Benjamin Sporton, Chief Executive of the powerful London-based World Coal Association (WCA), urges India to move over to high-efficiency, low-emission coal-fired power plants, and predicts that there is enough room for all sources of energy in the country's rapidly expanding economy.
What do you perceive as the primary challenges before the Indian coal sector?
Primarily, the challenge for India is the fact that it needs affordable, reliable electricity to grow its economy to support bringing people out of poverty. Also, as India emerges as a growing industrialising and urbanising economy, what it needs to make sure is that it continues to rely on coal as the bedrock of its electricity mix, but do that in a way that is sustainable. So, (that would mean) reducing the environmental impact while using coal. That means using modern high-efficiency, low-emission power plants. Building those can mean we get the benefits of using coal, but that we get them whilst also reducing the emissions of CO2 and then reducing non-CO2 emissions like particulate matter and SOx and NOx.
To what extent have your efforts to lobby for the use of clean coal been successful with world governments?
We need to highlight the fact that coal is going to play a very important role in the world energy mix for decades to come. Countries like India are going to rely on coal to power up their economies and we have to make sure that the international community as a whole recognises that fact. People sometimes seem to think that the simple option is to move away from coal. But you can't wish away coal. We need to ensure to use it in a way that is environmentally sustainable. Coal is an affordable, reliable and accessible source of electricity that many developing and emerging economies, and many Western economies still rely on for their power.
Where does India figure in your scheme of things?
The current efficiency of the world's coal fired-power fleet is about 33 per cent, which is the equivalent of all the old inefficient technologies. The basic level of the modern high-efficiency technology is about 40 per cent. If we could move the average efficiency of the world's coal-fired power fleet from that 33 per cent, the 40 per cent average of a high-efficiency plant would be the same globally as removing all of India's CO2 emissions from the mix. That would be the same as running the Kyoto Protocol three times over. It'd be the same as running the EU's emissions ratings scheme for 53 years. That shows the huge environmental and climate benefit that comes from focusing on the role of high-efficiency, low emission power plants just by moving away from the old technology to the high-efficiency technology that would lead to significant reductions in CO2.
But according to certain estimates, by 2040, India would equal the OECD countries in energy production and carbon emissions...
India is an economy that will be growing hugely in the decades to come. And it needs a lot of energy to be able to do that. All sources of energy have a role to play: renewables have a role to play, but from what we have seen and what we look forward to in the projections is that coal is going to play a critical role in that for India. But not India alone, as much of South East Asia and Africa are going to rely on coal. Coal is not going to go away in the developed economies either, as it plays a critical part, providing economic competitiveness. Low-cost electricity is absolutely critical for economic development and competitive economies. You are often going to get that electricity from coal and that's why, from the environmental perspective, we think it's incredibly important to focus on modern high-efficiency, low-emission technology. They are the ones that can deliver both affordable and reliable electricity from coal, but then also reduce emissions at the same time so that we can effectively meet the twin objectives of energy and climate security.
In India, we also have this challenge where people are moving out of poverty. So, one of the big challenges before us is to provide cheap power to an ever-expanding aspirational population.
Exactly! As the economy grows and people come out of poverty - 240 million people in India don't have electricity at all at the moment - and then there is a growing middle class in India that is looking for more services and energy. They want to have televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, and all those appliances that need electricity. And that's why you are going to see a very substantial growth in Indian electricity demand over the decades to come, which is why all sources of electricity are needed. India is an energy hungry country like we are an energy hungry planet, but India really does exemplify that. And as we look at the growing manufacturing sector and middle class in India, I think it's really important that we supply electricity to enable that to happen. That's why all sources are needed, and coal is going to play an important part there. That's why if you need to meet other environmental objectives, we need to be using the right technology.
For someone who was very closely involved with the climate change negotiations at the 2015 UN Climate Change Summit in Paris, what will be their impact on the coal sector in the long-term?
The thing about the Paris Summit and Paris Agreement is that 19 countries identified in their climate plans submitted there that they were going to use coal in the foreseeable future. And, therefore, our priority is to focus on low-emission coal technology. Of the 19 countries that were representing 44 per cent of the world's emissions, India was one of those countries. We need to, therefore, recognise that coal and low-emission coal technologies are part of the Paris Agreement. And now that we are moving towards implementing the Paris Agreement, we need to look at how we can help countries implement their clean power plans. Part of that will be through use of high-efficiency, low emission coal technology.
Where do you see renewables figure in this scheme of things?
In India, you often hear the government talking about the target for 175 gigawatts of new renewable capacity, of which 100 gigawatts is solar. At the same time, India is also looking to add 290 gigawatts of coal. So, to me it's not about coal versus renewables. In a country like India, about everything is needed. So, everything is going to increase. There will be more renewables, coal, nuclear and more of everything. Since it needs power to support its economic development, there's room for everything. You look at the global picture that the International Energy Agency (IEA) has forecast. It has forecast a bigger role for renewables. But it said that the coal sector is going to grow as well.
What about hybrid technologies?
Take Germany for example, which is a country that has deployed a lot of renewables such as wind and solar. They are still using 40 per cent of their electricity mix from coal. The reason for that is renewables have peaks and troughs. They are intermittent technologies. The sun doesn't always shine, the wind doesn't always blow. And the other thing is, renewables don't always provide electricity into the grid of a consistent voltage. So, what you actually need is back-up power generation from the base low type source that will be gas in some countries, nuclear in others and coal in most others to help address the intermittency, and help provide the voltage services and other grid services that come from stable sources of electricity like coal. What you will see in the future is coal continuing to play a role. And, in fact, coal is supporting the advancement of renewable technologies because it provides backup electricity.
- Manish Pant