India may delay coal plant closures in blow to climate action

(Image courtesy of Coal India).

India’s government is studying a slower retirement of aging coal-fired power plants as it also adds newer sites, a move that would keep fossil fuel capacity higher for years and potentially stall efforts to hit climate goals.

Officials are considering a proposal to shutter less than 5 gigawatts of existing capacity by the end of the decade as the nation grapples with surging electricity demand and a global energy shortage, according to people familiar with the matter. That compares with plans drawn up in 2020 that proposed shuttering about 25 gigawatts by the same date.

Spokespeople for India’s power ministry and environment ministry didn’t respond to emails and text messages seeking comment.

India currently has about 204 gigawatts of coal power capacity and the plans under discussion would see that total expand to more than 250 gigawatts over the next decade, according to two of the people, who asked not to be named as the discussions are private. No final decisions have been made, the people said.

“Any rupee invested in new coal infrastructure takes India away from its net zero goals,” said Sunil Dahiya, an analyst with the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, which supports the faster adoption of less-polluting fuels. “It will load the power system with redundant capacities and hinder investments in clean power projects.”

A pipeline of 30 gigawatts of coal projects that are in advanced stages of construction should be used to replace old and inefficient plants, and India should prioritize investments in expanding its grid and on decarbonization projects, Dahiya said.

Under the proposals being considered, India’s coal plants — which currently account for almost 70% of electricity generation — would continue to handle peak evening power demand, even as solar and wind projects become increasingly able to fulfill day-time requirements, according to the people.

The world’s third-largest emitter doesn’t envisage hitting net-zero until 2070, and is aiming only for half of its electricity generation capacity to use clean fuels by 2030, giving the nation scope to continue relying on coal for decades more. Together with China, India frustrated efforts to set a date to phase out the use of unabated coal power at last year’s Glasgow climate talks.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government aims to build 500 gigawatts of clean power capacity by 2030, and to ultimately become a global hub for solar, energy storage and green hydrogen. In the shorter term, ministers are seeking to ensure stable energy supply to consumers and industry.

With gas prices stubbornly high, many new hydropower projects proving too complex and a planned roll-out of renewables in its early stages, policymakers see a need to extend reliance on the country’s coal fleet. Other nations globally have also been responding to high demand and severe shortages of natural gas by burning more coal.

(By Rajesh Kumar Singh)

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