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Indian commuters are hit by a thick blanket of smog on the outskirts of New Delhi. The country’s reliance on dirty energy, such as coal, is fuelling the pollution crisis. Photo: AP

India facing an energy and environmental crisis as dirty coal worsens pollution and renewables remain too pricey

Farmer suffered 70 per cent burns to his feet and ankles from an underground fire caused by a nearby power plant


Subedar Singh bears the scars of India’s painful reliance on dirty power and its struggle to pay for the costly transition to the brave new world of solar and renewable electricity.

Last year, the farmer walked into a field in his village and suffered 70 per cent burns to his feet and ankles from an underground coal fire caused by a nearby power plant. Singh said he dragged himself out of the field and then fainted from the searing pain.

The people of Uncha Amirpur in the northern Uttar Pradesh state – east of the smog-afflicted capital New Delhi – discovered that a mix of water and coal used by the nearby NTPC Dadri power plant had accumulated under the field and caught fire. Some cattle died.

Hundreds of millions of people in India are forced to live with the fallout of the dirtiest fuels – with the government blaming a lack of funds to pay for greener power.

Money will be the key issue when about 100 countries meet in Paris on Tuesday for the One Planet Summit organised by French President Emmanuel Macron. The meeting will focus on marshalling public and private funds to speed the move to a low-carbon economy.

Developing countries say barely a tenth of the US$100 billion promised by the end of the decade under a 2010 deal has come in so far.

An Uncha Amipur villager stands on a field with coal particles mixed into the soil, near the National Thermal Power Corporation coal plant in Dadri, India. Photo: AFP
Petroleum coke, the grainy black by-product of refining Canadian tar sands oil. India factories rely heavily on “petcoke” – a high-carbon, high-sulphur fuel that is dirtier than coal – and burn it unregulated. Photo: AP

“If more money is available, of course the [Indian] government is in a position to push renewable energy faster,” said energy analyst Narendra Taneja.

“The pollutants accumulated over the decades, we didn’t do that. It was the West and they should clear up those dues as soon as possible,” said Taneja, a consultant to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

India needs US$140 billion to reach Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious target of installing 100,000 megawatts of solar power by 2022, according to Arunabha Ghosh, chief executive of the Council on Energy, Environment and Water – a New Delhi think tank.

So far it has just 15,000MW, less than five per cent of the country’s total generation capacity of 331,000MW.

Ghosh said developing countries “have stayed committed to the Paris agreement, even after the US decision to exit, but their ability to scale up ambitions is contingent on how much rich countries do at home and how much they support actions outside”.

“Next year could be a tipping point for their patience.”

As one of the fastest growing major economies, India needs uninterrupted power to keep factories humming and the economy expanding. Currently, 66 per cent of its electricity is generated by coal and gas. The rest comes from nuclear and renewables, including hydro, wind and solar.

India needs renewable energy to meet its 2015 Paris commitment to reduce emissions relative to gross domestic product by up to 35 per cent by 2030 from 2005 levels.

Watch: Toxic smog smothers New Delhi

Indian motorists ride through a thick blanket of smog and dust on the outskirts of New Delhi. Photo: AP

But a lack of affordable options to store wind and solar energy means cheap coal is India’s mainstay. More than 300 coal power plant units missed a December 7 government deadline to upgrade with emissions reduction technology.

The impact is visible in Uncha Amirpur, where a thick coat of grime and dust covers every surface.

The Dadri power plant provides up to one third of the electricity required for New Delhi, 66km away, but also fuels the smog that envelops the Indian capital each winter.

The severe air pollution in New Delhi – many times the global safe limit – has been linked to asthma, bronchitis and even brain disease in babies.

Mandeep Raghav, who is trying out for the Uttar Pradesh state cricket team, said there are days when he finds it hard to breathe.

“When I run, it’s OK for a while as I absorb the pollution, but at night when I sleep, I can feel my heartbeat increasing,” the 23-year-old batsman said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m about to die.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Nation faces costly move to renewables