World Habitat Day: India's power sector must lead coal phase-out

Even as individuals and communities in India innovate new systems to deliver solar power, use of coal, which is the climate emergency's single greatest driver, continues to increase in the country

Published: Oct 4, 2021 11:24:29 AM IST
Updated: Oct 4, 2021 12:39:11 PM IST

Two 200m (656ft) chimney stacks and a boiler house were demolished at Ferrybridge Coal Power Station in West Yorkshire in August 2021. 

Image: David Autumns / Alamy Stock Photo

Incongruous on the worn stone of a heritage-listed church in Camden, London, solar panels flash, attempt discretion under diffused English sunlight. Nearby, long black sheets catch the sun atop a National Health Practice’s modern brick and glass structure.

On these dissimilar buildings, Power Up North London (PUNL), a voluntary community energy group, installed solar panels to provide clean power for shared community use, raised money through share offers and engaged local people to contribute and participate. “We are in a climate emergency. I have grandchildren, and want to help mitigate what is happening in a small way for their sakes and for all other children and young people,” says Judith Cook who invested in PUNL’s Community Energy Shares.

In our new era of climate action, power delivery systems in the UK are changing irrevocably. Coal, which powered the industrial age and defined the 1800 and 1900s’ industrialising England, taking its colonies including British India alongside, is rapidly being eliminated. In India, however, coal use continues and increases despite climate imperatives to reduce carbon emissions.

Like other community projects all over the world, PUNL’s push to engage community in renewables builds on goals of the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference (CoP26) in the UK and highlights the need for people’s participation to drive sustainable change.

The goals of CoP 26 state “accelerate the phase-out of coal; curtail deforestation; speed up the switch to electric vehicles; encourage investment in renewables”.

In September 2021, Aaditya Thackeray, the environment minister of India’s most industrialised State, Maharashtra, announced the AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation). Ahead of Climate Week NYC 2021, as part of the Global Citizen Live campaign, he showcased Maharashtra’s own goal of 43 net-zero cities, “Joining the Race to Zero campaign is our contribution to the global fight against climate change. We cannot keep emitting carbon,” Thackeray said.

In furtherance of this commitment to net-zero by 2030 as an international ‘Climate 40’ city alongside London and 38 others, Thackeray launched the Mumbai Climate Action Plan (MCAP) in August.

MCAP highlights the energy sector, dominated by coal, as most polluting and stresses Mumbai’s potential for solar power to generate “1,724 MW of solar energy across rooftops of residential, educational, commercial and municipal buildings and industries” and “meet almost half of the city’s total energy demand”.

Despite high solar energy potential, and incentives from the Maharashtra State Government and power companies for its use and buy-back, renewables currently account for just 5 percent, barely denting the predominance of coal. MCAP does not specify any particular action to phase out coal.

In the UK, co-hosted with Italy, Alok Sharma, president-designate of CoP26, showcased reduction of the UK’s coal power from 40 percent in 2012 to 2 percent today and their commitment to eliminate coal completely by 2024. In Yorkshire, heart of the twentieth century’s coal-dependent industry, Sharma pressed the trigger in his hand. Two coal chimneys keeled over in slow motion. “The UK is on the march to consign coal power to history,” Sharm said. Low clouds of black debris engulfed the chimneys as they shattered atop their boiler-house.

In stark contrast, India marked 41 new coal blocks for mining during the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020 under the Central Government’s post-Covid recovery policy of ‘self-reliant India.’ In extracting and burning more coal, the effects of climate change have worsened and accelerated. Bio-diverse forests and fragile ecosystems are destroyed and greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.

“No mission can be successful without people’s participation.” the self-reliant India policy headlined. People, including environmentalists, youth groups, tribal dwellers and politicians across party lines all participated to protest against coal extraction from forests.

Maharashtra Environment Minister Thackeray opposed the Centre’s plan to mine in the vicinity of the Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra. When the project was dropped, he tweeted, “This is welcome news.”

Solar cell panels for solar energy are being installed on the terrace of an office building near Marine Drive in Mumbai 
Image: Shutterstock 

Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament Jairam Ramesh who, as former Union environment minister, defined ‘No-Go’ forests for mining, was vocal in opposing coal blocks nationally. “A doubly disastrous decision from an ecological point of view with terrible public health impacts!”, he tweeted in June 2020.

India’s coal dependence continues to increase even as, aligning with a CoP26 goal to “encourage investment in renewables” the central ministry of New and Renewable Energy highlights that India leads in solar energy production, which has increased 11 times in five years, achieved 5th global position and grid parity.

Efforts to increase solar include Tata Power, one of Mumbai’s largest power companies who offer financial incentives for individual users to generate and use solar power alongside their coal-based grid.

With substantial subsidies, solar power is easily accessible in other parts of Maharashtra too, according to Hashim Moizuddin who has installed solar panels at his home in Alibaug near Mumbai. Moizuddin says they give him a reliable, clean source of energy throughout the day and, used with storage-inverters are adequate for night-time too. “When, after Cyclone Nisarga in 2020, the village didn’t have power for months, we generated our own supply throughout,” he says.

In their concern for the future of our earth and life as we know it, individuals and community groups not only align with CoP26 goals, augment the grid and provide clean energy locally, but they also create awareness, give people a sense of control and motivate others in their circles to do the same.

India’s innovative models, like the Barefoot College, even empower women by training grandmothers to produce and distribute power in villages in places as far away as the Pacific Islands and South America.

Like India, the UK is also experimenting with diverse models of solar and other clean energy production and delivery including institutional, participatory and community models.

Two years before Mumbai’s MCAP, alongside 27 of 33 London boroughs, Islington and Camden Councils declared a state of climate emergency in 2019. To deliver on their commitment to build clean, affordable energy systems that leave none of their residents behind, partnerships with community groups, including PUNL, add much-needed momentum.

In England and Wales, Energy Local, an innovative community group works on demand-based community models through ‘Energy Local Clubs.’ They aim to include the poorest in gaining access to locally generated and affordable, clean power while enabling “households to club together to show when they are using local clean power”.

The thrust of most institutional and community renewable models is to meet the requirements of fixed infrastructure. However, demanding immediate attention from governments and communities is transport, another crucial sector with its own steeply escalating need for power, all set to overtake the pre-existing demands of fixed infrastructure.

A Brookings Institution India report says electric vehicles (EV) will form the most significant energy share in India, even higher than the steel industry. The World Energy Outlook Special Repot for India, 2021, by the IEA, says that energy demand for road transport “is projected to more than double over the next two decades”.

EVs align with another important goal of CoP26, to “speed up the switch to electric vehicles”. India’s national policies aim to replace 30 percent of vehicles with EVs by 2030, and MCAP names EVs as key for greenhouse gas reduction.

Although EVs significantly reduce greenhouse gases across their lifetimes as compared with traditional vehicles in 95 percent of the world, research indicates that exceptions include countries like Poland, which, like India, are dominated by coal-power.

Since parallel policies declared by Union Highways and Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari to build “38 kilometres of national highways per day” also steeply escalate growth numbers of vehicles overall, the challenges of sourcing clean power are multiplied.

Sara de la Serna, who worked for Element Energy, UK, explains that barriers to EVs include cost and charging infrastructure. “The switch from traditional fossil fuel driven vehicles to EVs requires significant market, consumer perception, infrastructure and behavioural changes to be successful,” she says.

Like the UK, EV manufacture in India will also face daunting challenges, and require significant behavioural change and financial investment in infrastructure and manufacturing technologies, including EV-friendly road design, power outlets and incentives to car manufacturers. Together, these represent a significant share of India’s Budget.

Side-by-side investments in EVs and solar power will demonstrate India’s success or failure in achieving their stated aim of lower emissions alongside widespread EV use.

For most countries, action to meet the decision of CoP24 held in 2018 and annexed to the Agenda of CoP26 “to avert, minimize and address loss and damage and reduce disaster risks” is led by time-bound replacement of coal.

“It’s time for countries around the world to set out clear plans to consign coal power to the history books,” says Alok Sharma, surrounded by thick smoke as he watches the two chimneys in Yorkshire crumble and disintegrate, the trigger still in his hand.

“In a year when the UK is hosting the vitally important COP26 climate conference, it is so important that community energy is acknowledged as a key player in the solution to the crisis,” reiterates Kayla Ente, founder of Brighton & Hove Energy Services Cooperative, a social enterprise committed to “people over profits,” and working on a range of solar and battery storage initiatives with local people.

The solar panels on the old Camden church shine bright. They highlight people’s aspirations away from the climate emergency initiated by coal. Across the UK, over 400 community energy groups deliver rooftop solar, LED lighting and retrofit solutions for community and residential buildings. In India, individuals and communities innovate new systems to deliver solar power.

MCAP addresses action points in all major sectors but it headlines the power sector, with 71 percent contribution, as most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. It emphasises that Mumbai faces direct impacts of sea-level rise and would be underwater by 2050 without immediate and effective action. With the rest of India and the rest of the world, Maharashtra is already experiencing increasingly devastating climate events like droughts, cyclones and floods.

Inexplicably under the circumstances, Mumbai, which uses 2300MW, nearly half of Maharashtra’s power already, is escalating investments and infrastructure designed to increase private vehicles rather than investing in public transport. These investments will increase greenhouse gases from traditional vehicles and the EVs which are projected to replace them.

One such project is the Coastal Road, a 22.2-km freeway reclaiming Mumbai’s western coast and destroying mangrove forests, corals and marine ecosystems. “Motorists can directly reach south Mumbai from the other end of the city,” Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray announced in January while inaugurating India’s biggest tunnel boring machine ‘Mavala’ named after infantry warriors of Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji. “We will definitely win the battle of development,” he added.

Referring to recent plans to construct two tunnels under the forests of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park without environmental impact clearances, Anand Pendharkar, director SPROUTS Environment Trust, exclaimed, “Another private vehicle infrastructure costing [Rs] 6000 crores!”

The World Habitat Day theme, with its theme ‘Accelerating urban action for a carbon-free world’ to “amplify the global Race to Zero Campaign”, encourages “local governments to develop actionable zero-carbon plans in the run up to the international climate change summit COP26 in November”.

Ahead of CoP26 and the Climate Week NYC 2021 Maharashtra Environment Minister Aaditya Thackeray reiterated his own stand, “We do not have the luxury of time. Maharashtra will set an example of how subnational governments can act on climate change despite being a massively industrialised state.”

Crossing the Thane Creek Bridge into Mumbai, tapered pylons reach for the sky, inter-connected to each other and to the city of Mumbai in vibrant lines alive with current. The power they supply is Mumbai’s life-blood, whose cleanliness Mumbai depends on absolutely for its health and wellbeing.

Mumbai’s uses half of Maharashtra’s power, and Maharashtra is India’s highest power consumer. By 2030, India will overtake the EU to become the world’s third largest power consumer.

The earth and all its inhabitants face existential threat, a climate emergency, not merely a climate inconvenience. As the fourth-largest greenhouse-gas emitter in the world already, India has potential to make or break the CoP26 aspiration of 1.5 degrees.

The treacherous road towards salvation invites India’s power sector to lead. Coal is the climate emergency’s single greatest driver, from its extraction to its burning. Coal belongs, with British India, in our history books.

(Sumaira Abdulali is the convenor of Awaaz Foundation, Mumbai. Tanuja Pandit is the director of Power Up North London)​

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