Can biomass co-firing offer a viable solution to coal shortage and stubble burning?

Synopsis: Co-firing policy floated by the government for the thermal plants is a win-win solution for farmers and environment.


India’s economy is on the path to recovery since the second wave of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. The first half of October saw a 4.9% increase in electricity consumption compared to September. However, coal supply fell short of demand by 1.4%. The government reported a shortage in coal supply despite abundant reserves.

As one of the measures to tackle the coal shortage, the Government of India (GoI) has made it mandatory for thermal power plants in three categories to use a 5% blend of biomass pellets and coal. The policy will come into effect in October 2022, with a requirement to increase the blend to 7% within two years for two categories of plants.

The co-firing policy will be in effect for 25 years or till the useful life of the thermal power plant, whichever is earlier.

Must Read: Coal crisis in India – Explained, pointwise
What is the contribution of the coal-based power to CO2 emissions in India?

India still relies heavily on coal-based power generation to meet most of its electricity demand.

The power sector contributes nearly 50% of the sector-wise carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Coal and coal-based power is the single-largest contributor of CO2 emissions in India, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Why India needs to move on from Coal-based power?

Energy security: In India, the government is committed to ensuring that all grid-connected households have 24×7 access to reliable power. The result will be a significant increase in coal-fired power generation and CO2 emissions. Resultant increase in coal imports will give rise to energy security concerns.

Meeting Paris target: India also needs to reduce coal-based GHG emissions rapidly to meet the Nationally Determined Contribution goals for 2030 (NDC). For that, coal plants with higher emissions will have to be shut down and replaced with cleaner ones.

Hence, India needs to move on from the coal based power. Biomass Co-firing offers an alternative.

Must Read: Scale of crop residue generation in India
What are the benefits of Biomass co-firing?

Co-firing biomass pellets with coal in India is a promising strategy for reducing GHG emissions from coal-based power plants.

i). Biomass co-firing has been shown to reduce coal power plant carbon footprint in Europe, the US and the United Kingdom, according to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Biomass pellets made from agricultural waste have equivalent calorific value to that of Indian coal, based on estimates from the Central Electricity Authority (CEA).

ii). Reduction in pollution due to drop residue burning: Around 85 to 100 million tons of crop residue have been burnt in recent years, despite various government policies aimed at reducing crop burning. Biomass co-firing in places where agro-residue burning is prevalent, this can result in a reduction of coal dependence and a sharp decline in pollution levels.

iii). NOx and SO2 emissions decrease with an increase in blending percentage.

iv). Source of earning: After deducting the labour and transport costs, farmers can earn between Rs 500-Rs 1,500 per tonne of crop residue. In addition, pellet manufacturing, storage, handling and transportation create jobs in rural areas.

An effective method to address pollution and mitigate climate change is to identify older units that are operating efficiently and to promote their co-firing with biomass.

Source: This post is based on the article “Can biomass co-firing offer a viable solution to coal shortage and stubble burning?” published in Down to Earth on 21st Oct 2021.

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