King Coal’s reign in India is about to come crashing down, writes Silvio Marcacci, Communications Director at think tank Energy Innovation. Coal supplied 80% of India’s total power mix in 2016-2017, but economics have flipped the country’s energy equation – new renewable energy is now cheaper to build than running most existing coal-fired power plants.
Renewable energy costs have fallen 50% in two years, and are forecast to continue dropping apace. New wind and solar is now 20% cheaper than existing coal-fired generation’s average wholesale power price, and 65% of India’s coal power generation is being sold at higher rates than new renewable energy bids in competitive power auctions.
The tipping point may have been 2016-2017, when renewable energy installations surpassed coal for the first time, adding twice the capacity. Coal plants nationwide already only run around half of the time, nearly every Indian coal plant violates the country’s new air pollution standard, and India’s Central Electricity Authority (CEA) has proposed closing nearly 50 GW of coal capacity by 2027. Retrofitting the plants that remains open will each cost millions to achieve compliance, so running already uneconomic plants will get more expensive as plants run less often and generate less profit.
As ever-cheaper renewable energy comes online, increasingly expensive coal generation will fall further from profitability
But while India’s power demand will double over the next decade, its draft National Electricity Plan (NEP) calls for rising demand to be met with 275 gigawatts (GW) total renewable energy capacity by 2027, without requiring new coal plants beyond those already under construction. As ever-cheaper renewable energy comes online, increasingly expensive coal generation will fall further from profitability. So how can India’s power sector handle this looming coal crash?
New wind and solar are 20% cheaper than India’s existing coal power
Similar to the United States, it’s increasingly difficult for Indian coal generation to compete economically with fast-falling renewable energy costs, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).
IEEFA finds India’s wind and solar energy costs have fallen 50% to as low as $38 per megawatt hour (MWh) over the past two years, with renewable energy bids in new auctions costing 20% less than the cost of wholesale electricity from existing Indian coal generation, and 30-50% less than the required cost to justify new imported coal or liquefied natural gas capacity.
In 2016-2017, India added 15.7 GW renewable energy capacity (2.5 times the 6.5 GW added in 2015-2016), compared to 7.7 GW net coal installations (65% less than average installs over the previous four years). IEEFA forecasts India will add 14 GW new renewable energy capacity in 2017-2018, more than doubling the 5.8 GW expected net coal additions.
India’s 2027 renewable energy target requires 57% of installed capacity to come from non-thermal energy, necessitating 21-22 GW annual renewable installations. CEA expects 317 GW peak national power demand in 2026-2027, 20.7% lower than its previous estimate, thus requiring no new coal capacity beyond the 50 GW of coal currently under construction. IEEFA estimates less than 5 GW annual net coal power installations over the next decade, with more than 2.5 GW in annual retirements of the oldest and dirtiest generation.
Two-thirds of existing Indian coal generation is now more expensive than solar or wind generation
Because power demand has risen slower than expected and renewable energy has come online faster than expected, national coal-fired power plant capacity factors (how often a plant runs) fell from 77.5% in 2010 to 56.7% in 2016-2017. The 50 GW of planned coal could push national coal capacity factors as low as 50%, just as gigawatts of cheap renewables come online, meaning unless new plants replace retiring capacity they could come online as stranded assets.
Expensive (and dirty) coal’s $8 billion annual bill
Stranded assets are already a problem for Indian’s coal fleet – the India-run Numerical service estimates 17 coal-fired plants totaling 18.4 GW capacity worth roughly $30 billion are currently stranded assets – and the problem isn’t going to improve anytime soon.
Two-thirds of existing Indian coal generation is now more expensive than solar or wind generation, and keeping these power plants running costs India billions every year, according to Greenpeace research comparing CEA 2015-2016 coal power generation data to new renewable energy project bids. At least 65% of India’s current coal power generation (94 GW of installed capacity) is being sold to distribution utilities at rates higher than the cost of new solar and wind. Roughly 30 GW of this total is more than 20 years old, and ran at a 53% average capacity factor in 2016.
Greenpeace reports replacing the 94 GW of uneconomic coal generation with solar or wind energy would save Indian industrial and residential consumers $8 billion per year, but even replacing the 30 GW of older uneconomic coal would reduce annual power costs by $3 billion.
Coal replacement cost savings are made more significant by India’s stricter power sector emissions rules, which aim to reduce air pollution and early deaths from coal-fired generation. While the compliance period for these rules was extended to 2022, virtually all of India’s existing coal plants are in violation of the new rules.
“The government does not want to continue with old technology – besides environmental cost, they are less energy efficient”
India’s Power Minister expects the price of electricity from coal-fired generation will rise up to $200,000 per megawatt of capacity retrofitted, and maintains the Power Ministry’s will not support retrofitting coal plants 25 years or older, saying “the government does not want to continue with old technology – besides environmental cost, they are less energy efficient.”
India’s Center for Science and Environment (CSE) reports coal is responsible for 80% of India’s mercury pollution, 60% of airborne particulate matter, 45% of sulphur dioxide emissions, and 30% of nitrogen oxide levels. The Health Effects Institute estimates coal-fired pollution contributed to 169,000 early deaths in 2015 and would contribute to around 1.2 million early deaths in 2050.
So while financiers can gamble on the rules not being enforced now, political and financial pressure to deal with air pollution will keep increasing over time
How utilities can tap cheap renewables to beat coal’s crash
The economics of running existing coal versus building new renewables map the route through this interregnum from King Coal to clean energy: Close old coal and build new renewables to save billions in power costs and hundreds of thousands of lives. But how can utilities make this transition?
CSE proposes allowing the country’s electricity distribution utilities (DISCOMs) to exit power-purchase agreements (PPAs) more than 10-15 years old which have been rendered uneconomic by low-cost renewables, enabling cheaper spot market power purchases. CSE also recommends enacting CEA’s plan to retire 48 GW of India’s oldest coal generation by 2027, allowing cleaner distributed electricity sources to meet India’s power demand while raising capacity factors for newer “cleaner” coal plants, simultaneously reducing financial risks for utilities and consumers.
State-owned utility NTPC reduced coal operating costs by ending foreign coal imports in 2017, but its electricity prices are still higher than solar and wind generation
Indian utilities may also want to consider a coal retirement policy previously used to help utilities retire nuclear assets through private-sector bonds, now being considered by utilities in Western U.S. states like Colorado and New Mexico to transition from coal to clean. This approach helps utilities refinance the costs of stranded coal generation assets and redirect savings toward cheaper renewable energy to replace generation capacity, while directing funds to communities or workers affected by coal closures.
IEEFA notes state-owned utility NTPC, which provides 25% of India’s total power supply, could be key to the clean energy transition. While NTPC is among the top 10 coal utilities globally with 44 GW coal-fired capacity, it is perhaps one of the Indian utilities most at risk from stranded assets. NTPC reduced coal operating costs by ending foreign coal imports in 2017, but its electricity prices are still higher than solar and wind generation, so adding new renewable capacity is cheaper than building new coal.
It’s no surprise that NTPC is one of the primary drivers behind Indian renewable energy. NTPC is one of the country’s largest renewable energy offtakers, is responsible for 3.6 GW of India’s 12 GW existing solar capacity, has committed to 10 GW of the government’s 100 GW by 2022 total solar target, and has a 36 GW by 2032 total renewable energy target for its generation fleet.
“NTPC is an emerging role model for electricity generation companies, in India and across the wider ASEAN region, by progressively reducing its thermal power expansion plans as renewable energy becomes more cost-competitive,” said Tim Buckley, IEEFA Director of Energy Finance Studies Australasia. “NTPC’s Managing Director Gurdeep Singh emphasizes his new technology-neutral stance, highlighting how the rate of technology innovation makes a diversified generation portfolio optimal for risk management.”
Silvio Marcacci is Communications Director at the San Francisco-based think tank Energy Innovation, where he leads all public relations and communications efforts. This article was first published on Forbes.com and is republished here with permission.