Thursday, February 26, 2015

Power that pollutes

In the midst of triumphalism from the government aboutof coal mines, an assessment of the performance of India's coal-based by the comes as a sobering reality check. The plants studied, which account for around half of the country's capacity in 2011-12, have scored an abysmal average of 23 per cent on a scale that rates plants following global best practices at 80 per cent. No Indian plant does so, the best scoring around 50 per cent in terms of their and environmental performance. As much as 40 per cent of the plants studied score a very low rating of less than 20 per cent. As the quality of Indian coal is poor, the need is to make up the deficit through better technology and performance. But the opposite is the case. The worst offenders appear to get away with their way of working as it is difficult for a power-starved country to close down a plant for polluting too much or being inefficient.

In the fallout of the coal auctions, many senior officials have insisted India plans to massively raise its coal-based power-generating capacity even as the poor quality of its coal, with low calorific and high ash content, is going to go down further with increasing exploitation of known reserves. Coal demand for power is set to nearly double in the 2012-22 period. Right now, a billion tonnes of fly ash already generated remain unutilised. It is difficult to imagine what will happen when there are plans to generate more, but none to reduce the backlog of what is already there on the ground. The increase in generation will also lead to greater water consumption, which, too, is set to double in the same period.

It is imperative to devise a range of integrated policies that will reduce the pressure created on natural resources and minimise the amount of pollution caused, as it results in considerable health costs. For example, the power regulator that sets tariffs and the environment regulator that sets permissible emission levels must work in concert - so that a power producer that spends more on doing a cleaner job not just gets these costs recognised in the tariffs allowed to it, but is also rewarded. The mandated use of large super-critical capacity must be raised, and coal-based power must be used more and more to meet the base load demand (excluding peak demand). The additional power demand for peak periods must increasingly be met by renewable sources like solar and wind power, or by gas-based units that can be started and shut down quickly and are less polluting than coal-based power plants. Most of the additional thermal power-generating capacity will come up in eastern and central India, which are not as economically secure. As the communities around projects do not typically benefit the most from the economic activity, it is at least necessary to reduce the environmental costs that they bear above all.

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