The coal curse

resource crunch Responsible for producing 70 per cent of the total electricity in the country, coal-fired power plants in India are highly polluting a

The coal curse

India is the fifth largest producer and consumer of electricity in the world with the total production coming up to 1,006 terawatt hours. Electricity demand is set to rise in the country and the capacity of coal-fired plants is projected to double between 2012 and 2022. This is a matter of concern, as a recent two-year study by New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has reported that coal-based power plants run on inefficient technology, don’t meet even the lenient regulations and are a major source of pollution.

The performance of these plants is way below the global benchmark, with immense scope for improvement. The study, Heat on Power, done under CSE’s Green Rating Project (GRP), is the first of its kind rating of coal power sector in India in terms of their environmental performance and compliance. “Given the rapid increase in coal-based power projected by the government, stress on precious resources like water and land will increase and air and water pollution will worsen, unless corrective measures are taken by the industry and policy makers,” said Sunita Narain, director general of CSE during the release of ratings in New Delhi.

Water guzzlers
“The thermal power industry in India annually draws about 22 million cubic
metres of water, which is equal to over half of India’s total domestic water needs,” said Chandra Bhushan, CSE’s deputy director during a round table organised at Mumbai. Over 70 percent of the total freshwater withdrawal by industrial sector in the country is by these plants, which are also water inefficient. As against the global best of 1.6 m3/MWh of water use, the average water use by coal-based power plants in India is 4 m3/MWh.

Apart from being water guzzlers, coal-fired power plants are also a source of high air pollution. Almost 70 per cent of total coal consumed in India is by this sector. Since they burn coal inefficiently, they spew out toxins. Of the total industrial sector pollution in the country, coal-fired power plants are responsible for 60 per cent of particulate matter (PM) emissions, 45-50 per cent of sulphur dioxide (SO2) emissions, 30 per cent of nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, and more than 80 per cent of mercury emissions.

The GRP team started the study in early 2012 covering 47 coal-and lignite-based thermal power plants spread across 16 states with a total capacity of 54 gigawatts. In order to assess the plants, the research team considered only the generation phase, i.e., from the entry of coal inside the plant boundary till the generation of electricity. Several parameters were considered and assigned weightage. These include energy, air pollution, water use, ash handling, water pollution, etc.

Only 46 per cent of the selected plants agreed to participate in the rating and
voluntarily submitted detailed data, and allowed the GRP team to audit their
performance. However, in order to be objective and unbiased, the GRP surveyors visited all the 47 plants and conducted extensive interviews of all stakeholders. Information and data was also collected from secondary sources.

Of the 47 power plants rated, four plants – CESC Ltd, Budge Budge, West Bengal; JSW Energy Ltd, Toranagallu, Karnataka; The Tata Power Company Ltd, Trombay, Mumbai; and JSW Energy Ltd, Ratnagiri, Maharashtra – made it to the Three Leaves category, scoring between 40 and 60 per cent. Seven companies got Two Leaves (30-40 per cent), and 16 One Leaf (20-30 per cent). Twenty plants got less than 20 per cent score. The performance of NTPC Ltd., which refused to disclose data to the GRP team, was found to be  below par (16-28 per cent).

CSE found almost two-third of the surveyed plants to be clearly violating the lax PM standard of 150-350 milligrams per normal cubic metre (mg/Nm3) for existing plants. The future coal-fired power plants in the country have to follow 50 mg/Nm3, which is still lenient than China and the US, who follow a PM standard of 20-30 mg/Nm3 and 10-50 mg/Nm3 respectively. These countries also regulate other pollutants, like SO2, NOx and mercury from the coal-fired power plants. However, in India there are no standards for these toxic pollutants.

Coal-fired power plants in India are also not land efficient. On the basis of environmental clearance granted, CSE has calculated that till February this year, 2.85 lakh hectares (ha) of land has been diverted for such projects. Of this 0.75 lakh ha is for the plant sites and 2.1 lakh ha is for the coal mines, which includes 46,719 ha of forest land.

The Central Electricity Authority suggests using 0.44 ha land per MW capacity. But, CSE assessment shows that Indian coal plants are using an average of 0.72 ha per MW, of which over 40 per cent is used for disposing ash. At present, more than a billion tonne of ash is lying unused in ash ponds across the country.

Indian coal-fired power plants lag behind in energy efficiency too. Poor efficiency means burning extra coal to generate the same amount of power. Take the case of China, where plant efficiency is 35.7 per cent. In the US and Japan, it is 35.8 per cent and 40.5 per cent respectively. But, average efficiency of Indian coal-fired power plant is only 32.8 per cent. CSE’s survey found Tata Power’s 4,000 MW plant at Mundra in Gujarat to be the most efficient plant (38.1 per cent) and JSEB, Patratu to be least efficient (21.4 per cent). Low efficiency is also directly related to high CO2 emissions. CSE’s study found the average emission rate of Indian plants to be 1.08 tonne CO2/MWh, which is seven per cent higher than the global average and 14 per cent higher than China’s.

Smarter solutions
As per the list of proposed coal-fired power plants in India, a number of these projects are coming up in clusters. This means, local pollution levels are going to rise in the future. According to J P Deb Roy, vice president of JSW Energy Ltd, the need of the hour is to increase efficiency of the installed capacity, rather than blindly setting up new coal-fired power plants. Bhushan claims that strict standards for PM, SO2, NOx and mercury must be set in the country and all new capacity additions should be based on the tighter norms. Coal-based plants should also use resources (land, water, coal, etc) efficiently.

“China has tightened its emission norms in the last 2-3 years due to high air pollution. India’s emission standards from thermal power plants, however, lag behind,” said Anand Pattani, vice president and regional director of Black and Veatch, during CSE’s round table at Mumbai.

Environmental cost must be built into the project cost of coal-fired power plants. Such a calculation may lead to an increase (20-25 percent) in capex (capital expenditure) and O&M costs (and eventually consumer tariffs); but, it will also lead India’s thermal power sector to the global best. Are we ready for it?

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