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1st IEA CCC Coal Quality Workshop, New Delhi, 9-10 November 2016

There are dates in your life where you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing. While Trump was being elected President of the USA, over 100 experts were gathered at the Habitat Centre in New Delhi to discuss coal quality issues in India. Despite the surprising result from the USA, the equally surprising decision by Prime Minister Modi to retire 1000 and 500 rupee notes overnight (leading to challenges for many delegates in getting to the venue by taxi), and some of the worst air quality in the city ever, the meeting was upbeat and lively.

The continued increase in coal use in India combined with new commitments to reduce emissions, has created a challenging time for utilities in the country. The Coal Preparation Society of India (CPSI) co-hosted this first IEA CCC Coal Quality event and brought an excellent mix of national government representative, utilities, mining companies and academics to the discussion. The event provided an opportunity for international speakers advising on technological options for coal cleaning and beneficiationto gain a greater appreciation of the unique characteristics of Indian coals, the sheer scale of the sector, and how both these factors mean that systems which may work elsewhere cannot be transposed  to India so easily.

With the magnitude of the power sector in the country, it is perhaps not surprising that the Indian government is open to consideration of all sources of energy, including coalbed methane (CBM) and the arguably more experimental underground coal gasification (UCG). One of the major challenges in India is the low quality of the indigenous coals, with some having 50% ash or more. Over and above this, the discussion from the first day of the meeting highlighted the issue of what one delegate referred to as “out of seam coal dilution” – implying the addition of rocks and waste materials to increase weights in coal sales. “Loud” conversations between the ministry and utilities focussed on the guarantee of coal quality, with the suggestion that the certifications of quality received from some coal producers was not a true representation of the actual quality of the coal delivered. There was a call from several delegates for wide-spread third-party coal quality evaluation/certification. Work towards this has already been initiated – Coal India Ltd (CIL) has signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with utilities and coal producers, covering a significant proportion of the coal production in India, to work on establishing standards for evaluation and guarantees of coal quality. Methods are being developed for random wagon and belt top sampling which are reported as being useful in resolving disputes between suppliers and users. In the long term, the guarantee of minimum coal quality will lead to increased plant efficiency and reduced emissions. However, there was quite a volatile discussion in the room on the accuracy and applicability of the methods being developed.

Dr Sloss presenting at the Coal Quality workshop

There is a definite move towards cleaner coal in India – only coal with an ash content below 34% ash is to be transported long distances. The number of washeries in the country is also growing rapidly and, whilst this raises the issues of new waste streams, it seems that the option for beneficiation of washery rejects and the use of CFB (circulating fluidised bed) systems for waste coals is already being considered.

A representative from NTPC (National Thermal Power Company) reported that, as required by the new national emission norms (standards), FGD (flue gas desulphurisation) would be required on all new plants and would be retrofitted to existing plants over a rolling timeframe. However, the high ash content of Indian coals could mean reduced efficacy for nitrogen control by both low NOx burners and SCR/SNCR systems (selected catalytic reduction/selective non-catalytic reduction). NTPC has sent a team to several countries to learn about options for NOx control and plans several full scale tests with various low NOx systems to evaluate the issue before rolling out any control systems across their fleet.

I must admit to being a little confused over the Indian position on coal blending. There seemed to be some indication that the country wished to focus mainly on indigenous coals, beneficiating where necessary, to reduce the requirement for imports, whilst other discussions related to the approaches for blending imported coals with national coals (basic stock-piling and mixing methods). A utility presentation on the effect of changes in coal quality on coal-fired boilers in India noted that the blending of higher quality coals in with Indian coals can have a significantly negative effect on the plant in terms of potential changes in performance and associated damage to the plant. One of the major issues is the higher moisture content of imported coals which can affect boiler combustion temperature. It was suggested that the maximum blend would be 15% imported coal.

Coal blending and beneficiation systems being developed in Hong Kong, the USA and China could potentially provide at least some of the solution to India’s coal quality issues. However, an Indian coal producer reminded the delegates of the practicalities of making large and fundamental changes to the way the coal chain works within India. Although it is the government’s aim to increase coal washing in the country, several washeries have been delayed and some are likely to be cancelled due to financial challenges. It was proposed that one entity, such as Coal India Ltd, should take the responsibility for the bulk of the coal washery construction in India to provide consistency and reliability in both the build and the performance of the plants. This would also expedite issues with environmental approval, financial tenders and infrastructure.

For me, the take home message from the meeting was:

– India has made significant commitments to cleaning up the coal sector such as introducing requirements for coal washing and establishing challenging emission limits for coal-fired power plants;

– Whilst these commitments are necessary and admirable, the scale of the proposed changes and the inherent issues within the coal-energy chain will make be extremely challenging in practice;

– Standardisation will be necessary in everything from coal quality assurance (sampling and analysis through the coal chain) to coal washing and delivery;

– Whilst India can learn from international experience, the high ash content of Indian coals may mean that systems which work elsewhere are not as effective in India – this needs to be evaluated through testing and pilot projects, and modifications made as necessary.

And perhaps most importantly, as noted by Paul Baruya and repeated regularly throughout the meeting:

– Cheap coal doesn’t equate to cheap electricity.

India is a huge emerging market for coal cleaning and emission control technologies. However, the market is new and uncharted. High ash Indian coal may reduce the efficacy of systems which have been proven elsewhere. Further, the sheer scale of the retrofitting and installation required is likely to cause issues in terms of affordability and practicability. The country is moving boldly forward to make significant improvements within the coal utility sector but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the scale of the challenge may lead to delays.

Visit the workshop website for more details.

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