Washing Coal Could Save Lives in India

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ImageCoal has been a mainstay of Indian energy. It accounts for 63% of India’s energy consumption, and demand is set to grow dramatically over the coming decades. Coal use for electricity generation is projected to grow 2% every year, almost doubling its share of India’s generating capacity by 2030. According to the International Energy Agency, India is likely to become the second-largest consumer of coal, surpassing the United States in the next five years.

Because coal is both cheap and abundant domestically, it may seem like the perfect solution to India’s energy and electricity woes. However, using coal comes with severe health, environmental, and economic effects. As quality of life improves for most Indians on one hand from economic progress, many could be subject to the vagaries of this dirty pollutant. Also, as the world moves closer to a consensus on climate change, using coal at this growing rate may become untenable.

Two recent studies shed light on the huge environmental damage that is done by coal-fired power plants in India. Professor Maureen Cropper and her co-authors at the University of Maryland estimated premature cardiopulmonary deaths associated with air emissions from 89 power plants from all over India. Last week, Professor Cropper presented their analysis in a World Bank seminar. Their study attributes on average 650 deaths per plant per year to directly emitted sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions from coal plants.

Another recent study published by Greenpeace and authored by Sarath Guttikunda and Puja Jawahar presents more dramatic results than the Cropper study. It suggests that in 2011-2012, emissions from Indian coal plants resulted in 80,000 to 115,000 premature deaths and more than 20 million asthma cases from exposure to particulate pollution with an associated cost of $3.3 billion to $4.6 billion.

Even though complex methodological issues are involved, the conclusions of the studies are indeed worrisome, given that 455 new coal power plants are being planned in India, more than four times the number that exist now.

Part of the problem is that Indian coal is of low-quality, with high ash content and low calorific value, which puts consumption of coal per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated higher than that in countries like United States and China. The other part is the lack of regulation. Currently there are no controls for pollutants such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide from power plants, which is shocking given that coal-based power accounts for more than 60% of electricity generated. Without standards, there is no incentive for power plants to reduce emissions to meet them.

Both the Cropper and Greenpeace studies, however, stress that there are a number of low-cost options available that could significantly reduce emissions from power plants and thereby save a number of lives. According to the Greenpeace study, mandating procedures like flue-gas desulfurization (FGD) could take care of about 30% of the particulate pollution from the coal-fired power plants in the form of sulfates. While use of FGD technology will be determined to a large extent by the cost of scrubbers and on-plant location, Cropper's study suggests a much simpler solution of washing coal.

The coal washing process, which is usually used for of removal of contaminants, also comes with tremendous environmental and health benefits. It not only reduces the ash content of coal, but also improves its heating value and removes small amounts of other substances, such as sulfur and hazardous air pollutants. It also has health benefits due mainly to the lower quantity of coal burned per energy generated as well as to small reductions in the sulfur content of coal burned. Cropper's study in fact estimates that washing coal could reduce the number of deaths by 20% per power plant. Currently only 4% of coal in India is washed, and this offers an immediate opportunity to reduce environmental and health damage from coal-fired power plants pending more stringent standards and their enforcement.

This blog post is also available in French and Arabic.


Muthukumara Mani

Lead Environmental and Climate Change Economist

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