Visualising a billion tonnes of coal, an analogy with digital advertising, and the journey for renewables

Coal India Limited has been in the news recently, for pushing back its target of mining a billion tonnes of coal to 2026 possibly. Sitting in cities, living off the power from all that coal, perhaps we need some perspective on just what a billion tonnes of coal, dug out from the ground somewhere in India means,.

Every now and then, it’s useful to look into the reality of the now, rather than the hope of the future. In India’s case, behind all the good news of new records in renewable energy almost every week, it’s worthwhile to consider just how long the road ahead is. And to do that, we are going to consider what was, until recently even called  ‘black gold’, coal. The very fact that the term has fallen from favour to describe what is undoubtedly our greatest source of energy and in a manner of speaking, our most important natural resource, tells a story.

Consider this. In 2017-18, fully 79.3% of the total electricity generation came from thermal. Of this figure, almost 88% of thermal, or 70% of our total power generation, came from coal fired thermal. Natural gas and Diesel made up for the rest.  Solar, for all the hype around it, and yes, a growth of 92% over 2016-17, was still barely 2%.  Total capacity of renewables was 20% in fact, but thanks to their dependency on natural cycles, their total contribution to actual generation was yet , just 16% odd, including Hydro power at 9%, and Wind at just over 4%.

To use a media analogy, solar power seems to be where Digital advertising was, about 15 years back. An exciting, promising sector, impossible to ignore anymore, but promising rewards still some time into the future.  Keep in mind that the biggest digital behemoths today, Google and Facebook, were relatively tiny, or barely on the horizon then.  Google had reported a revenue of $961 million in 2003, while Facebook was just a concept being designed in a college.  These two, by 2017, had a combined turnover of  over $150 billion. While TV advertising could hardly be compared to thermal in our analogy, the share of TV+print can, and for the record, this year, Digital Advertising will finally overtake TV, on a worldwide basis. For renewables like coal, that’s the journey they are expected to traverse between now and 2030,  to provide the world 25% of its power from renewables.

So back to coal. Or a billion tonnes of it. Remember, this is not some idle number , it’s a target that India is committed to, through its Navratna, Coal India Limited. Originally meant to be reached as early as 2020, CIL has apparently pushed it back to 2026 now. Thank  god for public sector efficiencies. But its a target that it will seek.  Slowly, relentlessly, and inevitably, like all governments.  For perspective, it did mine  600 million tonnes in 2017-18.  So just what would a billion tonnes of coal look like? Quite frankly, the mind boggles. Rough calculations show us that it is enough to fill about 225 stadiums, the size of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi. To the brim. Think about that.  The coal mined in India also tends to be a little dirtier than ideal. That means close to 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide  released into the atmosphere for every tonne of coal burnt for power. 1 billion tones of coal. Over 3 billion tonnes of Co2 into the atmosphere.

We won’t get into the environmental cost of coal extraction. Or the human cost, though you might do well to google, say, “Sonbhadra and Coal pollution” sometime. UP’s  Sonbhadra, in case you didn’t know, was lauded as the energy capital of India till recently, before much like ‘black gold’, the pitfalls, literally and figuratively, of being the energy capital, became too embarassing to advertise its contribution to the national energy grid. All 12,000 MW of it.

So why talk about all this? Because as consumers, it is our responsibility also to be aware of the cost of changing too slowly. Or wasting energy. Or being ignorant.  Of being skeptical about the prospects for renewables, and not doing enough to do more. As the festival of lights comes around, its a good thought to have, this whole thing about the effort that goes into lighting up our homes and cities. It’s no coincidence that Switch off Something also shortens to SOS. This is a call for all of you.



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Prasanna Singh

Prasanna Singh

Prasanna Singh is the founder at IamRenew

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