Green rating of coal-based power plants in India by CSE offers startling insights into the sector
Isector, based predominantly on coal-fired plants, is one of the most NDIA'S POWER polluting sectors of Indian industry. To highlight key environmental issues and rate the performance of power plants, Centre for Science and Environment (cse) intensively studied the sector for two years, covering 47 coal- and lignite-based thermal plants with a capacity of 54 gigawatts (GW), half of the Indian capacity when the study began in early 2012.cse’s assessment found glaring inconsistencies between pollution data, especially stack emissions, reported by plants and actual conditions on the ground. Events like breach of ash dykes, which would be considered disasters in other countries, were taken in stride as common —a number of water bodies were found to be polluted with ash.
No country in the world uses coal as poor in quality as India, so our pollution challenges are huge. But our practices to overcome this challenge were found wanting. India’s standards for pollution and resource use lag far behind global norms, but its power plants fail to meet even such relaxed levels of performance, lacking the basic technologies to control pollution. With state pollution control boards understaffed to monitor performance, power plants routinely flout norms; nevertheless,t he plants almost always report compliance.The situation is complicated by the fact that the power sector is a critical sector of the Indian economy. Thus, under the rationale of the need for power, even the most inefficient and polluting plants are allowed to operate. With one of the poorest levels of energy access and per capita consumption of electricity, at a third of the world average,India needs to rapidly expand its generation capacity.
Coal is the fuel of choice. Being plentiful and easy to mine, it provides reliable and dispatchable power.Capacity of coal-fired plants is projected to double between 2012 and 2022 and will contribute nearly 75 per cent of generation.
Current environmental practices will have to be improved to make this increase acceptable. Coal-based electricity entails heavy costs on the environment,resources and health.It is responsible for significant emissions of harmful particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen and sulphur. Domestic coal’s high ash content introduces additional challenges of disposing off ash that has toxic heavy metals.Coal-based power consumes large amounts of water; coal mining has severe impacts on land,air and water which exacerbate the environmental footprint of coal-based power.
Instead of capturing the full costs of coal-based power, India’s tariff system subsidises it— land and water is provided at low costs and coal is subsidised; weak or non-existent pollution
norms mean plants do not have to invest in pollution abatement technologies; finally, costs such as health impact and environmental damage, called externalities, are left out of the tariff calculations. These make electricity from coal “affordable”.
AN ENVIRONMENTAL AUDIT
Of a total of 104 coal- and lignite-based thermal power plants in India with a capacity of 98 GW in early 2012, the Green Rating Project (grp) team of cse assessed 47 plants with a capacity of 54 GW (see ‘Report card’ on facing page). The sample was chosen to present a comprehensive picture of the sector, with wide representations from all regions, types of ownerships (Central, state and private), companies and unit sizes (see ‘Rating process’). The grp team considered only the generation phase—from the entry of coal inside the plant boundary till the generation of electric- ity—to assess the plants. Although coal mining has significant environmental impacts, it was not considered because it requires independent assessment.
Overall, 46 per cent of the selected plants agreed to participate in the ratings, which means they submitted detailed data and allowed the grp team to visit the plant and audit its performance (see ‘Shy of public scrutiny’). grp surveyors visited all of the 47 plants, spending several days at each, and conducted extensive interviews of all stakeholders, including community, media, ngos, pollution control board officials and plant employees. They also collected extensive data from secondary, publicly-available sources for both participating and non-participating plants to prepare profiles of individual plants.
All companies that were selected, were rated irrespective of their participation to make sure the exercise was objective and unbiased. Companies were analysed with reference to global best practices and Indian averages. A technical advisory panel consisting of top industry and pollution experts oversaw the entire process to ensure credibility. They include B Sengupta, former member secretary, Central Pollution Control Board; Avinash Chandra, former professor and head of Centre for Energy Studies, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi; Umesh S Bapat, former vice president of Operations Eastern Region, Tata Power; and Y P Abbi, former director of Power Station Engineering, Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd.
grp rated the sector on about 60 key parameters which were assigned weightages depending on their environmental impacts (see ‘Weightage assigned...’). Resource use and pollution were assigned equally high weightages.