India’s energy needs are vast and growing. It is estimated that India’s share of total global primary energy demand will roughly double to over 10% by 2040. Today, its per capita electricity consumption is 1/3rd that of the world average. As the post-pandemic Indian economy resumes its growth, so would be the growth of energy and energy products. At the same time, climate change potentially threatens the world with an existential crisis as global carbon dioxide emissions today stands at over 35 billion tonnes. Continued growth in energy demand requires urgent and well thought out initiatives to prepare India for an affordable, secure, and clean energy future. While the renewables initiative by India has been stellar as it continues to march towards its target of 450GW of renewables by 2030, it can only address a part of the vast everyday energy needs of the country which spans across electricity, transportation, agriculture, chemicals, petrochemicals, cement, and steel.
As the world and India transitions to a low carbon energy future, coal and fossil fuels have largely been relegated to a dirty and unutterable word in the clean and green energy circles of the so called industrialised world. Such a fanatical approach of renewables-only green energy defies the basic principles of science and economics and is a fundamental impediment to realising an affordable, secure, and reliable clean energy future in an accelerated time frame. We must understand that the enemy is carbon dioxide and emissions—not coal or gas or oil or nuclear or solar or wind. More importantly, even if renewables were to replace the majority of the thermal electricity generation, the fact is that electricity generation is about 30%-35% of the total CO2 emissions in the economy. In fact, an equal amount of about 30% of the CO2 emissions come from industrial sources which use some form of carbon to produce everyday materials like steel, cement, and plastics for which we have no substitutes.
The world also does not have renewable energy substitutes with comparable energy densities of “dirty” oil for container ships, airplanes, and heavy transport, that powers our commerce and trade. India must, therefore, adopt a more pragmatic, nuanced, and intelligent approach using a diversified basket of energy sources that can be harnessed in the most economically viable and technologically tenable manner so as to chart the best path to a clean energy future while also meeting the carbon abatement commitments. We must, therefore, leverage our natural energy endowments along with renewables and carbon capture systems so as to adopt a bandwagon-neutral and realistic approach to carbon abatement across all sectors based on science, engineering, and sound economics rather than hyperbole, wishful thinking, and rhetoric.
India does not have oil, it does not have gas, and is largely dependent on imports for its energy needs. India is the third-largest importer of crude and fourth-largest importer of LNG. But India does have coal—large amounts of coal with proven reserves of over 150 BB tonnes. Coal is the cheapest and most affordable form of energy for India and is largely used for power generation today. While power production using coal is its dominant use today, coal can also be gasified to produce clean power, hydrogen, chemicals, petrochemicals, liquid fuels, and steel. The high purity CO2 stream from gasification can be captured and used for oil recovery to increase domestic crude production, sequestered, mineralised, and possibly converted to synthetic fuels and chemicals.
By using a diversified approach to clean energy, we can not only address our climate challenges, but importantly secure India’s energy and industrial future. By substantially substituting imported crude and LNG with clean coal, biomass, and recyclable plastics-based syngas, methanol and other clean energy products, India can build an Atmanirbhar Bharat which is competitive and sustainable. We can convert coal and biomass to clean syngas and hydrogen to run gas-based power plants and heavy transportation. We can use gasification to produce cheap and carbon-free blue hydrogen as a bridge to renewables-based green hydrogen in the future. In fact, given our factor advantages, we can produce internationally competitive clean products like methanol, ammonia, urea, steel, and a vast variety of petrochemicals while substituting crude oil, gas, and coking coal imports.
At the same time, economically viable carbon capture, use, and storage should be an essential and integral part of India’s clean energy framework. We can not only competitively capture carbon dioxide from the future gasification enabled industries, but also use it to produce more oil through enhanced oil recovery (EOR) from our ageing oil fields to further reduce crude imports, while burying the carbon dioxide permanently underground. As the carbon product markets mature and scale, we can use the captured carbon for creating carbon-based products like cured concrete, mineral aggregates, and potentially chemicals. The landmark project on carbon capture based EOR at the Indian Oil Corporation is probably a forerunner of the shape of things to come. An important enabler for the clean energy future which needs attention at the highest levels, is the design and implementation of a robust and progressive policy framework related to carbon capture and credits, clean energy market design, technology transfer and use, and the related regulatory mechanisms.
In shaping our clean energy future, we must also learn from successes and failures of other nations like the U.S., China, and South Africa. With the Biden administration’s commitment to a clean energy future, India has the opportunity to collaborate with the U.S. on assimilating these learnings, and in shaping a technology-enabled clean energy ecosystem for the country. As a trusted member of Biden’s four-nation strategic group known as the Quad, India has the opportunity to collaborate on its energy security needs and also influence the future of energy in the region.
Gasification and renewables, along with carbon capture, conversion, sequestration, and use, hold the key to enable a clean energy future for India. If done right, India has the unique opportunity to enable an affordable, reliable and secure clean energy ecosystem for turbo-charging the nation’s growth for many decades.
Views are personal. The author is President and CEO of Dastur Energy and M.N. Dastur & Co. (P) Ltd.