MAC/20: Mines and Communities

The Weekend Essay (Part One): India's New Coal Geography

Published by MAC on 2020-02-22
Source: Uio (Oslo)

New Infrastructure to Generate Coal Power

A team of diligent researchers has examined closely  the Indian government's intention to advance electrification for the benefit of industry and energy-impoverished citizens, by importing vast amounts of coal to the country's coasts.

This scheme is intended to mesh with existing huge international infrastructural plans but, according to the authors, can only be at the expense of many communities - including some lying outside littoral regions.

Not to mention the horrendous example that "Modified" India is providing to the rest of our climate-threatened world.

[Comment by Nostromo Research]

India's New Coal Geography: A New Infrastructure to Generate Coal-Based Power

Kenneth Bo Nielsen, Brototi Roy, Patrik Oskarsson and Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt —

Uio Senter for utkling og mijo (Oslo)

7  February 2020

While India has become a hotspot for renewable energy investments, a new
Indian coal geography has also emerged since the early 2000s. Its
materialisation promises to lock India into continued reliance on coal for
the foreseeable future, with a concomitant rise in carbon emissions. In
part one of this two-part series, we look at the big picture of India’s
new coal geography and its impact.

In India, coal is the resource that more than any other shapes the
nation’s political economy and ecology. Not only does coal transform
communities and landscapes, and rearrange social relations in the
coalfields, along transport routes, and in Indian mega cities, it is also
fundamental to India’s national and global relations by shaping the
balance of trade, energy security and climate policies. While other forms
of energy, especially solar power, is gaining ground, it is clear that
India will remain heavily dependent on coal in the foreseeable future.
While this will have a negative climate change impact in its own right, it
also severely hampers the prospects for low-carbon transitions in the
short and medium term.

Coal is available in India in large quantities close to the surface. It
remains the main source of electrical energy to this day and its use has
expanded dramatically in recent decades. Yet electrical energy supply has
suffered from chronic shortages that amount to a veritable national
crisis. While domestic coal and other forms of energy have thus expanded,
a new and hitherto unmapped coal geography has been put in place alongside
the old one. This new coal geography relies on imported coal from
Indonesia, South Africa and other countries, to power private sector
plants in new locations along the coastline. We refer to this new coal
power as India’s new coal geography as it operates in parallel to the old
geography of coal.

India’s old coal geography

Coal in India has a long history, with the first mine starting during
colonial times in Raniganj in 1774 in Bengal. With the setting up of the
National Coal Development Corporation (Coal India) in 1956, the process of
nationalization of coal began.

In the coal supply and power generation system which we term India’s old
coal geography, Coal India would extract coal in the central and eastern
parts of the country, and transport it via heavy-duty links by the Indian
Railways to the main cities of the North, West and South. Here it was used
in power plants operated by the National Thermal Power Corporation, or one
of the many state electricity boards around the country. The old coal
geography overwhelmingly relied on public sector investment and governance
and was able to expand steadily over decades. Yet in spite of its vast
scale and substantial policy support, neither coal production nor thermal
power generation kept pace with electricity demand. The old coal geography
persistently struggled to serve all consumers, to remain financially
viable, and to provide environmental and social safeguards. By the 2000s,
the struggling old coal geography had entered into a prolonged state of
crisis as the gap between demand and supply escalated dramatically. Other
forms of electricity production did not contribute enough, and so a
discourse of a “national energy crisis” emerged and took hold, driven by
the evident inability to supply electricity in line with developmental
targets, and by the critiques and aspirations of key pressure groups.

The new coal geography

In response to these churnings, a new coal geography has emerged over the
past two decades to complement the domestic, public coal power sector. The
new coal geography signals a policy shift back towards private sector
dominance as in the colonial period, through the state’s slow but steady
economic reforms over decades. These were followed by a more direct
opening up of the sector, first to domestic firms and, in 2019, to
international investors. The new coal geography is coastal, anchored in
areas away from the expensive land of metropolitan areas, but also at a
distance from those rural areas where the acquisition of agricultural and
forestlands has been hugely controversial in recent years. An important
technique in establishing the ports, transport infrastructure and power
plants of the new coal geography has therefore been to identify
government-owned lands such as swamps, riverbeds or other officially
unused spaces. This well-known technique is discussed in both the global
and Indian land grabbing literature, where lands are rendered ‘vacant’ in
order to make new investments possible.

In addition to effecting dramatic rearrangements of coastal land use, the
new coal geography marks a major departure from the well-established
trajectory of Indian development planning rooted in resource nationalism
in other ways too. It relies crucially on private actors and imported
coal. Indeed, thermal coal imported for power production is an entirely
new phenomenon. Before 2002, there is not even data on imported thermal
coal as a separate category in available statistics. The latest figure
from 2018-2019 shows import of 150 million tons. Using available
statistics from 2007-2008 as a baseline, this amounts to an increase in
imports of thermal coal of a whopping 1,400 percent in just over a decade.
As far as we know, imported coal has been used to fuel the 29 large-scale
thermal power plants that have been built along the coastline since the
early 2000s, although some has also been used for industrial purposes.

The key requirement for the new coal geography is precisely this
possibility to flexibly import coal from Indonesia, South Africa and other
locations, possibly in combination with domestic coal if and when this
becomes available at a lower cost. Coal procured from these countries is
shipped to newly constructed ports under private ownership. From here, the
imported coal requires new transport solutions to take it to the newly
constructed thermal power plants that are similarly under private
ownership. Long distance high voltage transmission lines to the main
cities and industrial zones complete the new coal geography.

In the below figure [not included] we have mapped the Indian side of the new coal
geography. The newly built thermal power infrastructure along the
coastline has been identified using documents from the national
government, and then verified visually on satellite imagery and in news

While private sector investment thus dominate across ports, plants and
transport and transmission infrastructure, the state still plays a key
role in ensuring long-term electricity prices sufficient to pay for the
loans taken by private actors to make the large investments. The state
also seeks to cushion private actors from price variations in the
international market.

Global connections, localised impacts

The new coal geography is enabled by a set of new technological and
infrastructural solutions. Global coal shipments is one such obvious
infrastructural solution together with the use of imported, mainly
Chinese, power-production technologies. Long distance electricity
transmission via high-tension wires ensure that the new power plants can
be located close to the new ports on coastal lands rather than next to the
consumers. When major coal infrastructures are put in place in such
coastal areas, they are transformed from being marginal to being a ‘hub’
in the national energy infrastructure. Because officially vacant lands are
rarely vacant in practice, the new coal infrastructure brings new groups
of people into direct proximity with coal. This includes particularly
fisher folk, but also agriculturalists and in some places even the tourist
establishments, in ways that have not occurred historically. The
integration of coastal lands into the new coal infrastructure has
therefore been heavily contested. A case in point is the hugely
controversial Sompeta thermal power plant in the state of Andhra Pradesh
where the officially vacant wetland identified for the plant was not only
used by poor fishing communities, but also functioned as a flood
protection mechanism for nearby farmers.

The new coal geography has considerable implications for both India’s
international relations and domestic energy security and low-carbon
transitions. While long-term electricity price agreements may offer
stability, the entry into international coal markets with highly
fluctuating prices introduce new uncertainties. In addition to
unpredictable prices, the international coal trade is also faced with
several challenges, including in the main exporting countries. This
includes growing public controversies related to coal mining and exports
in Australia, as well as Indonesian government attempts to use coal
domestically rather than for export. The new coal geography also
introduces new vulnerabilities when energy provision shifts to smaller
private sector entities with little operational experience and reduced
financial strength, who now need to navigate volatile global markets and
unstable coastal locations. Insolvency is a possible outcome, with all
that entails. But perhaps more importantly, it extends and reinforces the
use of coal energy at a time when renewable alternatives are increasingly
feasible and necessary. The immediate consequences of this scenario for
carbon emissions and climate change are evident enough. Another major
challenge in the years to come will be how much of a drain on India’s
resources this new coastal coal geography will be – a geography that not
only causes environmental disruptions in vulnerable coastal locations and
undercuts low-carbon transitions, but which might not even be financially
sound in the long run, given the ongoing solar power boom which now
produces electricity at lower prices.


In part two of this series we look more closely at the transformation of
the small state of Goa into a new coal hub.


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