Exactly 18 months ago, I wrote a column in this newspaper titled, 'Can the thermal power sector be trusted again?'. I cautioned the government against granting further relaxation in timelines to the coal-based thermal power sector to meet the new pollution norms without a proper monitoring and implementation plan. Alas, my fear seems to be coming true; the sector has, again, made very little progress towards meeting the new timelines. But, before I expand on this, let's recap.
The coal-fired power sector is the biggest source of industrial pollution in India. Of the entire industrial sector, it alone accounts for 60% of suspended particulate matter (SPM) emissions, 50% of sulphur dioxide (SO2), 30% of oxides of nitrogen (NOx), 80% of mercury emissions, and 70% of the freshwater withdrawals. Considering its high pollution and resource impacts, the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) notified new pollution regulations in December 2015, and gave the sector two years to meet these standards. However, the sector refused to meet the norms for various reasons. Under pressure from the industry and the power ministry, MoEF&CC revised the timelines and gave an additional five years-i.e., until 2022-to meet the norms.
The new pollution norms brought in standards for SO2, NOx, and mercury for the first time, and the SPM norm was also tightened. However, older and smaller plants had to comply with lenient norms compared to bigger and newer plants. The rationale behind this was to avoid excessive investments in older and smaller plants that were expected to be retired soon. When compared to other major coal power-producing countries, these standards are comparable, or even lenient. China, for instance, has far more stringent standards.
When implemented, these norms are expected to reduce freshwater use in the coal power sector by 85%, SPM by 33%, SO2 by over 80%, and NOx emissions by 50%. This will have huge environmental and health benefits. According to a recent study by C-STEP, a policy research think-tank based in Bengaluru, by implementing these standards cumulatively, 3.2 lakh lives can be saved, and 5.2 crore respiratory hospital admissions avoided, between 2015 and 2030. The public health benefits alone outweigh the investments required to implement the norms.
Cut to the present. While relaxing the timelines, MoEF&CC gave clear deadlines to each plant. For plants located in polluted areas, such as Delhi, the deadlines are 2019 and 2020; for the rest, it is 2022.
Power plants recently disclosed the status of their implementation of the SO2 norms, the most time-consuming and expensive retrofit. The status of implementation indicates that 80% of the plants run the risk of missing the revised deadline. For instance:
- 30% of the capacity is still doing the feasibility study.
- 52% are in the tender stage; after tendering, it takes at least two to three years for operationalising a flue-gas desulphurisation (FGD) plant.
- In only 10% of the capacity, tenders have been awarded, and in 1%, work has started.
It is clear that most plants in the critically polluted Delhi-NCR, and many more in the rest of the country will not meet the norms as per their deadlines. The question is: Why are the plants slipping on the deadlines again?
There are many reasons, one of them being the belief, in the industry, that they would be able to push the deadline further. In fact, the industry has already got the nod from MoEF&CC to relax the NOx standards. This issue is now pending in the Supreme Court. However, the two most important reasons are the lackadaisical attitude of the State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs), and ambiguities in the decisions of the central and state Electricity Regulatory Commissions (ERCs).
SPCBs are failing to proactively monitor the implementation. Their attitude is that once a deadline is given, the industry would comply, or else, they would be closed, or penalised heavily. But, they are mistaken; power plants are too essential to be closed down, and too regulated to pay heavy fines. Time and again, the thermal power sector has refused to comply, and it is the SPCBs that had to bend to accommodate them. It is, therefore, essential that the SPCBs ask plants to submit deadlines for major milestones, and monitor the implementation closely. They should also ask plants to deposit appropriate bank guarantees to ensure time-bound implementation of these milestones.
ERCs are the most crucial agency as they approve investments in pollution control equipment, so that costs are passed on to the consumers. But, despite a clear deadline for implementation, the majority of plants have still not approached the ERCs for approval. They are citing various reasons, including reluctance of the ERCs to give pre-approval. The ERCs, on the other hand, are blaming the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) for not giving them clear benchmark costs for various emission control technologies. There is now a deadlock.
CEA can break this impasse by publishing a detailed costing of emission-control technologies. ERCs, on the other hand, can quickly set deadlines for submission of investment petitions, and penalise delays in their filing. Most importantly, for speedy implementation, ERCs can grant in-principle approval to plants whose investments are within the CEA's benchmark costs. Some states, such as Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Gujarat, already have in-principle approval processes in place. This can be a template for the central, and other state ERCs.
Setting the new emissions norms for the power sector is the biggest pollution-control action taken by the government in decades. A proper implementation of these standards can reduce air pollution load in the country significantly. For example, SO2 pollution can be reduced by a third. It is, therefore, important that all government agencies work in tandem to ensure its proper implementation.
(The author is Deputy director general, CSE. Twitter: @Bh_Chandra. Views are personal)