Sivasubramanian Natarajan, Managing Director, Thyssenkrupp Industries India
Indian cities suffer from one of the highest pollution levels in the world in regards to air quality. In fact, during the recent Diwali festivities, Delhi breathed in air polluted with particulate matter of up to 14 to 16 times the safe limits.
A recent study revealed that deteriorating air quality is responsible for nearly a third of all cases related to stroke and vast majority of other medical ailments across India.
One of the primary reasons for deteriorating air quality or increased pollution levels is the wide usage of thermal or coal-based energy to meet the growing electricity demands of India´s high growth economy.
If anyone claims that thermal or coal-based energy production is eco-friendly or can be turned sustainable, then it´s nothing but figment of one´s imagination. However, although thermal energy can never become sustainable - its harmful emission levels can be toned down through the usage of latest technologies.
More than 65 per cent of the nation´s power generation capacity comes from thermal sources, with about 85 per cent being generated from coal alone. Further, the initial capital expenditure for setting up a coal-based thermal power plants (TPPs) of similar capacity is lower than hydel, solar, wind or other energy sources, which becomes a crucial deciding factor, especially in a developing nation like India.
However, one must remember that coal-based TPPs incur higher maintenance and operating costs. But, in a nation with one of the largest coal reserves, albeit low quality, it remains crucial to providing affordable energy to the masses while simultaneously powering economic growth.
In recent years, India´s coal mining industry is fast emerging as one of the focussed markets driven by´Energy for All´. This will ensure doubling of coal production to 1.5 billion metric tonnes (MT) by 2019-20. The Centre is pushing to achieve this target through investments in public sector utilities like Coal India Ltd (CIL) - around 1 billion MT and the balance through private mining companies.
The vast majority only looks at pollution from coal-based power plants, but environmental challenges need to be tackled right from the coal mining phase itself or else the entire effort will remain superficial.
The government needs to identify and adopt new innovative technologies for mining operations to be deployed by the Mine Development Operators (MDOs). Global best practices and modern mining technologies can help in overcoming these challenges and achieving sustainable goals in coal mining:
i.Elimination of drilling and blasting methods, so that environment and ecological balance will be protected. This also provides safety for the local habitat and ecology around the mines.
ii.Resettlement of the mine is fast and effective.
iii.Mechanised continuous mining of coal will increase productivity and efficiency.
iv.Reduce idle time, wastages and hazards with added safety to overall mining.
v.Helps in reducing trust deficit factors between public and mining operators.
vi.Operations in these mines will be less strenuous and more elegant
Overall the mining industry, especially coal mining, will go through a transformation process where stringent control for settlement of mines, lower environmental impact, ecological balance, high safety standards and sophisticated way of managing the whole mining process will be adopted.
Coal mining in India is becoming more structured and companies have started outsourcing parts of the project to mining service companies. Contract mining could prove to be a solution to the on-going coal deficit in India.
As the industry focuses on adapting to international levels of technology, there exists untapped potential in the Indian mining equipment sector, which can be unlocked to achieve sustainability goals. This is where global expertise can be integrated with continuous mining and material handling solutions for mineral processing capability across the coal mining industry. These solutions will help bring the MDOs/mine owners and state-owned companies to enhance the production capability and help them achieve global standards.
Introduction of advanced technologies can assist in lessening the environmental damage due to coal-based mining operation or operation of thermal power plants. Yes, these sustainable technologies may cost a small premium and add to the price of power generation. However, keeping in mind the reduction of pollution emissions and the future of forthcoming generations, it is a small price to pay.
Enhancing sustainability in the thermal energy sector needs to be encouraged not only during the operation of coal-based TPPs but from the beginning - coal mining stage itself. Due to economic viability reasons, thermal energy cannot currently be totally replaced by other more sustainable options. However, the government and industry needs to do more and intensify efforts towards achieving more stringent sustainability goals.