Apparently useless: India's top two ministries now concur that washing coal doesn't lower its ash content and therefore does nothing to fight air pollution | Photo: Financial Tribune

India backtracks on washing coal, now says it doesn’t lower pollution

India’s government has backtracked on its 2014 directive to wash freshly-mined coal for power producers over the environment ministry’s (MoEFCC) note that says the process does not reduce the fuel’s ash content, and so ‘does not’ lower pollution. Instead, the note says that ‘rejects’ from coal washeries find their way to power producers through the open market, which therefore spreads pollution over a wider area rather than localising it at the washery.

The government’s new directive for Coal India to supply coal as is, has also been backed by the power ministry, and the new consensus is that washing coal is expensive. The average ash content in Indian coal ranges from 40-45%, but industry figures report that washing brought it down to 33%. The 2014 directive was part of the Centre’s efforts to reduce emissions by using ‘cleaner’ fuel, and was to be complemented by around 50GW of thermal power plants fitting flue gas desulphurisers (FGDs) to lower their emissions — the December 2021 deadline for which may again be overshot.

Australia approves coal mining under water reservoir ‘under cover of coronavirus’

The New South Wales government has reportedly approved a controversial project to let American Peabody Energy mine coal from under the Woronora water reservoir, apparently while the nation was focussed on COVID-19. The reservoir is part of the dam that supplies drinking water to Sydney and strong protests have already been filed to contest the decision’s possible health repercussions of the water coming into contact with metals and other contaminants from subterranean coal seams. Curiously, the Greater Sydney Area is the only part of the world that allows for “long wall” coal mining under publicly-owned water reservoirs.

However, an equally grave concern is that of the water being lost to the mines that would open up underneath — similar to the effect of cracking the bottom of a jug. Also, NSW has battled drought for 12 of the past 20 years, and the decision is very likely to be contested in court.  

US power sector CO2 intensity dropped 33% in 2019

New data shows that the US’ power sector CO2 intensity has dropped by 33% in 2019 (over 2005) and by 11% over 2018 over shrinking coal-power capacity. The data is compiled by Carnegie-Mellon University and also says that in absolute terms, the intensity is now down to below 400g of CO2/kWh, while the share of wind and solar power has risen by 20% and 18%, respectively.

The US is the second-largest CO2 emitter and with its coal power plants having shrunk by 22% in 2019 — despite the White House’s best efforts — the void is fast being filled by renewables, but also by the inexpensive but no less deadly natural gas. 

Big Oil may receive gigantic bailout by US govt despite renewables scoring on job creation

Some of the largest and worst hit oil and gas firms in the US could be handed a gigantic bailout package by the US government under ongoing discussions to revive the sector. The bailout deal, estimated at around $750 billion, may also dilute its rules for who qualifies for the package — for example, despite not meeting the minimum BBB-BAA3 credit ratings on March 22, Occidental Petroleum may make the cut because it met the grade up until March 5.

However, new research by Oxford University shows yet again that renewables are creating much more job opportunities and would give better returns on investment.

Plasma air thrusters: Major possible breakthrough in zero-emissions flying

Researchers at China’s Wuhan University have designed a prototype jet engine that could offer zero-emissions flight around the world by using only compressed air and electricity. The engine would compress air to very high pressures mid-flight, which would then be heated to plasma state (a high energy state where electrons are dislodged from their atoms) by microwaves. The thrust generated by expelling this superheated air could match what is developed by modern, fossil fuel-powered jet engines.

However, the materials needed to house plasma jets of air would have to be much more heat resistant than what’s currently in use.

The plasma thruster engine has already been used by NASA for its space missions, but the friction resistance of lower atmospheric flight calls for much higher thrust. Electric aircraft, on the other hand, are only able to fly relatively short distances of ~500km because of their batteries’ poor energy density.