Coal Bed Methane Recovery: Helping India Meet its Energy Needs

Workers at the drilling rig site
Workers at the drilling rig site

A first-ever pilot by UNDP demonstrated the commercial feasibility of using methane gas from coal mining to electrify homes. Now widely accepted as an area with commercial potential that is being scaled up nationally, it reveals a powerful strategy to combat climate change, ensure safety of mining communities and provide a critical source of electricity in an energy starved country.

Highlights

  • Demonstrated the economic feasibility of undertaking methane recovery during and after the extraction of coal
  • Prevented carbon emissions equivalent to discharge from 180,000 cars
  • Recoverable Coal Bed Methane reserves are estimated at 800 billion cubic metres with gas production potential of 105 million cubic metres a day over a period of 20 years

Each day workers toil many hundreds of kilometers beneath the earth’s surface in Dhanbhad, better known as India’s coal capital. Located in Central India, they extract coal from these world famous mines which is used to fuel India’s rapidly expanding economy. And until recently, they would return home to the same darkness that engulfed them through the day.

Not anymore. For about 400 of these miners and their families, uninterrupted electricity is now reaching them for the first time. This change can be attributed to an innovative process of recovering deadly methane gas generated during and after extraction of coal and using it as fuel to generate electricity. Lethal to miners who inhale it but a clean fuel for generating power, it’s a win-win on all fronts. Methane gas is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide and hence, its re-use contributes significantly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

A project supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) between 1999 and 2008, demonstrated for the first-time in India, the economic and social feasibility of undertaking methane recovery during and after the extraction of coal. For a country which is among the ten largest emitters of methane and one of the five largest coal producers in the world, this innovation has far-reaching consequences. The project that was initiated in just two mines in Dhanbad prevented carbon emissions equivalent to discharge from 180,000 cars.

The potential of commercializing this technology is gaining widespread recognition. A recent study by the Coal Mine Planning and Design Institute estimates that coal bed methane resources in India are 3.4 trillion cubic metres. Experts concur that the pilot has been a turning point for improving efficacy in extraction from methane and helping tackle the dual challenges of reducing carbon dioxide methane and improving quality of life – through better health outcomes and adding many more on-grid. Several of the largest players in the Indian coal/ power sector are now exploring methane extraction on a large scale – both to enhance profitability and improve environmental outcomes.

“Roughly 400 million people in India live without electricity and by demonstrating the commercial viability of extracting methane from the coal mining process, the UNDP pilot represents an important strategy to address the rapidly rising energy needs of India in a sustainable way,” says Srinivasan Iyer, Head of the Energy and Environment Unit at UNDP.

Support for the technology has also resonated with the Government of India. The 11th Five-Year Plan has listed in-situ tapping of coal-bed methane as a key intervention. It is expected that the national endeavour will result in measurable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from mining activities and recovery of methane. In the long-run, methane will also substitute coal burned in power generation and diesel used in mine transport – mainly trucks. This will also ensure efficient use of energy resources and sustainability of energy supply – the two key objectives of India’s energy planning. And, most importantly, the innovation will light up many more homes of people who are sweating it out to fuel the growth of the country.

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