Blackouts crippled India last week, leaving more than 600 million people without electricity. Trains were stranded, traffic snarled, and the country's economy ground to a halt. According to news reports, the blackouts were caused by excess demand, with some states in northern India taking more power than they had been allotted by the grid operator. And while the investigation into the disaster continues, one result is certain: India won't be abandoning coal any time soon.
While the Sierra Club pushes its "beyond coal" campaign here in the U.S., and the Obama administration continues its regulatory attack on the coal industry—an effort that includes the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to prohibit the construction of new coal-fired generation units—India and other countries around the world are rapidly increasing their coal consumption.
Proof of that can be seen in the fact that, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, global coal consumption over the past decade has increased by more than the growth in oil, natural gas, hydro and nuclear combined. Much of that surge in coal use has occurred in India, the world's third-largest coal consumer, behind only China and the U.S. Increasing coal use helps explain why India's carbon-dioxide emissions, up by 80% since 2002, and global carbon-dioxide emissions—up by 30% since 2002—continue to soar.
India's current coal use, which is the energy equivalent of about 5.9 million barrels of oil per day, has nearly doubled over the past decade. Yet the country remains chronically short of electricity. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), India's per capita electricity consumption is about 600 kilowatt-hours per year. This is a small amount compared to the other big electricity users. The average Chinese uses about five times as much electricity as the average Indian, while the average American uses about 20 times more.
To alleviate the shortages, India is aggressively expanding its electricity generation and transmission infrastructure. It is also working hard to increase its natural-gas and nuclear-generation capacities, but it still relies on coal for about two-thirds of its electricity production. With 60 billion tons of domestic coal reserves—enough to last a century at current rates of extraction—India has plenty of the carbon-heavy fuel. But the country's mines are inefficient and coal deliveries have been hamstrung by poor-quality transportation and ham-handed government policies. The result: India imported about 20% of the coal it used in 2011, and it may soon surpass China as the world's biggest coal importer.
For years, Indian leaders have been saying they will not let concerns about climate change impede their push to generate more electricity. In 2009, shortly before the big climate-change meeting in Copenhagen, that message was delivered by none other than Rajendra Pachauri, the Indian academic who chairs the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. "Can you imagine 400 million people who do not have a light bulb in their homes?" he asked. "You cannot, in a democracy, ignore some of these realities and as it happens with the resources of coal that India has, we really don't have any choice but to use coal."
Use it they will. In the wake of the blackouts, Indian officials are talking about expediting the permits needed to produce and transport more coal. And the IEA is projecting that India's coal consumption will nearly double by 2030, allowing it to surpass the United States. But even if that occurs, India will likely continue to lag the developed world in producing electricity—the currency of modernity.
Slogans like "beyond coal" may appeal to Sierra Clubbers and to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave the environmental group $50 million to help "end the coal era." But with 1.3 billion people on the planet still lacking access to electricity, the priority for leaders in places like New Delhi isn't carbon-dioxide emissions or "clean energy." Their primary aim is to bring their people out of the dark