NEW DELHI – Last month, as India was experiencing a historic heat wave and was consuming a record amount of electricity for cooling, the Ministry of Coal announced that it would reopen old mines and increase production by 100 million tons.
With cities entering blackouts due to lack of electricity, the Energy Department has ordered plants that burn imported coal to operate at full capacity.
The Environment Ministry has given coal miners permission to increase production by up to 50% without seeking new permits, according to a May 7. The memo attributed the relaxed environmental regulations to the “tremendous pressure on domestic coal supplies in the country,” and said “all efforts are being made to meet coal demand.”
The developments highlight the continued, and even increasing, dependence on coal as the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases – and one of the main victims of climate change.
Although analysts acknowledge that India faces a real dilemma in how to meet its growing energy demands, many say the government is sending mixed political signals by promoting coal mining and power generation while promoting its green ambitions on the international stage. In the run-up to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to install 175 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022. He later raised this target to 450 gigawatts by 2030.
But India has installed less than 100 gigawatts of solar and wind power so far, and most Indian analysts say the target of 175 gigawatts is out of reach this year.
Had India stick to its pledge on renewables, it would not face an energy shortage this spring, according to estimates by New Delhi-based consultancy Climate Risk Horizons. Even on April 29, when Delhi hit 110 degrees – the second-highest temperature for that month in 70 years – and peak electricity demand reached a record level, India could have met the need had it been on track to install 160 gigawatts of power. Ashish Fernandez, chief executive officer of the consultancy, said solar and wind power by the end of the year.
“India’s continued support for coal mining and power plant expansion is concerning,” Fernandez said. “It would be unfortunate if India’s entrenched coal lobby were forcing the government to proceed slowly with its energy transition plans, as analysis shows that any continued coal growth would in fact undermine India’s renewable energy goals and climate commitments.”
International researchers and climate policy officials say how India manages its energy transition is of paramount importance due to its scale and rapid growth. President Joe Biden’s climate representative, John F. Kerry, made frequent visits to New Delhi last year ahead of the COP26 climate conference to urge the Modi government to make more ambitious pledges to cut coal and reduce emissions.
Speaking publicly this month, officials defended their coal policies as necessary to satisfy the nation’s thirst for power. Coal Minister Pralhad Joshi has predicted India’s coal requirements will double by 2040. His deputy, Anil Kumar Jain, said the government was being unfairly blamed – for producing too much and too little – and urged more private companies to do so. Entering the mining business.
“Earlier we were hailed as bad boys because we were touting fossil fuels and now we’re in the news that we’re not getting enough of it,” Jen told reporters.
The country of nearly 1.4 billion people is expected to more than double its demand for electricity by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. By 2050, the agency estimates that India will consume 15 times more energy for cooling than it did in 2018, largely due to the rising number of air conditioners in use. Although India is building renewable energy sources, it still derives 70% of its energy from coal.
Anil Swarup, a former coal minister, said the state-owned Coal India saw its production stagnant from 2019 to 2021, due to the government’s failure to appoint top management and fund its mining expansions. If anything, as he predicted, India will strive to increase production.
“Maybe the current crisis will be managed,” he said. “But I am quite sure that this crisis will reappear if long-term planning is not to increase coal production.”
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