Select Page

Low Carbon Thermal Power

How long will coal power plants last in India?

As of Jun 2022, India had a total electricity installed capacity of about 403 GW.

210 GW of that was coal-based (includes about 6 GW lignite-based capacity), so a bit over 50% of all power generation capacity in the country was from coal.

That was about capacity. In power generation (which is what really matters), coal's contribution is slightly above 70% of the country's total electricity generation (2020 data, these could be slightly lower in 2022 with solar contributing that extra bit). In fact, outside of South Africa, India had the highest electricity contribution from coal in the world's top 25 countries ranked based on coal-based power generation.

Curse it as much as you wish, but coal is still king. But for how long?

India’s coal power plant fleet has an average capacity-weighted age of 17 years compared to an expected useful life of 40 years, which implies that many of the existing power plants can run at least for a couple of decades, and they could be competitive with renewables for a while (having written off their depreciation costs). But it will be difficult for new coal plants, will have to in addition contend with lower utilisation for longer and compete with lower cost renewables - many of them run the risk of becoming stranded assets. Not surprisingly, the number of plants under construction is falling fast, down 66% in 2019 compared to that for 2015. 

With the government's target of becoming Net Zero by 2070 driving many of its policies and actions, and with coal facing many other headwinds in the form of investor pressure and competition from renewables, how long will coal reign?

Specifically, wll India have coal power plants operating even in 2070, when our country is targeted to achieve Net Zero?

An impulsive answer would be No. If solar prices are falling drastically, if no new coal power plants are being built, and if the average life of coal power plants is about 40-50 years, doesn’t it follow that the country would have run out of coal power plants by 2070, or perhaps even by 2060, with precipitous declines starting from 2050?

A more likely answer is: A limited number of coal power plants could still be in operation by 2070, though their contribution to India’s total electricity production would be a pale shadow of what it is right now.

King Coal’s reign is most likely getting over within a couple of decades, but don’t count him dead for a while to come.

There are reasons why coal power plants in India could linger on even in 2070.

India has vast reserves of coal. Our proven reserves are estimated to be about 150 billion tons; with a further 170 billion tons in inferred & indicated resurces - a possible massive total of 320 billion tons. Given that we use about 1 billion tons of coal a year (an amount that is still growing at about 4% per annum but could start decreasing significantly from 2030), our reserves will conservatively last for well over 100 years! It is going to be mighty difficult for a country to simply sit on such a vast asset and not use it!

Coal power plants provide firm, 24x7 power. Neither of the two main renewable energy sources for Indian electricity - solar and wind - cannot do that. Nuclear can do that, but nuclear has its own challenges to overcome. Natural gas powered plants could be another option, but it generates less than 7% of India’s total electricity, and I don’t see India investing in massive amounts of fossil based thermal power plants, even if their emissions are half of what they are for coal power plants. Sure, one could argue that with cheap, grid scale batteries everywhere, solar and wind could provide all the electricity. But no one knows the ecosystem challenges when we try to use batteries - or any other type of energy storage - on such a massive scale. This has not been done before, folks, and we do not know if this can completely take over firm sources of power.

Society matters too - India’s coal industry employs a massive number of people. The entire coal value chain - from mining to power generation, transmission and distribution, employs over 1.2 million people, and indirectly impacts about 20 million. Entire regions in India are completely dependent on coal for their very economic survival. Will the state and central governments be willing to  completely leave these parts of the society in limbo? Will fifty years be enough to get a complete transition of this large, vulnerable section of the Indian society into alternate, safe zones?

When I was a kid, I used to think future was something a long time away - perhaps a hundred years or more. This shortened to about fifty by the time I was in college. In today's dynamic world, anything beyond the next release from Netflix could be considered future.

Fifty years is thus a very long time into the future to predict anything with any degree of confidence. But if were on a time machine and press the button ""48 years forward," I have a feeling I might get a glimpse of a few coal plants whimpering away in India - close to oblivion, but not completely erased.

All questions at ASK Narsi