The government (both states and the Centre) must summon the political will to act against inefficient coal-based plants.
An analysis by the Council for Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) posits India can save upto $1.2 billion year if shuts down 30 gigawatts (GW) of its old coal-based thermal power plants and runs newer ones for longer hours than the current rate. Apart from cost-savings on 42 million tonnes of coal that would have been otherwise utilised, there are obvious financial gains from the environmental impact. The cost avoided in terms of mandated pollution-control measures that are pending will also provide a boost. It will help address under-utilisation of power-generation capacity and free up investment in cleaner energy sources.
The government (both states and the Centre) must summon the political will to act against inefficient coal-based plants. On the contrary, they seem only too willing to cut the polluters significant slack. On April 1, the Centre notified the Environment Protection (Amendment) Rules that push the deadline for GHG-emitting coal-fired thermal power plants (TPPs) on compliance with the emission norms. The norms were announced in 2015, with a 2017 adoption projected at the time. But, litigation managed to push the deadline several times, and it was last (before the April 2021 extension) set at 2022. However, only a third of the TPPs have undertaken any meaningful action so far. And with mere months to the deadline, the government pushed the deadline—upto 2024-25 in some cases. What’s worse is that some plants that are scheduled to retire—that is, they are much older than the rest—have been given a later deadline. So, in a perverse way, the worse polluters will be allowed to pollute for longer.
The April leniency covers 75% of the TPPs in India. How large the pollution footprint of this step would be is not too hard to imagine. As this newspaper has pointed out before, the issue is also that violation of the deadline won’t attract heavy punitive measures. Last year, an analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) had pegged this at Rs 5-11 lakh per MW. In contrast, the cost of installing the emission-control equipment is estimated to be Rs 40-100 lakh depending on plant-capacity and pollution generated. So, for a clutch of TPPs, the penalty won’t pinch, especially if retirement is in the horizon soon after the deadline expires. Those with the longest relief period will pay the lowest penalty sums as per the amended Rules, and the more inefficient plants—penalty is tied to generation, and smaller plants with lower load-running (meaning more pollution) will be charged a lower penalty—will face a lower punitive burden.
TPPs account for 62% of India’s industrial particulate matter pollution and 45% of sulphur-pollution. So, if older TPPs seem unwilling, or incapable of moving towards cleaner generation, shutting them down would make eminent sense. It will, of course, require considerable political will, in view of the number of jobs involved and perfect coordination between the states and the Centre—given how many TPPs are owned by state governments—but it is worth exploring in view of climate gains.