At Copenhagen, the US should partner with India

India’s melting Himalayan glaciers are a sign of India’s booming coal industry, but a technology partnership with the US would be high-impact and low-carbon.
Published: December 7, 2009 in Christian Science Monitor here

Authors: Kurt Waltzer is the carbon storage development coordinator, of the Coal Transition Project, at the Clean Air Task Force. P.R. Shukla is a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. Semil Shah is a principal at India Strategy Consulting.

Boston; and Ahmedabad, India
As the world focuses on climate change this week in Copenhagen, Denmark, delegates are set to negotiate complex deals to avoid a future world of melted Arctic ice sheets and significantly higher sea levels.

But there is another ice-rich region the world must also take into consideration: the Himalayan glaciers. India’s “water towers” are beginning to melt.

For the subcontinent already challenged by growing water needs and on the heels of a boom in coal use, the stakes are high. As the Indian economy continues to grow despite global conditions, Indian coal power (largely driving this growth) is expected to increase 600 percent by the 2030s. This will put India on a path to rival the United States as one of the world’s largest users of coal-based power generation, paving the way for a surge in carbon dioxide emissions.

Given this daunting scenario, and regardless of the outcome in Copenhagen, India has no choice but to transform into the world’s most innovated in climate technology and clean energy. Cash isn’t the problem – it’s the lack of a comprehensive, long-term plan and India’s long-term use of coal power.

India and the US should collaborate to actively leverage and focus engineering talent and financial resources to create cleaner low-cost energy technology.

Both governments should promote collaborations spurring both demonstration of US intellectual property in India as well as technological innovations from India deployed in the US.

Realistically, while India is developing a portfolio of alternative sources of energy, such as biofuels, hydroelectric, nuclear, and, most notably, their recent US$900 million investment in solar power, coal will remain the major energy component for the foreseeable future.

India boasts major coal reserves – more than 210 gigatons. Coal currently generates over half of India’s electricity and is projected to see extremely high growth to 2030. Coal is also a major economic input, a central component to steel, cement, fertilizers, and manufacturing. Furthermore, with nearly half of India’s growing population off the grid, any major attempt at rural electrification will require heaps of coal. Compounding these problems is the fact that most of India’s coal reserves are physically unavailable using traditional mining techniques.

Therefore, India must find ways to use advanced technology that keeps coal power affordable but also clean. Underground coal gasification is one such advanced technology.

Underground coal gasification is a near commercial technology that may dramatically reduce power costs – even when including carbon dioxide pollution controls such as capture and storage. Therefore technology’s power may offer developing countries the opportunity to affordably include capture and storage in the future, while offering developed countries a lower-cost, low-carbon option today.

Underground coal gasification projects are not without challenges, as any advanced power technology must provide significant expansion of electricity generation, be cost competitive, and help improve reliability. Development of underground coal gasification projects requires both commercial sector and government collaboration to focus on key areas, such as project coinvestment, technical issues, and environmental standards.

Today, underground coal gasification projects are under way in China and Australia, with plans for projects in India, the US, and South Africa; only cross-border collaboration, however, will help the development of underground coal gasification and diffusion accelerate in order to contribute to a world with less carbon.

A long-term solution for India, though, would be to leverage its technology and engineering-focused pockets of talent from technological universities and government-funded research centers to transform India into the world’s laboratory for cutting-edge research, development, and demonstration – or R,D&D.

This model, while recognizing that coal is vital to meet India’s energy demands for the foreseeable future, provides it with a diversified portfolio that will help India affordably manage its carbon emissions as its economy expands.

Developed nations such as the US should partner with India in this effort. The US could commercialize its new technology more rapidly in the booming Indian marketplace, as well as access lower-cost technology developed by Indian inventors. And American companies, research groups, and universities could provide India with the components it needs – mainly, an industry that wants to develop lower-cost clean energy options, innovative technologies, and sophisticated multilateral funds.

India’s energy needs, growing economy, and the melting Himalayas put the country in a difficult situation. Multilateral negotiations, such as those at Copenhagen this week, can only go so far – and move only so fast. India and the US could develop a true partnership based on critical, mutual needs and benefit both in the long term.

India and the US have what they need right there in front of them – it’s just a matter of reaching out and grabbing it.