Coal: types, distribution, benefits, challenges, role in industrial location & industrial inertia

India’s thermal power plants faced a severe coal shortage, with coal stocks having come down to an average of four days of fuel across an increasing number of thermal stations.

India is facing its worst power crisis in over six years as a heatwave bakes vast swathes of South Asia, causing widespread power outages.

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  • India is the world’s second-largest producer and consumer of coal.
  • As of February 2022, the installed capacity for coal-based power generation across the country was 2.04 lakh megawatt (MW). This accounts for about 51.5% of power from all sources. 
  • The India Energy Outlook 2021 report of the International Energy Agency (IEA) said energy use in India has doubled since 2000, with 80% of demand still being met by coal, oil and solid biomass.
  • According to the IEA’s Coal Report 2021, India’s coal consumption will increase at an average annual rate of 3.9%.


  • Environmental- The threat of global warming looms over the planet, promising to bring about unprecedented natural calamities. An effective way to keep the danger at bay is to cut the use of fossil fuels — coal, natural gas and oil. Coal emits nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as natural gas and about 60% more than oil. 
  • Economic- Coal based thermal plants are capital intensive but on the other hand decentralised solar plants can be installed by farmers on their private land. This can further boost employment opportunities as well as generate extra source of revenue.
  • Social – Combusting coal also leaves behind partially burnt carbon particles that feed pollution and trigger respiratory disorders. 
  • International commitments: – At COP26, India has come out with ‘Panchamrit’ strategy which includes increasing the share of renewables to 50% by 2030 and to achieve net zero emissions by 2070. 


  • High dependence on coal: Still the major portion of India’s energy demand is met through coal. Coal mines also provide huge employment avenues for local population.
  • Rising energy demands of India: Rapid urbanisation, post Covid economic recovery and increase in general temperature will require much energy. 
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  • Cheaper and abundant availability: a cumulative total of around 320 Billion tonnes of Geological Resources of Coal have so far been estimated in the country.
  • Variable nature of renewables: Alternatives to coal, like renewables have low reliability. Ex. solar energy cannot be generated during cloudy weather or during nights.
  • High economic cost involved: Evidence from rich countries shows how costly it can be to transition to green power. In the United States, closing coal mines has created mass unemployment and devastated local communities. 


  • Discouraging new plants: Reducing the number of clearances to new coal-based plants.
  • Improving the efficiency of the existing coal based plants so as to reduce the per unit emission. Coal washing must be promoted.
  • Incentivising renewable usage– Reducing the power tariffs and subsidising the installation of decentralised plants. 
  • Technological innovations– Batteries that can store electricity at utility scale and act both as a large base-load plant (like a coal-fired power plant that continuously supplies a constant amount of electricity) as well as a peaking plant (like a gas-fired power plant that can start immediately and provide instantaneous peaking power). Carbon sequestration can further be also encouraged. 
  • Reducing dependence on fossil fuel– by moving towards electric vehicles and induction-based cooking.


  • It is black or brown rock consisting mainly of carbon,
  • Formed by compressed vegetative matter.
  • Most deposits of carboniferous age. 
  • Most recent deposits of Tertiary age are mainly of lignite or brown coal and peat which represent an early stage of formation and still being formed today.


  • Luxuriant trees & ferns of swampy deltaic areas with hot & humid weather -> trees die and fell on ground -> fallen material accumulate on swampy grounds (Carboniferous) -> compressed into peaty layers -> Heat from below and pressure from above -> During decomposition of wood, hydrogen originates in the form of methane and water, oxygen in the form water and carbon dioxide. During the process of change from wood to coal, the amount of O, N decrease and proportion of Carbon increases. -> “coal seams” separated by sediment layers -> for 50 feet of coal bed, 500 feet of decayed vegetation required.


  • Bulk material, transport is a challenge.
  • Low calorific value as compared to oil and gas. 
  • Dirtiness & pollution: Coal is dusty, sooty, and causes air pollution. Oil is also a polluter but its cleaner to use. Electricity generation using coal also produces pollution, but it is easier to legislate for effective pollution control for few power plants than for innumerable small homes than factories.
  • Displacement: Coal mining often leads to displacement of large number of people. Also, coal seams are often overlaid by forest regions, thus making space for coal mining leads to loss of forests. There has been demands in India to declare no-go zones in certain areas bearing coal which are critical from the perspective of biodiversity.
  • Environmental degradation: Coal mining leads to unavoidable scars on mining landscape. Open cast: reclamation cannot restore its original conditions.
  • Underground mining: subsidence, waste material removed from tunneling unsightly tip heaps. These further degrade the soil.


  • Before Industrial Revolution industries derived power from running water or from wood. Power resources were small, output was small, transport not well developed therefore markets were not well developed. Large labor supplies were not required; hence industries could be set up anywhere.
  • Developments in 19th century which completely changed the pattern:
    • Invention of steam engine
    • Making metallurgical coke from coal. 
    • Hence coal became the basis of IR in 19th century.
  • Coal-> greater power-> industrial output increased-> large no of people employed-> rapid migration into Industrial coal field areas-> railways dependent on coal developed-> access to much larger markets-> development of steam ships (Access to world markets). 
  • Coal mining areas which became major industrial centers
    • Ruhr and Saxony coal fields in Germany
    • Damodar valley of India 
    • Manchuria of China
  • Japan and Italy were few industrially developed countries which based their production on alternative energy or imported coal supplies. 
  • Many factors are working today to create a new distribution of industries: This may be a drift away from coal mining areas or growth of new locations.
  • New industrial areas, which might not be in direct competition with coal mining areas, have grown at a much faster rate leading to relative decline of coal field areas.


  • Fuel efficiency: The input requirement of many industries dependent heavily on coal has reduced drastically. (For ex. Earlier – 12 tons of coal to smelt a tone iron & now only 1 tone is required) and hence it is not the overwhelming concern.
  • Re-localization of iron & steel industry: A coastal location, rather than near to coal fields, would be more preferred for easy access to iron ore supplies and export. For e.g., steel mills from Pittsburgh to Atlantic Seaboard.
  • Inland location: Although transport network exists in these areas, it is difficult to expand these locations. Laying down of new transport systems like high speed rail is difficult. 
  • Decline in coal mining: Many accessible coal mines are getting exhausted and production decreasing-> cost increasing. Hence, industries would not be located there.
  • Population migration: Young people tend to leave industrial towns on the coal fields in search of congenial living conditions. Therefore, newer industries which tend to hire educated and highly skilled workers, tend to locate in more pleasant and urbanized areas (IT industry in India). This makes it progressively less attractive for next generations.
  • Alternative fuels: Easily transported fuels such as electricity and natural gas have led to dispersion of industries. There use is creating new patterns of industrial location. 
  • External factors: Changing production techniques, world market scenario and skills have a strong influence on distribution. For e.g.: the effect of labour on production of textile is so great that despite traditional advantages, Lancashire textile industries are fast degrading due stiff competition from India, Bangladesh.


  • Even though coal has been overtaken by other fuels, world’s coal fields still remain major industrial areas because of their accumulated advantages. 
  • Concentration of capital (Factories, Infrastructure, Services, Facilities): Discouraged the relocation
  • Transport networks were developed keeping coal fields at center. Investing in new location would mean to build altogether a new set of transport systems.
  • Markets: Dependent industries, for ex component manufacturers relied on market provided by makers of finished products. Relocating them would mean losing market and hence offset any advantage.
  • Labor: Greater and high supply of skilled labor force would be difficult to obtain in newer areas. 
  • Therefore, the world’s major coal fields are still some of the most industrially developed area especially when coal fields have an advantage of coastal locations, making importation of raw material and importation of raw material or alternative fuel easier.
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