‘Debt’ laden power producers compromising with air pollution health threats

 Little less than 2% of the power plants comply with the emissions norms set by MoEFCC

coal Global Warming

This year, on November 2, 2019, due to severe air pollution, a health emergency was declared in India’s capital, New Delhi.

While much of the media’s attention remained focused on Delhi, major parts of North India, beyond the capital, also faced severe pollution menace. Much of the public narrative about pollution in Delhi and North India is related to stubble burning but rapid growth in coal based thermal power generation, largely out of sight of urban India, is one of the key factors of the pollution crisis.

Many researches on air pollution including the ones by Greenpeace and IIT-Delhi, highlight thermal power plants being the biggest source of Sulphur-di-oxide (SO2) and Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) emission growth in India. It clearly establishes relation between increase in coal consumption and air quality in specific hotspots such as Delhi NCR, Korba, Singrauli, and Raigarh.

Case Study of Delhi-NCR

According to a study by IIT-Delhi, around 60% to 90% of PM10 in Delhi is due to emissions outside of Delhi. Industrial sources are responsible for nearly 90% of SO2, 52% of NOx and 11% of PM 2.5 emissions load in Delhi. Most of these pollutants are emitted from the power plants.

There are around 16 coal-fired units (2824MW) within 50 km radius from the centre of New Delhi and around 114 coal fired-units (26874MW) within 500 km radius. The more worrying factor is, there are eight more coal-fired units under construction. Emissions from these plants also turn hazardous depending on the wind direction and other atmospheric conditions.

A group of scientists led by Dr. Zohir Chowdhury studied the chemical composition of PM2.5 pollution in Delhi. He concluded that one sixth was soot and dust generated from burning coal and one fourth was secondary particulates (most of which are linked to coal burning) generated from SO2, NOx, ammonia and other emissions through chemical reactions in the atmosphere.

However, there is no getting around the fact that coal-fired power plants generate 72% of India’s electricity.  BP Energy Outlook Report 2019 expects that the share of coal in India’s primary energy consumption will decline from 56% in 2017 to 48% in 2040. In such a scenario, the major question is – Is it possible to strike a balance between its energy generation and sustainable growth?

Criminal Negligence by Coal Power Plants

In 2015, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) legislated new standards to restrict concentration of emissions for coal-fired power plants. They were asked to reduce emissions. After extensive lobbying by the Association of Power Producers (APP), the government extended the emission deadline to December 2017.

India has a phased plan for power plants to comply with emission norms, with some plants having end-December 2019 as deadline, while others need to comply till the end of 2022.

Now, a new analysis by Reuters highlights that more than half of India’s coal-fired power plants are set to miss the deadline.  267 units which produce 103.4 GW of power, are required to be compliant between December 2019 and February 2022.

Out of these, 224 units are yet to order the required Flue Gas Desulphurization (FGD) units.  Economic Times reported that most of the plants nearby Delhi-NCR region, on the verge of missing deadline belong to power giant companies such as Vedanta Ltd., Larsen and Toubro Ltd. and Uttar Pradesh Power Corporation.

Speaking to this reporter, Greenpeace India’s Avinash Chanchal said, “As per the submission to the Supreme Court of India in an ongoing case, Flue Gas Desulphurization (FGD) units were required to be installed by December 2017 initially. Now, even till December 2019, which is already an extension from the extended deadline, the power plants are not complying with the emission standards.”

“APP’s Director General Ashok Khurana said that the installation of FGD units – which cuts emissions of sulphur dioxide – take around 27 to 30 months and warned that banks were withholding funding for these units due to stress levels in power sector,” reported Business Standard.

Little less than 2% of the power plants comply with the new norms of the ministry.

Spokesperson of one of these power companies on the conditions of anonymity said, “We [Indian power producers] are under huge financial stress. Power plants are increasingly losing market share as states are rightfully opting for renewable energy options. At the same time, we are trying to cope up with structural inefficiencies. Given these circumstances, it is quite difficult to invest in FGD units.”

Having mentioned the case of emission standards by coal fired power plants, one thing is undeniably clear that “coal is dirty” and population’s continued reliance on fossils is contributing to one of the greatest global health threats. Earlier, State of Global Air 2019 had reported that exposure to outdoor and indoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million deaths in India in 2017. Researchers also pointed out that phasing out the use of fossil fuels would prevent more than three million premature deaths annually worldwide.

Rohin Kumar is a journalist




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