertheless, DNEP touched upon the aspects of air quality but failed to provide specific measures for its improvement. It also discussed about the indoor air pollutants and its impacts on public health, however such snags are pertinent to peri-urban and rural regions of India. But, what it failed to address are issues related to health of people residing in cities who are the direct victims of severe health problems caused due to harmful toxic emissions of thermal power plants. There have been numerous studies conducted, which suggests that continuous presence of air pollutants in the atmosphere reduces life expectancy. 

In addition, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change gave some stick to coal-based power plants and enforced revised emission norms on them. However, due to the high cost of retrofitting and absence of affordable technology, power plants are unlikely to adhere to such mandates. 

What the policy should address?

There is need for a policy measure which is streamlined with ‘climate change’ goals and ensure energy security but also warrant reliable and affordable power. DNEP estimation for future planning is startling. ‘NITI’ seems to be missing from NITI Aayog draft policy. While, renewables would not be able to support the current base load but integration of renewable energy with main grid should be on the core agenda of DNEP. 

In addition, old coal power plants should be phased out. It could be replaced by natural gas based power plants which emit half of the quantity of pollutants as compared to coal plants. 

On the whole, in the aforementioned context, it is recommended that the DNEP should promote the exploration of new technologies such as ‘energy storage’. Further, it should undertake a progressive scenario analysis for various energy mixes and suggest a comprehensive action plan ensuring energy security. 

(This article has been contributed by Arpit Tiwari working as a Research Associate in CUTS International under CUTS Centre for Competition, Investment & Economic Regulation. He holds a MSc in Regulatory Governance from Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) Mumbai)