The environment ministry has given a blanket two-year extension — the third one— to coal-based power plants for complying with desulphurisation norms. In a notification, the ministry has extended the deadline for installing flue-gas desulphurisation (FGD) units, which remove sulphur dioxide (SO2) from the exhaust gases of thermal plants for all categories of power plants.
The ministry has also announced graded penalties for missing the new deadline, at Rs 0.40 per unit of electricity generated for a delay of 366 days and beyond.
The plants were originally supposed to install FGDs by 2017; this was later revised to 2019 with power plants seeking more time. However, with just 4% of power plants having installed, this another extension was awarded last year, till 2022, 2023 and 2024 for the non-retiring plants in the three categories, and 2025 for plants scheduled for retirement in the three categories.
Category A are those within a 10-km radius of the National Capital Region or cities having a million-plus population, category B are those within 10 km of critically-polluted areas, with all other thermal plants being category C.
With Monday’s extension, non-retiring plants in category A get time till 2024, category B till 2025 and category C till 2026. All retiring plants have been allowed time till end 2027. Those being retired before 2027 don’t need to install FGDs.
Despite lowering its SO2 emissions over the last few years, India remains the top emitter globally, as per an analysis of NASA satellite data by Greenpeace and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. Thermal power plants are mainly responsible for this.
Just 40% of the country’s total coal power capacity have awarded bids for installing FGDs, with NTPC accounting for the lion’s share in these awards. It is likely that the plants have been seeking extensions on SO2 compliance because of the capex incurred could affect their competitiveness. “Indian coal has high sulphur content. The extension of SO2 norms is primarily to help coal plants to operate for long as they already face risks from lower prices of renewable power,” says Vibhuti Garg, energy economist and Lead India, Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
The power ministry had sought an extension on behalf of the coal-fired plant operators, citing higher costs, lack of funds, Covid-related delays and geopolitical tension with neighbouring China, which has restricted trade, Reuters reports. Stalling on retro/de novo fitting of plants with FGDs, however, may not work in the plants’ interest. Chandra Bhushan, president and CEO of International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology, says, “Every year of delay pushes up the cost of compliance for them.”
Experts say sulphur oxides are primary pollutants, and further relaxation doesn’t bode well for air quality in cities in proximity to coal-fired plants. They are also counted among the chief causes of non-communicable lung diseases in India.