Scientists tell us the climate crisis demands we act now and eliminate carbon emissions within 30 years.

Working on those lines, state-owned power giant National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) has recently announced that they will be procuring and using 6 million tons of agro-residue based biomass pellets annually to co-fire their power plant along with the coal in 2020.

Just to put it in the numbers, NTPC has coal-fired power plants at 24 locations across India and 9 more coal-fired plants under joint ventures or subsidiaries. As a company working towards sustainable energy production, Steamax appreciates the thoughtfulness of the Government of India to take steps towards sustainable power production. Replacing such a huge chunk of the coal with biomass is sure to cut the emissions drastically and improvise the energy security in the country as we still import most of the coal. However, that is just one side of the story.

Carbon Conspiracy?

The problem was born with the 1997 Kyoto agreement. Because trees and other biomass sources can be regrown, Kyoto negotiators decided biomass, was counted as being carbon neutral and classified as renewable, on par with wind and solar energy. That designation continues under the Paris Agreement.

As a result, countries that stopped burning coal and now burn biomass in their power plants can zero out all emissions produced. Thus, India can claim that it is reducing its carbon emissions, when in fact the reduction is less than it reports — about 8% less at the current rate of biomass pellet usage, though a percentage that will grow in future.

This underreporting looks good on paper, but not in the atmosphere, and it comes at a time when record global emissions have supercharged planetary climate disasters, bringing catastrophic extreme weather, escalating sea-level riseworsening wildfiresfast melting permafrost and warnings of rapidly increasing ocean deoxygenation.

Worse still, studies and reports by Woods Hole Research Centeramong others, have established that burning biomass pellets actually generates more greenhouse gas emissions than burning coal. That’s because it takes more pellets to produce the same amount of energy as coal.

This UN biomass carbon accounting loophole, as scientists call it, has propelled a brand new industry to prominence, with the biomass pellet global market topping $7.6 billion in 2017. That market is estimated to double to $15.4 billion by 2025 as these new developments will ramp up biomass plants.


The Un-Economic times!


As per our calculations, operating power plant on biomass will be more expensive to operate than using coal or building new solar and wind capacity even when fully accounting for the costs of integrating solar and wind into the grid. Here are the maths for the same:

As per NTPC, they are able to procure one-ton of biomass pellets at INR7000 compared to Indonesian coal which comes at the price of INR9000/ton. But, coal has a very high heating value of 6000 Kcal/Kg whereas biomass delivers just 3500-3800 Kcal/kg.

Therefore, the cost per million calories of biomass will be INR 1850 which is very high compared to the coal which stands at just INR 1500 for one million calories. Thus, producing power from biomass is 25% expensive than using coal. For a nation whose two-third population still lives in poverty, this is going to pose a significant challenge.

What do you think is the right thing to do here? Do you still think that using pellets is a sustainable way of producing electricity?

Leave us a comment and let us know.