By Vijay Jayaraj — September 28, 2021
“Aluminum smelting requires uninterrupted power supply for production, which can be met only through in-house captive power supplies. The reduction in coal supplies, without any advance notice, has brought the industry to a standstill as it has been left with no time to devise any mitigation plan to continue sustainable operations.” (Aluminum Association of India, below)
Sometimes it’s not easy to follow up your words with actions. This is particularly true when a large economy based on fossil fuels is threatened by an anti-energy mentality trying to substitute dilute, intermittent energies for dense, reliable ones.
This incongruency has hit India, the world’s third largest emitter that is predicted to register the highest energy demand growth in the next 20 years.
A Fossil-less Utopia?
Nations around the world are under pressure to promise unprecedented cuts in fossil fuel consumption at the upcoming climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland (COP26).
Echoes of this were heard this week at the UN General Assembly in New York, when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson asked countries to “grow up” and tackle climate change.
But what the political leaders do not realize is that sustaining modern civilization requires continued use of fossil fuels to meet some, if not almost all, of our most basic needs.
Coal Crunch Hits a Post-COVID Economy
India calls itself a leader in renewable energy. It leads the international solar alliance. But little did it know that wasting precious resources on wind and solar would come back to haunt it so quickly.
After India’s second wave of COVID-19, its economy reopened, and power demand surged. Operational coal plants—usually fully stocked—began running out of inventory (66% lower than previous year).
This meant other industries dependent on coal, like the aluminum industry, were allotted less coal. Bloomberg reported that “about 83% of Coal India’s daily shipments are currently being sent to power plants, compared with about 75% usually.”
Aluminum Industry’s Warning Bell
India’s aluminum industry is a key part of its economy. Various sectors like power, automobiles, construction, packaging, aerospace, defense, high-speed rail, and consumer durables are dependent on aluminum. Construction, in particular, is highly dependent on this “recyclable, corrosion-resistant, and durable metal.”
Though India imports a considerable proportion of its aluminum from China, its domestic production is key to providing the rest. But coal is the key energy source for smelting aluminum. Estimates suggest “one tonne of the refined metal requires about 14,500 units of electricity generated from burning 11.7 tonnes of coal.”
As per the Aluminum Association of India,
Aluminum smelting requires uninterrupted power supply for production, which can be met only through in-house captive power supplies. The reduction in coal supplies, without any advance notice, has brought the industry to a standstill as it has been left with no time to devise any mitigation plan to continue sustainable operations.
The AAI added:
Also, resorting to imports at such a short notice is not feasible. Any power outage/or failure (two hours or more) results in freezing of molten aluminum in the pots which leads to shutting down of the aluminum plant for at least six months rendering heavy losses and restart expenses, and once restarted it takes almost a year to get the desired metal purity.”
This month, the aluminum industry sent an SOS to the government, asking it to restore the supply of coal. Despite having an agreement for assured supply of coal, their needs were not met.
The aluminum industry could find a coal-crunch episode like this a regular event if the Indian government continues to increase the capacity share of renewable installations in the country.
The more money and time that are invested in renewables, the less will be invested in coal. Though the country has planned to increase coal production, its flirtation with wind and solar has and will divert precious resources that could otherwise have been used to improve coal infrastructure. Coal is critical to meeting energy demand in the future, both for the power sector and the aluminum industry.
The situation in India is a stark reminder to the rest of the industrialized world. The slip from abundance to deficiency is subtle and can easily happen when the share of unreliable renewables increases in the energy mix. It is also a reminder that coal is still king, the go-to source to meet high demand for 24/7/365, on-demand, reliable power—an indispensable resource for aluminum smelting.
Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England), is a Research Contributor for theCornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and resides in Bengaluru, India. His previous posts at MasterResource can be found here.