Ultra mega coal power projects: An ecological disaster

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The Ministry of Power is reportedly planning seven coal-based ultra mega power projects, each with an installed capacity of 4,000 MW, which will be some of the largest in the country. The proposal is to set up five such projects in coastal India, and two near coal mines.  Five of these -- on the coasts of Karnataka, Maharastra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa --would use either imported coal or a blend of domestic and imported coal on an unprecedented scale.

 The society has an urgent need to examine the desirability of such ultra mega power projects objectively in the background of our real energy needs, the huge impact they will have on the fragile ecology, inevitable misery for the displaced people, immense societal costs, and the credible alternatives available to us. 

The west coast in India in general, and Karnataka in particular is adjacent to very precious and environmentally fragile Western Ghats, which is an important bio-diversity hot spot as per the UN.  The entire stretch of the Western Ghats in Karnataka is covered with thick forests of unparalleled bio-diversity and is a source of a large number of rivers providing life sustenance to the entire peninsula.

 The thin coastal strip of land in the vicinity of the proposed site in Karnataka, for example, is a very rich habitat for flora and fauna with evergreen forests, fertile agricultural fields, prosperous fishing sites and iodine rich salt mines. This unique habitat, which is the source of food and livelihood for a large number of families, will be destroyed by the proposed project because of the huge quantities of pollutants such as flue gases and coal ash.

 Most of the land for the proposed site has to come out of this rich habitation. The evacuation of 4,000 MW power has to happen mostly over the thickly forested Western Ghats, needing a transmission corridor of a few hundred square kilometre area.

One can only shudder to think of the potential for devastation caused on the regional flora, fauna and the society by the destruction of these habitats. In the name of such unsustainable developments, if we continue to destroy thick forests and fertile agricultural lands, how are we going to increase the forest cover from the present level of 19 to 33 per cent, which is a target for National Forest Policy, and also feed the growing population?

While the state and the central governments claim that everything possible is being done to mitigate and adapt to the threats of global warming, such ghastly projects will negate all such claims and any meagre efforts.

It is perplexing that the authorities seem to have ignored all these crucial issues, which may threaten the very meaning of the word ‘development.’  It is also unfortunate that our policy makers are ignoring the fact that the present crises facing our electricity sector is largely due to the gross inefficiency in it. The deficit and the additional demand for the next few years can be comfortably met by making the existing electrical infrastructure efficient, and by the responsible use of the available capacity. When combined together, the aggregate technical & commercial (AT&C) loss of about 35 per cent and utilisation loss of about 30 per cent, the electricity industry at present seems to be utilising effectively only about 50 per cent of the installed capacity. This can be increased to a level exceeding 70 pc. Such a measure alone can virtually add more than 20 pc to the power availability, which can be about the size of the proposed 7 x 4,000 MW, at less than half the project cost.

Measures like demand side management and energy conservation can supplement these efforts to a considerable extent. If we also focus on proper harnessing of non-conventional sources like solar power, windmill and bio-mass, the requirement of fossil fuel power stations can be drastically reduced.

 These alternative measures have a smaller gestation period, very low or nil impact on environment; can avoid recurring costs of fuels and losses, water and other resources and will result in least social costs. Hence the state/central governments have an obligation to answer the question: why don’t they explore these simpler alternatives first before even considering such ghastly mega projects?

Burn coal

The very idea of these ultra mega projects to burn large quantities of imported coal at a huge societal cost and imposing so many socio-environmental problems on the common man is not in the best interests of our society, and hence there is a need to review the requirement of policy behind such large projects.

The people would expect that an objective analysis of all the direct and indirect costs to the society should be carried out by an apex committee consisting of environmental and social scientists, economists, engineers and community leaders before finalising these projects. 

The society has to seriously introspect whether we need such high pollution projects at the cost of long term damage to our fragile environment and social fabric. Energy security, on a sustainable basis, can come only with the responsible use of our own resources, and not from imported coal or diesel or fissile material on a perpetual basis. 

(The writer is an energy expert)

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