Cleaning up coal

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Green coal : A gasification plant in the United States. Clean Coal Limited has plans to work with Coal India
Green coal : A gasification plant in the United States. Clean Coal Limited has plans to work with Coal India Photo: Semens AG Pressebilder/ Press Pitcures

WITH HEIGHTENED concern for global warming at last taking centrestage — unlike his predecessor, George Bush, US President Barack Obama agrees the issue needs immediate tackling — all major world economies are obliged to look for environmentally sustainable ways of energy sources to meet growing demand. India and China, now the world’s biggest emitters of the greenhouse gases that account for a quarter of coal-combustion related global emission, need to be proactive in containing their emission levels. This means making their energy sector both clean and green.

It’s not an easy task. Current energy consumption levels in India are heavily dependent on conventional coal mining, making it the most important energy source in India. About 70 percent of total electricity generation in India uses coal. It is also the most carbon-intensive fuel. The sector, therefore, continues to bear the blame for the maximum emission of greenhouse gases and for polluting water under and over the surface.

While it is hard to replace the need for coal, it is possible to develop and promote alternative technologies to produce cleaner fuel from the abundant coal deposits in the country. A good beginning is already on the cards, with power sector reform initiating the new paradigm of extracting fuel in ways other than conventional coal mining. A US firm specialising in technical expertise and management of an alternative coal extraction process — Underground Gasification of Coal (UCG) — has now proposed a pilot project in Jharkhand.

Negotiations between a set of companies under the banner Clean Coal Resources (CCR) and the Jharkhand Government are set to start soon after the Lok Sabha elections are over. The two parties will be looking to work out the operational details of the proposed project and a possible collaboration with the public sector, Coal India Limited, or its subsidiaries.

UCG is an alternative technology for producing synthesis gas, or syngas. It exploits deep coal deposits that cannot be extracted by conventional coal mining techniques — by drilling holes, namely ‘injection’ wells and a ‘production’ well. The former is used to send oxygen steam to facilitate the combustion of coal deep beneath the surface, It leads to an exhaust of mixed gas composition, which comes out of the production well and is processed into syngas, which is further stored or channelled through pipelines. Graham Chapman, CEO of Clean Coal Ltd, strategic alliance partner of CCR, says: “We have identified our target countries by assessing the prevalence of coal resources that are difficult to mine and a requirement for power, which India meets.”

After negotiating a workable project and successful testing of the pilot phase, CCR will move to commercial installation, generating enough syngas for supporting gas-fired power plants generating 300- 400MW of electricity. An estimated 46 percent of the coal deposits in India are concentrated in the Damodar river basin in Jharkhand, making it an attractive location for such an initiative. The state also offers a commercially viable market for syngas because it has many coal-fired power plants in the same belt.

A big advantage of the UCG technology is that conventional mining can continue at shallower deposits, while UCG can be applied to deeper portions of the same field. UCG was originally a development in the oil and natural gas industry for the production of synthetic natural gas. The technique has been incorporated in the research and development phase by Indian energy firms like Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) and Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC). Major breakthroughs in coal gasification techniques have proved that it’s a viable alternative technology.

THE ICING on the cake is that it’s greener in every way than both opencast and underground coal mining. UCG pilot projects have shown positive results with 95 percent recovery of coal resource, more than 75 percent energy recovery, and a consistent calorific value of syngas. Even better for environmentalists, even in the process of commercial testing, no groundwater or surface contamination has been reported. Explaining the hazards of conventional mining in Jharkhand, onsite environmental researcher Nitish Priyadarshi quotes in a study: “Exploi – tation of coal by underground and opencast mining has lead to a great environmental threat in this area. Besides mining, coal-based industries like coal washeries, coke oven plants, coal fired thermal power plants, steel plants and other related industries in the region also greatly impart towards degradation of the environmental quality, vis-a-vis human health.”

Seventy percent of electricity in India is from coal, the most carbon-intensive fuel

The presence of abundant deposits of coal and low mining cost has made non- OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries highly dependent on coal as the main source of energy for generation of electricity. India has about 51.8 billion tons of estimated available coal reserves for UCG, which make this alternative technology investment in India commercially attractive in the long term. Surveys have been carried out and a pilot plant is under construction by an ONGC-state consortium in Gujarat. As a part of the Indian alternative energy policy, an Indo-Australian collaboration in UCG was announced in January 2009 and coal blocks in India are being allotted for UCG pilot and commercial projects to foreign and Indian companies.

After multiple phases of R&D in UCG, other countries too, such as Australia, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, China and Mongolia, are now moving on to commercial installations of pilot projects. Uzbekistan has a successful running UCG coal-fired Angren power plant operating a dedicated 100MW steam turbine.

Coal gasification is greener in every way than open cast and underground mining

In India’s specific case, although its coal deposits have low calorific value, the country’s dependence on coal as fuel has been increasing rapidly in the last decade. Conventional coal mining has therefore come under severe strain. The effect of coal mining in terms of environmental degradation and health issues among both residents and the workforce in coal mining areas has been severe. Almost half a million people (mostly unskilled labour) work in this sector, and it produces approximately 500 million tons of coal per year.

In a time like the current global recession, it is essential that India promotes investment in the green sector to bolster growth and create stronger ties with the developed world. But it is also a fact that the government has allowed 100 percent foreign direct investment in the power and the mining sector in India. In such a situation, what will be important is how the government regulates the revenue generated out of large-scale foreign investment in the sector. A policy shift in energy, towards cleaner fuels, or towards cleaner use of fuels such as coal, will certainly help temper the environmental impact — both within the country and on the planet.

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