India’s renewables expansion is a strong indicator of its commitment to cleaner and greener power generation, as part of its climate action strategy. But, the failure of a significant portion of its coal-based capacity to comply with globally acceptable pollution norms rubs much of the sheen off. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), in a report released last week, talks about how many coal-based thermal power plants are set to miss the 2022 deadline for complying with norms on particulate matter (PM), sulphur dioxide (SO2) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions. This, after the original deadline for completion having been moved by the government to 2022 from 2017, and the standards themselves being much more lenient than those in the EU, the US, and even China.
Given that coal accounts for 205 GW (56%) of the total installed power generation capacity in the country—and for 77% of the current electricity supply in the country—ensuring that this capacity is made cleaner is imperative. More so, with the CSE estimating that such power generation accounts for nearly 70% of freshwater withdrawal by industry in the country, 60% of industrial particulate matter, 45% of SO2, and 30% of NOx emissions in the country, apart from 80% of mercury as a pollutant. The country’s SO2 emissions doubled between 2005 and 2012, and India will soon be the top SO2 emitter in the world. To fix this, in 2015, the environment ministry introduced stricter standards for coal-based power plants and, based on the age of plants, compliance benchmarks were set with a two-year deadline for meeting these. But, soon enough, the deadline was extended to 2022, even though the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Agency had pushed for a 2020 deadline. The implementation also got caught up in legal tangles in between.
With two years to the deadline, just 97 GW of the coal-fired capacity is in compliance with particulate matter (PM) standards, while upgradation is underway in 14 GW and a mere 16 GW of capacity is in compliance with SO2 norms. For this pollutant, 125 GW of capacity is still in the preliminary stages of feasibility study; given flue gas desulphurisation takes over two years to install, plants should have started work in 2019 itself to meet the 2022 deadline. Given NCR pollution, a tighter deadline of 2019 was fixed for the 11 coal-fired plants (with 37 units) in the area—that 10 of these don’t comply with the SO2 norms, four with PM norms, and eight with NOx norms shows how lax the power sector has been on emission control.
The Central Electricity Authority, in 2017, had recommended that 15.5 GW of capacity of a total of 34.7 GW that was older than 25 years in 2015, be retired. Currently, about half of that recommended has been retired; most of the older plants are owned by state PSUs, and the governments are reluctant to shut these down. It is the same story with water usage. As per rough estimates, the 2015 norms can reduce PM emissions by 35%, SO2 emissions by 80%, and NOx emissions by 42%. Without strict action against plants that are projected to be in breach of the norms by the time the deadline expires, clean power generation in India remains a pipedream.