Saturday, April 26, 2008

Can a Coal Power Plant Ever be Good?

Note: I wrote this essay for the Breakthrough Institute Blog. This first appeared here. The Breakthrough Institute, founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, is a progressive think tank focusing on environmental issues.

Recently, plans for a new "Ultra Mega" 4,000MW coal fired power plant in India has come in for much criticism from environmentalists. Writing on, environmentalist Nathan Wyeth has called this a "monument to a failed approach". According to him,
Investing in coal generation and plugging it into an unreliable grid (rather than building renewables close to consumers or fixing the grid) has the effect of - get ready for this - spurring the construction of small-scale fossil fuel generation on the other end, which is ... incredibly dirty.
In my opinion, Wyeth's analysis is flawed. It does not take into consideration how, and for what purpose, small-scale fossil fuel generation is widely used in India. Let me give you a real-life example.

The company I work for has a software development center in Pune, India, which I occasionally visit. It is a large modern office building, in many ways better than our office here in Silicon Valley, California. However, there is one problem: power cuts. In order to deal with these, our company has installed back-up diesel generators - generators powerful enough to operate the air-conditioning system, the elevators, the lights, the computers, etc. While I was there, power cuts would occur approximately every other day for a couple of hours. The diesel generators would immediately swing into action, providing uninterrupted electric supply, but also spewing out huge quantities of thick black smoke into the city air.

This is surely the worst possible way to generate electricity. It is much worse than a large modern coal power plant, not only in terms of CO2 but even in terms of sheer "pollution" - the odor, the particulate emission, etc. As in my company, the most common reason for installing small-scale diesel generators in India is the need to have a back-up power supply. These diesel generators are expensive to operate, and are used only when absolutely necessary. How long they operate (and how much dirty emissions they produce) therefore corresponds directly to the deficit between the electricity demand and the (grid) supply. If a new power plant - even a coal fired one - can reduce the usage of these small-scale power generators, it will likely reduce carbon emissions overall for a given electricity demand.

Of course, the problems with the electricity grid in India are part of a larger problem of underdeveloped infrastructure - something we take for granted here in the U.S. Governance and administration at local levels have failed to provide adequate utilities and public services, such as electricity distribution, water, maintenance of roads and public transport, etc. There is certainly a very real need for investments in improving the electricity grid in India. However, it would be foolish to take the position that India should not build any new electricity generation capacity until all the flaws in the electricity grid are completely ironed out.

Whatever problems there are in the electricity grid, these problems are equally applicable to some forms renewable energy as well. Wind power is making headway in India, and one of the world's largest wind power companies, Suzlon Energy, is an Indian one. But wind power also needs the grid to deliver electricity to consumers since wind farms tend to be located far from population centers.

The grid losses that Wyeth cites are not as bad as they appear at first glance. True, the statistics on grid losses in India are staggering. However, it is not that all this electricity is somehow vanishing into thin air. The bulk of these losses come from people actually utilizing the electricity and not paying for it. Sometimes, this is done by unscrupulous individuals. However, in many cases, this "lost" electricity is put to perfectly good use. For example, many people living in shanty-towns in India do not have formal electricity connections. Local politicians eager to keep voters happy sometimes arrange for informal electricity connections. This electricity is counted as a "loss" in all the statistics, but is actually put to good use. No doubt, this is far from an ideal arrangement, and cannot substitute for proper commercial arrangements - but it goes to show that not all grid losses should be seen as equally wasteful.

Moving forward, it is clear that the Indian electricity grid needs to be dramatically improved. What is also clear that with a growing population and a growing economy, the legitimate demand for electricity is going to grow by leaps and bounds, and all that new electricity generation capacity has to come from somewhere. The question is: what technologies should be used? I would rank energy generation technologies in order of preference as follows:

1. Renewables (wind, solar, etc.)
2. Clean non-renewables (nuclear)
3. Moderately dirty but efficient fossil fuel power plants (e.g., coal-fired plants like the Tata Ultra Mega plant)
4. Small scale inefficient and extremely dirty generators powered by diesel or other fossil fuels.

Ideally I would like all electricity to be generated by renewables (who wouldn't?). But as we all know, this is not commercially viable today. Insofar as a coal-fired power plant replaces forms of power generation that are far dirtier, like diesel generators, and make electricity available to people without electricity, a relatively efficient coal-fired power plant, such as the Tata Ultra Mega plant, should be seen as a good thing.


Blogger Siddhartha Shome said...

There are some interesting (and long) comments on this post at the Breakthrough Blog. Click here to see these comments.

April 26, 2008 11:50 AM  

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