On February 27 and 28, 2017, two articles were published in this newspaper which quoted the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) extensively regarding the ongoing discussions on the implementation of pollution standards for coal-based thermal power plants. The one titled “Thermal power plant emissions: MoEFCC zeroes in on FGD, environmentalists say tech outdated” (goo.gl/yWq5ie) suggested that CSE is pushing outdated and expensive technology to reduce sulphur dioxide (SOx) emissions. The other “Environment lobby split, TERI harps on mix of renewable and storage, CSE says coal power here to stay” (goo.gl/ejk3nX) said that CSE is not in favour of renewable energy and wants coal power to stay. Both these suggestions are far removed from reality; CSE’s views have been misrepresented in both the cases.
CSE firmly believes that India’s growing needs can be met only by “considering all options.” CSE does not believe that the debate at this point is either renewables or coal. We strongly support the development of renewable energy, especially to meet the needs of 300 million Indians who do not have access to electricity. But the fact remains that all reports by major think tanks—including the Central Electricity Authority (CEA)—agree that although little additional coal power capacity is needed over the next decade in India, coal will continue to be a significant source of electricity generation in the coming two decades. CSE’s own estimates show that if we meet the 175GW renewable energy target by 2022, we can manage to get close to 50% of our electricity requirements from non-fossil fuels by 2031-32; coal and gas would still supply the remaining half of our electricity requirements. This would be an amazing achievement. No country in the world—not even Germany with its much vaunted renewable energy programme—would manage to decarbonise as fast as we will do in the next two decades.
Given this scenario in which coal will still provide half of our electricity needs for the next two decades, CSE has argued the existing coal power plants, which are extremely polluting and have a severe impact on health and environment, need to invest in pollution control. In addition, we have recommended that very old and polluting plants should be retired and any new coal plant, if needed, should be state-of-the-art super critical or ultra-super critical with advanced pollution control technologies.
It is important to understand that the coal-based thermal power sector is the single large source of industrial pollution in India. It accounts for 60% of particulate emissions, 45-50% of SOx emissions, 30% of NOx emissions, more than 80% of toxic mercury emissions and 70% of freshwater withdrawal from the entire industrial sector. Cleaning up the coal power sector will, therefore, have massive environmental and health benefits.
The standards that were notified by the ministry of environment, forests & climate change (MoEF&CC) in December 2015, according to our estimates, would reduce freshwater withdrawal from coal power sector by 85%, particulate emissions by 65%, SOx emissions by over 85% and NOx by almost 70%. These are massive cuts and they will be achieved by implementing a set of standards that are no more stringent than what other countries across the world have imposed on their coal power sectors. In fact, China today implements far more stringent standards than those that have been notified by the MoEF&CC.
The MoEF&CC has set a deadline of December 2017 for the coal power sector to meet these standards. But the industry has so far dragged its feet. Most companies have not even started initial work. The industry is demanding at least five more years to implement these standards. They say that it will be very expensive and that there is no proven technology. Suggestions have been made that if we implement the standards quickly, it would benefit foreign technology suppliers. Our study shows that these claims have no basis.
First, technology is not an issue. Technologies to control all pollutants are mature and are being used across the world, including in our own country. Here I would like to mention that the February 27 article quotes an academic expert about some magic technology that will suck all pollutants and convert them into fertilisers! Well, this magic technology is not even at the pilot stage and we do not have the time to wait for this technology to clean our environment and protect the health of our people.
Regarding foreign technology suppliers benefiting out of implementation of these standards, the fact is that whether we implement the standards today or five years later, both domestic and foreign companies would supply technologies. In today’s globalised market, we cannot ask power companies to only use domestic technology. Also, pollution control technologies are not portable equipment that will be shipped from foreign soils. Most of these technologies are massive EPC (erection, procurement and commissioning) projects requiring construction that will be done by Indian contractors and sub-contractors even if a foreign company is involved. So, the apprehensions about foreign companies are nothing but another excuse.
Regarding cost, our estimates as well the estimates of CEA show that the cost of electricity will increase by 20-30 paisa per unit over the next two years (or about 5% over two years) because of these standards. Considering that over the past 10 years, the cost of power generation in India has grown by 8% every year on an average, the cost to implement these standards is highly affordable.
However, considering the current problems of power companies wherein power demand is far lower than supply and debt burden is high, we have come out with a proposal to use a part of the National Clean Energy Fund (NCEF), which is collected from a cess on coal, to help industry meet the standards. We have proposed that low interest and long-tenure loans be given to coal power companies from NCEF to implement the standards. The interest accrued from these loans can be spent to incentivise renewable energy companies. So, in one stroke, we will be able to clean coal power as well as promote renewable energy. This, we believe, would be the most appropriate use of NCEF.
The ball is now in the court of the coal power industry. Do they want to prevaricate and delay further or do they want to seriously come to the table and work with MoEF&CC to find a reasonable time frame to implement the standards? Here the role of the ministry of power is going to be the most important. The good thing is that we have a minister (Piyush Goyal), in-charge of power, coal and new and renewable energy, who understands these challenges. His leadership would be important to implement the pollution standards. As far as the MoEF&CC is concerned, the coal power standard is the single biggest regulatory action this ministry has taken in decades. It has to take this to a logical end.
Lastly, we believe that the tussle is not between energy and environment. We need energy to meet our basic developmental needs of education, health, transportation, food and everything else. And we need it in an affordable and environmentally-sound manner. The approach of cleaning up coal plants and promoting renewable energy together meets this objective.
-The author is deputy director general, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi