Sweltering India Turns to Superheating Coal for Cooling

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CLIMATEWIRE | India has experienced a series of unusually early and prolonged heat waves this year. The country relied on the most powerful fuel to cool down.

Coal generation is surging to meet the demands of cooling systems like fans and some air conditioning, prompting a scramble by the Indian government to reopen mines and secure tons of coal imports to produce electricity as temperatures reach as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The problem is also caused by the carbon-intense fuel. Scientists believe that heat waves are becoming more severe and frequent as the planet warms.

The dynamic highlights the dangers of relying upon energy sources that push the limits of human livability. This also highlights the challenges of switching to less-polluting electric power, especially when large amounts of power and green design are required to keep people cool in extremely hot temperatures, according Indian climate advocates.

This highlights the inequalities that have hindered climate efforts over the past decades, with poorer countries claiming they are feeling the effects of global warming caused by richer nations.

“We need to provide them cooling today because today’s warming is on account of what the West has done over the last 150 years, which means that if the only option to give them cooling right now is through the use of air conditioners and fans that run on electricity that unfortunately has to be provided from coal, so be it, because this is here and now danger,” said Karthik Ganesan, a fellow and director of research coordination at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water in New Delhi.

It’s not just a challenge India faces.

Neighboring Pakistan has also been affected by the blistering temperatures. It has also turned to coal to meet its energy requirements, as the liquefied natural gases markets are being strained by the war on Europe. To replace their South African shipments, some Pakistani companies have started importing coal from Afghanistan to supplement their shipments to Europe.

India is a nation with 1.3 billion inhabitants and is the second largest market for coal in the entire world, behind China. It is also feeling the effects of a warming planet.

This March was the warmest in the 122 years that the India Meteorological Department has kept temperature data. A recent analysis by World Weather Attribution, an international collaboration of scientists, found that climate change has made early season heat waves 30 times more likely in Southeast Asia.

Coal now, renewables later

The blazing heat has driven electricity demand skyrocketing. India recorded a daily demand record on April 29, according to the national grid operator, a day when roughly 70 percent of the country was subject to blistering temperatures. Peak energy demand in April was 5 percent above 2021 levels.

As electricity demand has climbed, so has its reliance on coal, which provides about 70 percent of India’s electricity. According to Carbon Monitor, an academic emissions tracking program, India’s power sector emitted 1.7 percent more, or 5.9 millions tons, in the first three months of this year.

At the same time, India has set an ambitious target of 450 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2030, with clean energy sources set to account for half of India’s electricity mix. At the global climate talks last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed India to achieving climate neutrality by 2070.

Realizing these goals will be difficult. India added more than 15 gigawatts of wind and solar power last year, bringing its total capacity to roughly 95 GW, according to Climate Risk Horizons, which analyzes the climate change risks to India’s economy. That is well short of a target set in 2016 to reach 175 GW of renewable energy by the end of this year.

“It’s merely demonstrating that renewable energy, especially solar power, is the only source of energy we have if we want to truly be energy independent,” said Ulka Kelkar (director of the climate program at World Resources Institute India).

She views the current crisis as a temporary crunch. She said that the long-term commitment to renewable energy investments is what’s needed, especially in solar power.

” Both of these can coexist: You can be very dependent on coal because it’s all you currently have, but you could also have this great push towards increasing renewables as quickly as possible,” Kelkar stated.

Coal leads the global carbon dioxide emissions. India’s coal consumption is rising, despite its decline in the U.S. and Europe over recent years. Emissions associated with Indian coal use grew by nearly 15 percent, to 1.8 gigatons, in 2021, accounting for the vast majority of the 12.6 percent increase in total Indian CO2 emissions for the year, according to the Global Carbon Project.

But India’s increase in emissions pales in comparison with those in Western countries. India’s per capita emissions are also far lower than those of richer countries. U.S. emissions, for instance, were up by 7.6 percent in 2021. Emissions from American oil consumption were responsible for 2.2 gigatons and natural gas for another 1.6 gigatons. In the first quarter of 2022, U.S. emissions grew by 52 million tons over the same time last year, according to Carbon Monitor. Total Indian emissions, by comparison, increased by 18 million tons.

While India’s emissions have increased over the past few years, they still remain low by global standards, according to Anu Ramaswami (an environmental engineer at Princeton University who studies India’s urban infrastructure).

“So connecting India’s specific coal use substantially with the rising temperature is not that easy,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Colliding causes

India’s current position is due to a combination of many factors. In recent years, India has been trying to eliminate coal imports and replace them with domestic resources. However, power producers have not been able to maintain sufficient coal stocks due to a lack in cash flow.

Power producers are required to maintain enough coal stock to cover 24 days of output, but most have only enough to cover nine to 10 days, said Vibhuti Garg, an energy economist and India lead at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

Stockpile bottlenecks have led to the government pushing state-owned Coal India to build their own rail infrastructure.

Garg stated that supply chain logistics have been a greater problem than low coal stocks. The government believes coal will continue to be important with growing energy demand and economic growth. Earlier this month, the government said it will reopen more than 100 old coal mines to boost domestic supplies, according to Reuters.

Even with a target of net zero by 2070, India’s emissions are still headed upward. A report last year by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) asserts that coal-based power generation must peak by 2040 if India hopes to be carbon neutral by 2070. Ganesan, CEEW’s research director, stated that the government must have a clear plan on how it will get there.

Some experts in energy say India must take steps to improve energy efficiency, regulations governing utilities, and invest in battery storage to allow renewables to grow more quickly.

” This does not affect any of India’s climate obligations or, for that reason, what we will achieve in the coming decades,” Ganesan stated.

India relies on coal to survive heat waves in the early seasons. Europe is also dependent on LNG to heat homes next winter. Morgan Bazilian, director of Payne Institute at Colorado School of Mines, said that India is not different from Europe. He said that both countries are prioritizing their short-term needs over their climate goals.

If there is a silver lining to climate change, it’s the fact that energy security tends be a compelling political argument to install renewables, Bazilian stated.

” The reason renewables are so viable today has almost nothing in common with climate change. He said that it has everything to do price. It’s cheaper.” It’s cheaper.”

But climate-hawks would be wise to concentrate on meeting cooling demand first, and then supplying clean energy later, he said.

” “Obviously, the climate’s changing and it will manifest itself as higher cooling demand in that area of the world,” Bazilian stated. “Air conditioning is a human rights, at least in the same manner as electricity services. It’s not possible to say that we want to keep people warm to reduce the climate’s electricity demand. You have to think about it differently.”

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from P

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