HELE coal plant in India’s future energy mix

I travelled to New Delhi, India, in late May for a series of meetings in connection with my present study on “HELE coal-fired power plant as a precursor to CCS: the Indian situation”. This study builds on an earlier Clean Coal Centre report  by investigating the technical, political and financial issues that impact on the roll-out of HELE plant in the Indian power sector.

Through generous assistance from the British and Australian High Commissions, and the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) I was able to have valuable discussions with several experts and to garner additional contacts for follow-up.

India’s energy consumption has almost doubled since 2000 and the potential for further rapid growth is enormous. The Indian economy is the world’s third-largest and is growing rapidly with attendant improvements in welfare and quality of life for India’s people. That said, some 240 million still have no access to electricity and enabling the supply to this group is seen by the government as a priority. The cost of electricity is the key factor here but the regional distribution boards are in deep financial difficulties with uncollected revenue and are constantly fighting a campaign against electricity theft via unauthorised connections to the power grid. This restricts the finance available for new capacity.

Coal is by far the most important fuel in India’s energy mix, but a rapidly growing role for low-carbon sources of energy, especially solar and wind power had led to a “dash for renewables” in many states. That said, there is a wide acceptance of the reality that coal will remain a major source of power for the Indian economy for the foreseeable future and there is will to ensure that it is utilised in an efficient and environmentally acceptable way. The current 12th Five-Year Plan (2012-2017) specifies a target of 50-60% of coal plants based on supercritical technology, whilst the next Five-Year Plan (2017-2022) which is undergoing internal review within the government is highly likely to stipulate that all new plants must be supercritical or better and that no subcritical plants will be allowed. I was told that the specific challenges posed by Indian coals (high ash, low energy content) has led to a conservative approach to improved technologies, with supercritical plant being first choice until a body of experience has been accumulated to allow progress to ultra-supercritical units. The high ash content of Indian coal is also seen as an impediment to the free transport of coal which is the subject of a recent initiative by Prime Minister Modi who has asked the ministries of coal, railways, shipping and power to work out a plan for better movement of coal though coastal and inland waterways and present their findings to the cabinet. Coal washing to reduce the ash content of run-of-mine output from around 50% to 34% is seen as a priority issue.

The Indian coal-fired power fleet has many relatively small and inefficient units and there have recently been moves to implement a programme of closure of these units, similar to that pursued by the Chinese government. However, with fully written-down plant these units can produce electricity at a relatively low cost and their closure is opposed in the regions where electricity cost is a particularly sensitive and politically charged issue. Mr Anil Razdan, the former Secretary for Power who I met during my visit opined that an “efficiency tax” might be levied to encourage operators to upgrade their capacity. He also suggested that the coal levy (currently Rs 400 per tonne) that contributes to the Clean Environment Cess (formerly known as the National Clean Energy Cess) could usefully be expanded to include clean coal technologies.

Discussions over dinner with Mr Anil Razdan, the former Secretary for Power, Ms Lydia Powell (ORF), Mr Swagat Bam (ORF)

During my visit, I was also honoured to meet Dr D V Kapur, who was responsible for setting up India’s National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) in 1975. Dr Kapur based NTPC on the then UK’s state owned generation and distribution organisation, the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) which was considered to be a model for power production and distribution at that time.  As someone who has held many senior positions in the government sector and private industry Dr Kapur offered a wide perspective on the historical and developing Indian power sector. He is a strong advocate of sound engineering and managerial practices, and in particular project planning and management.

Discussing Dr Kapur’s book “The Bloom in the Desert: The Making of NTPC” with the author.

New Delhi is a fascinating and beautiful city. In the central area where I had the majority of my meetings, the cityscape designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens affords many beautiful buildings set in wide boulevards bordered by parks. Without exception, everyone I met on my visit was friendly, courteous and helpful.

Upgrading the efficiency of the world’s coal fleet to reduce CO2 emissions. CCC/237, ISBN 978‐92‐9029‐557‐0, 99 pp, July 2014,