Today, more than 63% of India’s installed power generation capacity comes from coal-fired plants but most of these power stations are not fitted with pollution control technology. Although the central government revised emissions standards in 2015, no power plant had complied by the end of 2017, leading the government to extend the deadline to 2022.
Besides carbon dioxide, coal power plants emit pollutants such as oxides of sulphur and nitrogen, heavy metals like mercury, and particulate matter known as “soot”. They cause several respiratory and heart diseases besides posing serious threat to both infants and children.
Last year, a study had estimated that more than three lakh premature deaths may occur between 2019 and 2030 due to non-compliance with emission norms by power plants. It also warned that more than five crore people may fall sick due to respiratory and other illnesses over the next 11 years.
Now a study conducted by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) says that existing and proven pollution control technologies can remove between 90% to 99.6% of harmful gases and particles emitted by power plants.
However, the cost of retrofitting the upgraded device to achieve this may be an issue of debate. The study estimates that the total cost of upgrading the power plants would be Rs 86,000 crore. This will increase the tariff by 32 paise to 72 paise per unit, or a little more, as calculated by researchers.
This will amount to an increase in power tariff anywhere between 9% and 21%. However, the authors of the report say that not dealing with hazardous emissions will most definitely impact the health of millions of people across the country.
“These costs include the cost of treating the health impacts of pollution as well as the consequences on productivity of illness and premature deaths. There are non-health related costs too — air pollution corrodes infrastructure in all forms, impacts agricultural productivity, degrades waterways, and reduces in-bound tourism,” says Vibhuti Garg, senior energy economist at Global Subsidies Initiative (GSI) of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).
Switzerland-based university of science and technology, ETH Zurich, had recently stated that although China and the US are the largest coal power producers, India’s coal power plants are the “unhealthiest” in the world.
“There is a lack of seriousness on the part of the power companies in implementing the new emission norms. The power companies have not only breached the statutory deadline of December 2017 for compliance with the emission norms, there is no sense of urgency even now. The new deadline of 2022 is also likely to be breached if the power companies do not take up the task of making their power plant compliant with the new emission norms,” says Ritwick Dutta, a Supreme Court advocate and environmental activist.
India’s total power generation will cross 830 gigawatt by 2030. More than 400 gigawatts of this will come from coal. In such a scenario, strict emission standards and monitoring will be the key to achieve desirable air quality.
This is particularly important because in the last few years, several international reports, including State of Global Air (SoGA) and a report in The Lancet, said that India is losing 10 lakh to 12 lakh people every year due to air pollution-related diseases.
The government dismissed these “foreign” reports by terming them “alarmist” but India’s own research body, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), last year came up with similar data for deaths due to air pollution-related ailments.
Doctors in Ganga Ram Hospital in New Delhi last week diagnosed a 28-year-old “non-smoking” woman with stage-4 lung cancer. Doctors of the hospital say it may be due to toxic air and high levels of pollution.
In such a scenario, experts believe that power plants should be asked to follow strict emission norms and adhere to high levels of transparency.
“If the plants really want to be granted reprieve against the cost incurred, they need to show proof that emission reduction have happened,” says Karthik Ganesan, a research fellow at CEEW.
Experts say given the threat to the health of people and the cost of these devices transferred on consumer as tariff, power plants should be made 100% accountable and transparent.
“Emissions data from monitoring devices placed in power plant stacks need to be made available to the wider public and must be placed on record before the electricity regulator, to ensure that tariff increases are passed on only after sufficient scrutiny and ensuring standards have indeed been met,” says Ganesan.
Meanwhile, India’s largest power generator, the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), announced last month that it will be setting up the world’s cleanest power plant in Chhattisgarh’s Sipat. The NTPC claims that this plant will emit 20% less carbon dioxide than any conventional power plant.