India is poised to contend with China as the globe's top consumer of coal, with 455 power plants preparing to come online, a prominent environmental research group has concluded.

The coal plants in India's pipeline -- almost 100 more than China is preparing to build -- would deliver 519,396 megawatts of installed generating capacity. That is only slightly less than pending new capacity in China, which remains the undisputed king of coal consumption.

The data from the World Resources Institute (WRI), not released publicly but obtained by ClimateWire, paint a picture of a global energy trajectory in which coal remains a dominant actor, despite concerns about rising costs and environmental groups' trumpeting of the reduced costs of renewable energy.

The research found 1,231 new coal plants with a total installed capacity of more than 1.4 million MW proposed worldwide. Beyond the biggest users -- China, India and the United States -- the assessment finds a heavy coal demand building up in Russia, Vietnam, Turkey and South Africa. The United States, with 79 coal plants in the pipeline, ranks fourth in this category.

Environmentalists called the numbers alarming, but coal industry leaders said the plants are not enough to meet the world's energy needs.

"We need more. We need more of everything -- wind power, renewables, hydro. But we will certainly need more coal," said Milton Catelin, CEO of the World Coal Association. He argued that with 1.5 billion people still living without access to electricity, coal needs to grow.

"It's still the most affordable fuel by a long shot," he said. "It's going to be important where countries have a large poverty challenge and in particular a large energy poverty challenge, and where they have access to coal reserves."

The WRI assessment appears to be the most exhaustive compilation to date of coal plants in the global pipeline, along with robust analyses of the export landscape and financing trend. Catelin, who said he had seen the estimates and found them accurate, said the industry association does not keep its own central data of global coal production plans.

Locking in the next generation of power plants?
Culled from government and corporate websites, commercially available websites, news reports and civil society initiatives, the data on each plant were then cross-checked with field knowledge, according to the assessment. They cover only pending plants, not those already under construction.

Environmental groups familiar with the assessment called India's explosive development of new coal-fired capacity a concern but not a surprise. Many were shocked, though, at the high level of coal activity in countries with little domestic production capacity, like Turkey and Vietnam.

Justin Guay, a coal campaigner for the Sierra Club, argued that while coal is still riding the reputation of being a cheap and easy fuel source, "it's just not true anymore." He argued that rising taxes on coal exports and competing energy sources have changed the energy landscape dramatically. The coal industry, he maintained, knows the economics are shaky and is racing to get plants built and lock countries into decades of coal dependence.

"What they need are power plants, and once they're built, countries are going to pay the costs regardless. What are you going to do once you've invested so much in power plants? You are forced to bear the costs," Guay said.

According to the WRI analysis, more than 34,000 MW of coal capacity is slated to come online in Vietnam, 30,000 MW in Turkey, and 22,000 MW in South Africa.

China, which has been on a coal binge for the past 15 years, still has the largest pipeline in the world in terms of megawatts. The WRI assessment notes that China's 12th five-year plan approved 16 giant coal-power bases, mainly in northern provinces and close to mining fields.

"China is still in the middle of its industrialization process, and it is still developing, so it is an unavoidable fact that China will need a lot of energy. But the scale of that development is questionable," said Li Yan, climate and energy campaign manager for Greenpeace East Asia.

"Many of China's coal-fired power developments are unchecked and not purely driven by the energy demand of economic development," she maintained. "It's pretty urgent for the Chinese government to check the ongoing development plans and check how much is necessary. This is already costing a lot of ecological problems."

But the WRI analysis also casts doubt over whether all the plants will be built. China has pledged to cap its annual domestic coal consumption at 3.9 billion metric tons by 2015. While that has drawn skepticism, the analysis notes that China's power companies lost 15 billion yuan ($2.4 billion) in 2011 due to a combination of rising coal prices and a government-imposed electricity price freeze aimed at maintaining economic stability.

"Many of the approved coal-fired plants are delaying their construction. In the meanwhile, public opposition to coal-fired plants is also increasing," the analysis notes. "It is highly unlikely that China could realize such new coal ambition."

Electrifying villages
India, meanwhile, is coming up fast. Its proposed power plants are spread across 18 states, according to the analysis. Guay called India's hunger for coal "the biggest untold story in the world."

"If you look at how much fearmongering has happened in the U.S. with China, and then you have India, which nobody talks about, it's pretty crazy," he said.

After India's massive summer power outage, Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao asserted that the country has steadily improved its power distribution but noted that demand continues to skyrocket.

In a statement, she noted that her country added as much power in the past five years as had been added in the previous 15 and maintained that "almost all villages in the country have been electrified under a program launched in 2004." Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, she said, has pledged to provide electricity to every household in the next five years. With new coal supply agreements and ramped up solar production, she said, India should be able to meet that goal and keep the lights on.

But activists like Guay accused the Indian government of using energy poverty as an excuse to build up coal power for industry. Meanwhile, they said, peak demand -- not lack of coal -- is the reason for the country's constant shortages.

"The truth is, if you go to India and talk to people where these are being built, the power is being exported to the urban centers and the pollution is staying in the local communities," Guay said. "There is no correlation between supply and the poor getting power, and this is the story that nobody talks about."

Catelin of the World Coal Association argued that so far this century, half the world's incremental primary energy needs have been met by coal. He acknowledged that in some countries energy is not getting to the poorest but called it a problem of governance, not fuel choice.

"What doesn't add up is nothing that devalues the benefit you get from coal. What it does say is that you need to have in place appropriate government structures to ensure that there is equity and people benefit from where the resources are found," he said. "Theoretically, that should be easier with coal, because it's found in so many places."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500