Sustainable Clean Electricity

Sustainable development of the electricity sector is important. Electricity supply must be compatible with health, nature and the environment. Environmental impact is a growing concern. Electricity generation gives rise to greenhouse gas emissi­ons. This makes it one of the principal causes of climate change. The twenty-first session of the Conference of the Parties (COP) serving as the meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol (CMP11) took place from 30-11-2015 to 11-12-2015, in Paris, France. On 12-12-2015, the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN-FCCC) adopted the Paris Agreement by decision 1/CP.21. The agreement presents a balanced outcome with an action plan to limit global warming “well below” 2°C. The COP invited parties to communicate their first nationally determined contribution (NDC). India ratified its contribution on 2-10-2016. India’s NDC inter alia includes a commitment to achieve about 40 per cent cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel based energy resources by 2030 with the help of transfer of technology and low cost international finance including from Green Climate Fund (GCF). Owing to the agreement, India has to reduce its carbon emission intensity i.e. the emission per unit of GDP, by 33-35% from what it was in 2005, by 2030. The aim is to produce 40% of the total electricity from sources other than fossil fuels. This would mean India will have to shift significantly from coal-based power generation to renewable energy sources.

Attitude to coal

India’s electricity sector is dominated by an over-reliance on coal-fired power generation. The coal burned to generate electricity produces carbon dioxide which contributes to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere and is a major source of anthropogenic global warming and climate change. Main emissions from coal-based thermal power plants are CO2, NOx, SOx, and air-borne inorganic particles such as fly ash, carbonaceous material (soot), suspended particulate matter (SPM), and other trace gas species.

The combustion process of the pulverised coal in the boiler is a complicated non-linear phenomenon. Emissions from thermal power plants are influenced by many factors. CO2 and SO2 emissions are affected by the chemical composition particularly carbon and sulfur content of coal. The pollutants emitted from thermal power plants depend largely upon the characteristics of the fuel burned, temperature of the furnace, actual air used, and any additional devices to control the emissions.

India does not have even a single ultra-supercritical (USC) power plant, classified as high-efficiency, low emissions technology (HELE) power plants by the international coal industry lobby group. The coal-fired power plants in India largely use older, more polluting technologies. On the contrary, India has committed itself with new emissions limits. In October 2017, it was reported that 89% of India’s entire thermal generation fleet is in breach of the pending emissions limits. At present, the control devices used in thermal power plants in India is electrostatic precipitator (ESP) to control the emission of fly ash (SPM). Clean energy target which allowed coal in the mix has not served the desired objective.

There is a need to modernise India’s thermal power plants and reduce the coal usage per unit of electricity generation (kg/kWh). Modernisation with a reduction in coal usage (kg/kWh) will help in reducing the national emissions. In the Indian scenario, an ash tax can be considered the best policy instrument along with an emission tax to induce the power plants to adopt the cost-efficient technology.

India has to move toward emissions control in line with the world’s best practice. Use of modern USC technology could justify the construction and investment in new coal-fired power plants in India. Coal-based power generation has the potential for mitigation by the implementation of Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects, which includes clean coal technologies. Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) is an advanced technology that represents the cleanest of currently available coal technology for higher efficiency and lower emissions. Circulating fluidised bed technology has been overtaking other combustion technologies. The development has allowed achievement of higher efficiency levels while reducing emissions and increasing fuel flexibility, which is the key element for environmental conditions.

India’s draft National Electricity Plan (NEP), released in December 2016, covers the next two five-year periods to 2027, and concludes that beyond the half-built plants already under construction, India does not require any new coal-fired power stations over this period.

Role of nuclear power

The role of nuclear power (NP) in a strategy for cleaner production and sustainable development is that nuclear energy does not release carbon dioxide and is cleaner. Moreover, it has lower greenhouse emissions. Fission-based nuclear power has historically been one of the largest contributors of carbon-free electricity. Their potential to contribute to power sector decarbonisation is significant. A big problem is cost. The construction of large nuclear power plants requires a lot of money to ensure safety and reliability. Public acceptance also remains an obstacle to development. However, NP could replace coal-fueled power stations as they age and are phased out as well as adding new generating capacity at least until carbon sequestration proves economical on a large scale. Cap and trade for CO2 emissions, a carbon tax, or required CO2 sequestration could all help make conversions of coal-fired plants to NP commercially attractive. Continuing technology progress is achieved in nuclear energy systems through evolutionary approaches.

Renewable electricity supply

In India solar power is starting to displace coal as an energy source. India has among the best conditions in the world to capture and use solar energy. The Government is setting ambitious targets for enhancing wind and solar power by 2022. Solar and wind are gaining market share because they are cost competitive. It is predicted that renewable energy would deliver 40% of India’s energy supply by 2030, enabling strong economic growth whilst lowering India’s carbon emissions. In July 2017, India regained the mantle, at least temporarily, of having world’s biggest single site solar plant, with 1 GW commissioned in Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh. Adani Green Energy has signed a MoU with the Rajasthan State Government for the development of a single industrial park with land and grid capacity for 10 GW of solar projects. By the end of 2018, this industrial park is expected to have more than 2 GW of solar operational, making it the largest solar project under development in the world.

India’s draft national energy policy looks at the country’s energy needs through 2040, based on a report and roadmap released in July 2017 by NITI Aayog, the Indian Government’s in-house think tank. That report focuses on renewable energy and clean cooking coverage by 2022. Government of India has announced an exceptionally ambitious plan to double installed capacity over the coming decade and to do so primarily through an accelerated deployment of renewable energy.

Harnessing renewable energy such as wind and solar is an appropriate first consideration in sustainable development, because apart from constructing the plant, there is no depletion of mineral resources and no direct air or water pollution. But harnessing these “free” sources cannot be the only option. Renewable sources notably the wind and solar are diffuse, intermittent, and unreliable by nature of their occurrence. These sources are not intrinsically suited to meet the demand for continuous, reliable supply of electricity on a large scale.

Hydro additions

Hydropower is often considered a source of renewable electricity because its fuel, water, is constantly replenished by nature. Although capacity has steadily increased, the contribution of hydropower to Indian power generation has been on a declining trend in recent decades, from close to 40% in 1980 to 12% in 2013. To tap into this potential, hydropower projects need to overcome a set of challenges notably extended timelines to procure all the necessary approvals, especially environmental permits, difficulties with land acquisition, public opposition and obtaining long-term finance.

Little is known about emissions from water storage reservoirs. But understanding has evolved rapidly. Researchers initially thought shallow reservoirs were the largest emitters because their stored water was more prone to heating up, which could fuel greenhouse gas production. But studies suggest that the latitude and depth of water are not leading factors. Instead, “biological activities” in a reservoir such as decaying vegetation and nutrient runoff from watersheds upstream are more important indicators of greenhouse gas emissions. Hydroelectricity is not a clean source of power as is often considered. Even though it is a renewable source of energy, the greenhouse gas side of the picture must be kept in mind when making planning and policy decisions.

Geothermal power potential

Increasing environmental problems with coal-based projects; India has to rely on clean and eco-friendly energy sources one of which could be geothermal. This is underused heat and power resource that is clean and emits little or no greenhouse gases. It can be used very effectively in both on and off-grid developments and is especially useful in rural electrification schemes. India has a reasonably good potential for geothermal yet geothermal power projects has not been exploited at all. Mile or more deep wells can be drilled into underground reservoirs to tap steam and very hot water that drive turbines that drive electricity generators. It may be flashed steam, dry steam and binary or hybrid power plants. There are also varieties of engineering techniques used to artificially create hydrothermal resources that can be used to generate electricity. Geological, geochemical, shallow geophysical and shallow drilling data has revealed that India has about 10,000 MWe of geothermal power potential that can be harnessed for various purposes.

Indian surface cover rocks ranging in age from more than 4500 million years. The rocks comprise of Archean, Proterozoic, the marine and continental Palaeozoic, Mesozoic, Tertiary, Quaternary, etc. Geological Survey of India has identified more than 300 hot spring locations. The surface temperature of the hot springs ranges from 35°C to as much as 98°C. Different orogenic regions are — Himalayan geothermal province, Naga-Lushai geothermal province, Andaman-Nicobar Islands geothermal province and non-orogenic regions are — Cambay graben, Son-Narmada-Tapi graben, west coast, Damodar valley, Mahanadi valley, Godavari valley, etc. Geothermal power plants use a renewable resource that is not susceptible to price fluctuations. Geothermal power is the most sustainable option.


The existing electricity supply system is largely based on fossil fuels and nuclear energy is not compatible with sustainable development. In order to meet the two-degree climate target, there is a need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation to virtually zero. Without massive expansion of renewable energy sources, it will not be possible to achieve the two-degree target for limiting global warming. Sustainable development brings better living conditions to a growing world population, greater use of energy; electricity, in particular will be demanded. The electric power industry, therefore, needs a well-balanced combination of energy sources through the appropriate inclusion of appropriate technologies for power generation systems, based on a proper assessment of these power sources in terms of supply stability, economic efficiency and environmental protection. Until a suitable alternative capable of meeting the growing demand for electricity is developed, the vast majority of future electricity demand will need to be met by conventional fuels.


* Harsha Rajwanshi is Assistant Professor of Law, Gujarat National Law University & Faculty Advisor to GUVNL-GNLU Research Fellowship on Energy Law and Policy.

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