Chimneys of a coal-fired power plant are pictured in New Delhi, July 20, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi/File Photo.
New Delhi: Is the Narendra Modi government watering down the rules governing thermal power plants in India to help corporate entities that have forayed into coal-mining?
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has promulgated a series of changes in the recent past that have together contributed to this effect – even as they ignore the resulting environmental hazards.
The reforms parallel Prime Minister Modi launching the auction of 41 coal blocks (later revised to 38) for commercial mining by private players, in June 2020. It was also the first time the government had opened up coal blocks to private players without any end-use restrictions. The auction process thus far has been aggressive, with several top companies bidding and acquiring blocks.
This historic change in the coal sector has to be seen together with changes in the thermal power sector.
In April 2020, the Union power ministry introduced a policy to encourage the use of domestic coal in thermal power plants by setting up a mechanism to help plant owners switch from imported coal. In May, the Modi government did away with the mandate for thermal power plants to use coal with ash content below 34%, a rule installed by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to restrict the production of fly ash.
The government has also eliminated the need to wash the coal – a procedure that removes contaminants and reduces the amount of fly ash released as a by-product during combustion. Then came the coal block auction in June.
In the latest change, the Union environment ministry published a memorandum in November allowing thermal power plants to change their sources of coal without having to modify their environmental clearance applications.
It no longer matters if the coal procured by thermal plants is of low quality and calorific value, and higher in ash content and moisture. Until recently, most plants had been using imported coal, or a blend with domestic coal, which has lower fly ash and is more expensive. The coal mined in India has 30-50% ash while important coal could have 10% or less.
Places where thermal power plants are located in India are places where the local ecology has been severely impacted by fly ash and sulphurous emissions.
Incidents of overflowing fly-ash ponds and dyke breaches, resulting in lost lives and agricultural productivity, regularly hit the headlines. Most plants have failed to meet the December 2017 deadline for 100% use of fly ash – which was also the handiwork of the UPA government.
According to a recent report by the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), thermal power plants utilised 78.19% of their fly ash in the first six months of 2019-2020.
The Central Pollution Control (CPCB) has also issued penalty notices to these plants, after having been directed by the National Green Tribunal, for missing their deadlines to use fly ash. But thus far, 102 of 112 power plants have refused to pay the penalties on various grounds, including appeals pending against the tribunal’s order.
Further, according to guidelines issued by the Supreme Court plus a CPCB order, all thermal power plants are required to meet the new emission standards latest by December 2022. The plants are specifically required to install flue-gas desulphurisation (FGD) systems to contain the sulphurous emissions.
However, another CEA report found that only four thermal power units, out of 448 across the country, have successfully commissioned FGD projects. This works out to a mere 1,740 MW of the total installed capacity of 1,69,722 MW of thermal power in the country – or slightly more than 1%.
The government has pushed the use of domestically produced coal instead of imported coal in thermal power plants because doing so will reduce India’s import burden. According to official data, India’s coal imports in 2019 stood at 197.84 million tonnes – a 12.6% increase over the previous year.
RK Sachdev, former advisor (coal) to the Government of India, disagreed with the government’s strategy, however. He told The Wire:
“It is at best a myth that there will be 100% import substation of coal with the opening of the sector for commercial mining by private players. Many thermal power plants have been specifically designed to use a particular quality or blend of coal. Several more thermal power plants are located along India’s coast line and it is always cost effective for them to procure imported coal. There are issues surrounding transportation of coal too. For example, for a particular thermal power plant located in Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu, it will always be cost-effective to procure good quality coal from Indonesia through the sea route instead of getting lower quality coal from Mahanadi Coalfields through an inland route. In addition, during the months of May-July every year, when electricity demand peaks, Railways also fall short of wagons, owing to several exigencies, to transport supplies from mineheads to power plants. These are few of the challenges in using domestically-produced coal.”
According to other experts, emission standards for thermal power plants notified in December 2015 have been diluted as well. In May 2019, the Centre increased the emission limits of nitrogen oxides from thermal power plants from 300 to 450 milligrams per cubic meter.
“Talks are also underway to do away with the need to install FGD systems in thermal power plants on the grounds that Indian coal is low in sulphur content,” Sunil Dahiya, an analyst at the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air, New Delhi, said. “The fact that sulphate particles can result in smog and health hazards is being overlooked. There also lies the issue of water usage in thermal power plants. In June 2018, the central government also increased the limits of specific water consumption for plants commissioned from January 2017 onwards.”
Experts also say that the government’s reforms have come at a time when the world is rapidly shifting away from fossil-fuel-derived energy to renewable sources. In an auction conducted by the Solar Energy Corporation of India on November 23, two firms quoted tariffs of Rs 2 per unit for 200 MW and 400 MW capacities.
“The challenge lies in the availability of cheaper renewable electricity at night,” Ajay Mathur, director-general of the The Energy and Research Institute, Delhi, said. “By far, coal-based power happens to be the cheapest form of electricity at night. Once we have availability of renewables at the same price as that of coal and we also develop a cost-effective storage facility for renewable energy, the game will be over for fossil-fuel derived power.”
Ayaskant Das is a journalist and author.