India needs it all: nation plans a rapid renewables buildout while still sticking to coal

While India’s government, currently holding the G20 presidency, lays out plans for a massive build out of renewables aimed at cutting emissions nearly in half over the next three years, coal still remains the nation’s dominant energy source, and its 72% share is growing. Nevertheless, federal Power Secretary Alok Kumar recently announced plans to surge clean energy production to 90% of electrical generation before mid-century. But as heatwaves blast the nation today and as citizens and industry finds ways to keep cool, electrical demand is surging. India’s solution: more coal power, more fossil fuels and more renewables all at once. L. Micheal Buchsbaum reports.

‘Phasing down’ fossil fuels?

Despite having the world’s fourth largest installed hydroelectricity, wind and solar energy capacity, India has also become the planet’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter.

With a population over 1.4 billion and rising, this fast growing, energy-hungry nation is rapidly accelerating renewable energy growth as it looks to reach net zero by 2070.

Faced with rising demand, India has set a goal of installing 250 gigawatts more of green energy over the next five years.

By 2030, the nation wants to boost the share of non-fossil capacity to 50%, up from 42.6% currently.

But coal still accounts for some 70% of its 412.2 GW power generation capacity and despite rising renewables, this year it could burn 8 percent more coal than last year, according to government data.

Why? Because stronger and more frequent heatwaves (plus colder-than-expected winters in the north of the country) are increasingly torturing the population nationwide.

India experienced more than 200 days of heatwaves in the early summer season of 2022 – five times more than during the same period in 2021.

Caught in a double bind: India is faced with a growing climate emergency worsened by the same fossil fuels backbone officials are relying upon to keep the lights on as air conditioners and other cooling systems across the country exhaust the electricity grid even as government officials in New Delhi order a renewables capacity surge.

In a desperate bid to ensure enough generation capacity, the government has asked utility companies to not retire any more coal-fired plants until 2030. And newly released plans reveal an intention of adding another 28 GW of coal-based capacity by 2031-32.

Simultaneously, the nation, which now holds the 2023 G20 Presidency, has commitments to “phase down” coal and fossil fuels. It also rightly sees that expanding renewables is both a necessary solution to addressing climate change and a way to expand their economy while demonstrating global leadership.

Coal bound

In addition to plans for a major increase in renewables, India’s Central Electricity Authority has also announced an updated ’blueprint’ for its National Electricity Plan (NEP) that will add between 17 GW to 28 GW of coal capacity to the grid, above and beyond the 25 GW of coal power now under-construction.

Despite climate impacts, the NEP cites short-term concerns around grid stability and possible power interruptions and calls for a sharply increased coal burn as power demand rises and is met by potentially fluctuating renewable generation.

New coal power, it says, will also have built in ramping capabilities, compared to the aging and inflexible coal plants that the nation already relies upon for baseload generation.

These new plants plus still developing battery storage options will, they say, provide grid stability against surging renewable power, with its variable intermittencies and fluctuations.

India Power Giant, NTPC orders immediate construction of new coal capacity

State-run NTPC, India’s largest electricity producer, plans to start building more coal plants this year as the country continues to lean on the fuel to meet its growing energy needs.

NTPC, which last year began building coal plants again after a years-long hiatus, expects to place orders for construction of 1.6 gigawatts of coal power plants each at Lara and Singrauli, as well a 1.32 gigawatts at Meja in Uttar Pradesh during the current fiscal year.

The company, India’s largest coal user, aims to boost output from its own mines to 34 million tons this fiscal year, a 48% increase from the previous year.

The heat is already on

Already this April, in the suburb of Navi Mumbai, at least 11 people died and 600 suffered from dehydration and heat stroke during a government-sponsored award ceremony where hundreds of thousands of people ’sat under a scorching sun for over five hours’, the Times of India reported.

Activists attributed the deaths to further government mismanagement as it went against the heat action plan signed onto by each district.

Though climate change is increasing global temperatures and worsening the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events everywhere and for everyone across the planet, deadly heat waves are especially blasting the Indian subcontinent.

According to a study by the Lancet, there has been a 55% increase in heat related deaths in India since 2000. Citing some 20,000 annual heat-related deaths in adults over 65 annually between 2000 and 2004, that number has spiked to over 31,000 deaths annually between 2017 and 2021.

Last year, temperatures as high as 49.2°C (121 degrees Fahrenheit) baked the capital of Delhi, causing widespread human suffering nationwide, killing a still-unknown number and devastating wheat and other crops, further immiserating the population.

The Indian Meteorological Department predicts this year’s intense April-June season will blast most of the country outside the southernmost states.

A vast region — home to more than 350 million people — might endure 10 more days of heatwave than in previous years, says the department’s latest outlook.

This hotter-than-usual weather raises the risk of more strain on the nation’s fragile and overstretched power network as millions turn to air conditioning as a reprieve against heat.

With the power ministry predicting peak electricity demand will hit new records, touching 230 GW, up from 216 GW last year, the government has ordered power generators to import more coal as domestic miners might not be able to bring enough out of the ground and ship it in time to feed plant boilers 24-7.

Neither does New Delhi believe growing levels of renewable generation nor existing hydro-electrical capacity will be sufficient to keep up with spiking demand.

A strengthened case for a rapid solar build out

As the subcontinent heats up further, peak demand is happening both earlier in the year and earlier in the day: shifting from September in 2019 to April last year; and from 8 pm in 2019 to between 2 and 3 pm in the afternoon in 2022.

On a technical level, this shift indicates that a swift and robust solar expansion could cover the gap. And that’s exactly what Indian energy regulators and developers are planning, as we’ll review in the next part of these series.

The views and opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung European Union.



L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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