Stricter Standards for Coal Based Thermal Power Plants

  • The Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change has notified the revised standards for coal-based Thermal Power Plants in the country, with the primary aim of minimising pollution.

  • These standards are proposed to be implemented in a phased manner.
  • Thermal power plants are categorised into 3 categories, namely those:-
  1. Installed before 31st December, 2003
  2. Installed after 2003 upto 31st December, 2016 and
  3. Installed after 31st December, 2016.
  • The new standards are aimed at reducing emission of PM10(0.98 kg/MWh), sulphur dioxide(7.3 Kg/MWh) and Oxide of nitrogen (4.8 kg/MWh),
  • Which will in turn help in bringing about an improvement in the Ambient Air Quality (AAQ) in and around thermal power plants. The norms thereby restrict particulate matter emissions to no more than 30 mg/cubic metre; sulphur and nitrous oxides to 100 mg and mercury to 0.03 mg respectively.
  • The technology employed for the control of the proposed limit of Sulfur Dioxide – SO2 & Nitrogen Oxide – NOx will also help in control of mercury emission (at about 70-90%) as a co-benefit.
  • Limiting the use of water in thermal power plant will lead to water conservation (about 1.5 M3/MWh) as thermal power plant is a water-intensive industry. This will also lead to a reduction in energy requirement for drawl of water.
  • The standards have been made stringent for recent plants, compared to earlier ones and most stringent for those plants to be set up in future.
  • These standards are based on the recommendation of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) after consultations with stakeholders.
  • Beginning 2017, thermal power plants across India will have to cut particulate matter emissions by as much as 40 per cent and reduce their water consumption by nearly a third

Significance

  • India’s thermal power plants are significantly dependent on coal, and have been described as among the most serious sources of pollution.
  • A recent scientific publication in a highly rated open source journal PNAS showed how the per- hectare yield of rice and wheat have decreased over the last decade owing to the increasing concentration of aerosols produced as secondary pollution from thermal power plants.
  • Environmental organisations say the norms are progressive and, if adhered to, will bring India’s power plants in line with international-emission standards.
  • Now, mercury emissions aren’t even being measured and the new standards propose a cut by nearly 90 per cent.
  • Earlier this month, the nations of the world concluded in Paris, that all countries — including large, developing economies such as India and China — have to move away from their complete reliance on fossil fuels. Coal, however, would remain the mainstay of India’s growth engine. The government recently said it plans to scale down its dependence on coal from the current 61 per cent to 57 per cent by 2030, even as it ramps up its total electricity generation capacity from the existing 260 GW to around 800 GW. By that year, the contribution of renewable energy — solar, wind and biogas — to total electricity generation is projected to grow to 29 per cent from the current 12 per cent

ISSUES

  • The emission standards laid down for thermal power plants for existing and older thermal power plants are much more relaxed – allowing for up to six times higher counts in cases of SOx (Sulphur Oxides) and NOx (Nitrogen Oxides) compared to standards of European Union
  • Mercury is a deadly toxic heavy metal and it is present in coal in minor amounts. A government document indicates that Indian coal ash has an average mercury concentration of 0.53 mg/kg, based on measurements from a few selected power plants. The proposed emission standard of 0.03 mg/Nm3 is far more than what the thermal power plants are emitting.
  • Also, there are no standards prescribed for older units (before December 2003) of less than 500 MW capacity, while the most dangerous mercury emitting thermal power plants were built prior to 2004. The area around Vindhyachal Thermal Power Plant of National Thermal Power Corporation, adjoining the Rihand Dam is also known as “Mianmata of India” for the high level of mercury contamination. 
  • The rules are completely silent on CO2 emission limits. Low efficiency of plants is directly related to high CO2 emissions. Most of the existing thermal power plants are based on sub-critical technology, performing at efficiencies below 33 percent.
  • The standards missed out specifications on several important air emissions like Lead, Selenium, Arsenic, Beryllium, Cadmium, Chromium, Cobalt, Lead, Manganese, Acid Gases (Hydrogen Chloride and Hydrogen Fluoride), PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons) and VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds), Dioxins and Furans. All of these are hazardous air pollutants emitted by coal-based power plants and are known for their adverse impacts both on our health and the ecology.
  • Greater emphasis was also due on the toxic metals such as Mercury, Cadmium, Hexavalent Chromium, Nickel, Selenium, and other chemicals like Ammonia, Fluoride, Phenols, Phosphorus, Sulfide, Coliform bacteria in the liquid discharge.
  • Pre-existing rules allow the inland thermal power plants to discharge water at temperatures that are 10 degrees Centigrade higher than that of the receiving water body. The World Bank guidelines suggest a maximum temperature change of 3 degrees for thermal power plants but the proposed standards ignore this aspect as also that of radioactivity.
  • Equally important would be strict regulation by monitoring agencies since the objective of such notification will be defeated unless there is complete compliance by the companies. For some emissions in particular, the implementation of technologies must be prioritized if the targeted reductions are to be achieved. For instance, significant reduction in SO2 and heavy metals will never be possible unless there is a clear mandate for installation of Flue Gas Desulphurization Units. Till transparent and independent monitoring is practised, real change may not come about.
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