Beyond Carbon: Could CCUS facilitate societal development goals for India?

Taking a holistic lens at the societal benefits of CCUS would deliver a more appropriate estimate for India than those published in the academic literature. We make the case for how Indian companies, particularly public sector undertakings (PSUs), could take the lead on this
Discussing a framework for how CCUS deployment could fulfill additional sustainable development goals
Discussing a framework for how CCUS deployment could fulfill additional sustainable development goalsHarvard

Carbon Dioxide (CO2) capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) is making strides to occupy a key place in India’s energy transition plans. This umbrella of technologies seeks to avert global warming by converting CO2 into value-added products or storing it deep underground. Recently, NITI Aayog had brought out a roadmap on policy frameworks and mechanisms for the deployment of CCUS in India.

The Ministry of Power, along with NTPC-NETRA and IIM Ahmedabad, published a report on financing these technologies as part of India’s G20 presidency. A joint report by NTPC-NETRA, Dastur Energy and IIT Bombay on technology gaps and international collaboration in CCUS was released during the CCUS G20 seminar held in Bengaluru earlier this year.

These follow from previous such roadmaps published by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, and the Department of Science and Technology — which collectively highlight substantial prospects for CCUS to aid India’s energy transition efforts in consonance with the net-zero target by 2070.

A framework

Despite the large promise of CCUS, environmental advocacy groups perceive it with some reluctance owing to high costs, storage liability and limited experience. It is argued that India has had historically low carbon emissions and CCUS burdens should largely fall on the high-income nations. Without commenting on the merits of this particular argument, we would like to offer pointers on why CCUS may deliver additional co-benefits i.e. societal goals that are not traditionally calculated within the economic analysis. Because of India’s energy sector structure where the public sector units play an instrumental role, we offer here a framework for how CCUS deployment could fulfill additional sustainable development goals.

What can CCUS do to improve air quality?

It is not unrealistic to state that one of India’s chief environmental concerns pertains to poor air quality. For instance, the Damodar Valley industrial belt has witnessed how coal mining and its use have contributed to the deterioration in air quality. In fact, several headlines have come up from time-to-time on the poor air quality in major Indian cities.

An important policy action, for instance, was the shutting down of the Badarpur coal power plant near Delhi. Economists and public health experts have estimated that the damage from these air pollutants is anywhere from tens of millions to billions of dollars in terms of health expenditures for families, lives lost from respiratory illnesses and loss in working days.

Discussing a framework for how CCUS deployment could fulfill additional sustainable development goals
Indian Railways collaborates with USAID/India to achieve net zero carbon emission by 2030

The Central government has instituted regulations for acid gases, such as SOx and NOx controls, on coal-fired power plants. And this is something that the process designs of CO2 capture units have emphasised on — the use of additional polishers for acid gases on top of these pollution controls. The use of these added pollution control measures is necessary, failing which corrosive salt formation can lead to breakdown of expensive CO2 capture equipment. Thus, it reduces pollutants even below the current mandated levels from flue gases desulfurisation, selective catalytic reduction and advanced particulate matter control.

With post-combustion capture, we could anticipate nearly 90 percent CO2 capture, along with 99% SO2 reduction, 50% particulate matter reduction and 25% NO2 reduction over and above the current mandated levels. This offers an understated but potentially huge benefit to health expenses and quality of life in Indian urban and semi-urban areas.

A water-neutral CCUS?

Moving from air to water, variants of CO2 capture technologies do lead to higher water consumption at the plant stage. Immediately following the publication of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report, The Guardian published an article quoting the report, “Carbon capture and sequestration increases water withdrawals at power plants between 25% and 200%.” However, something that the report elaborated in greater detail is how the use of CCUS could potentially be water-neutral or even beneficial.

This means that CCUS systems could be strategically operated without any additional water investment above the current coal-fired power plants if wastewater treatment is incorporated. Injection of CO2 underground could result in the release of wastewater rich in salts. With the use of desalination technologies, which have a several billion-dollar market in Indian homes and have been deemed economically viable, the water may be treated for beneficial reuse.

This is not without precedence. Consider the case of mine water treatment being carried out by Coal India Limited. In the coalfield regions, Coal India provides potable water to 1.8 million individuals across 900 villages.

Discussing a framework for how CCUS deployment could fulfill additional sustainable development goals
Global debate on carbon emissions has to be on per capita basis, not aggregate: RK Singh

In fact, the coalbed methane industry in India also uses reverse osmosis technology to provide beneficial reuse for produced water from wells. One could argue that the salinity of brines from CO2 sequestration could exceed the aforementioned projects. That said, even the cost of high salinity desalination has come down sufficiently going to large experiences in the shale gas industry in the US, as well as large projects in the Middle East.

A 'just transition'

This leads us to the concept of ‘just transition’ that has gained greater traction at the intersection of labour movements and climate mitigation. Here, the idea is that energy transitions must not come at a cost disproportionately high to the sections of the society hinging on coal use for their livelihoods. In other words, societal benefits of energy transitions should outweigh the potential costs – and no longer legacy disadvantage to any community. The Government of Jharkhand has taken a lead in this effort to institute a taskforce on sustainable just transition.

We would urge such institutions within the government to notice two-fold advantages that CCUS offers in this area. First, inclusion of CCUS in the energy portfolio will enable meeting climate goals without premature retirement of coal-fired power plants and other infrastructure. Second as referenced in the G20 report for financing CCUS published during India’s presidency, several tens of thousands of jobs could be created for each CCUS regional cluster.

Aspect of employment generation

Our own research published in the Geological Society of London Special Publications indicates the potential to create thirteen such clusters across the country. It is worth noting that the employment in the sector will likely be more stable than the variable renewable energy sector where experience in the United States shows that jobs are transient in nature.

This is because the jobs created in the CCUS industry will also be dispersed throughout the plant lifetime as opposed to variable renewable energy, which are likely concentrated towards the plant commissioning phase. One can say with some certainty that Indian PSUs being instrumental in the energy business are inclined to promote societal benefits and therefore, could consider CCUS in their portfolio to further this effort.

The affordability & reliability

The final point we wish to make here pertains to the co-benefits of CCUS in terms of the affordability and reliability of energy supply. India has already noticed substantial decline in the cost of electricity production from solar by a factor of seven in the last decade (from Rs 15/kWh to Rs 2-2.2/kWh). This has been accompanied by 100% village electrification. CCUS can help in further augmenting these benefits.

Discussing a framework for how CCUS deployment could fulfill additional sustainable development goals
How CCUS can clean up India’s transition plan

In our previous work, we have highlighted how the inclusion of CO2 storage can help in reduction of the required carbon price and stranded assets to meet the Paris Agreement targets. We have also showcased how an increasing share of CCUS in the energy mix can result in a more diverse and resilient electricity grid for India.

In terms of optimizing the cost of electricity to the consumer, experts emphasize on the need for low-carbon firm electricity resources (these include power plants with CCUS and nuclear). The cost of a grid with renewables and low-carbon firm resources can potentially achieve net-zero emissions at one-third of the costs of a grid fully powered with renewables. Calculating this requires a detailed understanding of total system costs, that include generation costs and grid-level costs.

Ultimately from a planning perspective, we call for practitioners to carefully examine the full benefits arising from CCUS while making investment decisions around such projects. Most academic estimates have only pointed to the costs of dollars per ton of CO2 i.e., the cost required to mitigate or avoid one tonne of CO2. While the aforementioned societal benefits are difficult to quantify, it is imperative to give a clearer picture on the holistic role CCUS could play for the emerging Indian economy.

About the Authors: Udayan Singh is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Northwestern University and served as a Contributing Author to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. Vikram Vishal is an Associate Professor at IIT Bombay and serves as the Convener of the DST-sponsored National Center on CO2 Capture and Utilization. Views are personal.

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