70% of coal-fired power stations may not meet environmental norms by 2022 - five years after their extended deadline, finds new CSE study

India is opening up coal mining to privatisation to revive its COVID-19-struck economy. Coal-fired power plants are some of the most polluting industries in the country. The sector MUST meet the environmental norms to ensure 

“our right to breathe in clean air”, says CSE 

New Delhi, May 21, 2020: India’s coal-fired power plants have a task ahead – they must meet stringent new emission norms by 2022, which were set in December 2015 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC). But a new study report by Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) finds that with barely two years to go before the deadline hits them, almost 70 per cent of the plants will not meet the emission standards. 

Given the thrust of the Indian government to expedite and enhance coal mining in the country, “our study gains urgency”, say CSE researchers. “We cannot accept that we will continue to use coal without emission control. We want growth post-lockdown, but it has to be a growth which comes with our right to clean air. This must be equally important.” 

Coal-based Power Norms: Where do we stand today – as the CSE report is titled – was released here today at an online event anchored by CSE director general Sunita Narain. The study report presents a comprehensive assessment of the progress in implementation of the environmental norms for coal-based thermal power plants. 

Says Narain: “Our assessment finds that even after seven years since the notification and even after the agreed five-year extension given to this sector in 2017, most of the total installed coal-fired capacity will not be compliant with the crucial sulphur dioxide (SO2) standards by 2022.” Furthermore, there is little information in the public domain about compliance with PM or NOx standards and certainly, there is no direction to the thermal power plants that they must meet the crucial water standards, which would make this water-guzzling sector more responsible on its usage. 

“Coal-fired power plants are some of the most polluting industries in the country. They account for over 60 per cent of the total particulate matter (PM) emissions from all industry, as well as 45 per cent of the SO2, 30 per cent of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and over 80 per cent of the mercury emissions. Therefore, even as we continue using coal, India’s thermal power sector must clean up its act. This is absolutely non-negotiable, adds Narain.” 

What the CSE study report found about the coal-based power sector

With 56 per cent of generation capacity being based on it, coal is the mainstay of India’s power sector, says the CSE study. Besides being accountable for emissions of pollutants like SO2 etc, the sector is also extremely water-intensive – it is responsible for 70 per cent of total freshwater withdrawal by all industries in the country. 

A 2015 CSE study called Heat on Power (https://www.cseindia.org/heat-on-power-5768) had highlighted the huge scope for improvement in the sector’s environmental performance and had recommended tightening of norms to bring down pollution levels. In December 2015, the MoEF&CC introduced stricter environmental standards. 

Says the CSE report: “The 2015 standards are in line with global regulations. According to rough estimates, their implementation can cut down emissions of PM by 35 per cent, SO2 by 80 per cent, and NOx by 42 per cent. They can also bring down freshwater use by the industry.” 

The sector, however, has been far from forthcoming in accepting the norms. The industry tried to first obstruct and prevaricate on the 2015 standards. The deadline for meeting them was moved from 2017 to 2022 – but the sector continues to remain in its state of sloth. 

Says Soundaram Ramanathan, deputy programme manager, industrial pollution unit, CSE, and one of the writers behind the report: “The CSE report has structured its content to enable an easy understanding of the subject – from providing an overview of the standards and a chronology and progress of the implementation process, to giving updates on phasing out of old plants and rules for new ones. It also offers recommendations.” 

What the report recommends

  • The environment ministry should issue directions and impose hefty fines on the plants which clearly will not meet the 2022 deadline. High penalties/closure notices should be issued for non-compliant Delhi-NCR airshed plants at least for the peak winter pollution months.
  • Take urgent decision regarding the older plants which cannot meet the already lax emission standards. These must be retired/refurbished to use alternative fuels or move towards using the plants for biomass gasification or ultra-modern municipal waste processing units. Finance minister Sitharaman, in her 2020 budget speech, had discussed the need to close these plants.
  • The deadline should be non-negotiable for plants which came up after the notification – the report says many of them are still not compliant.
  • Take urgent action on the implementation of water standards by issuing directions and improvement in the monitoring framework so that plants are held accountable. 

Says Narain: “We know that this sector, which provides energy to the country's industry and households, is difficult to shut down. Therefore, there is insufficient deterrence which is clearly derailing the implementation efforts – as a result of which power plants continue to flout all directions. We are suggesting that there should be changes in the merit order dispatch system so that it provides an effective tool to incentivise the cleaner plants and reward the best performers, while also disincentivising units that do not adhere to standards.”

For more on this or for interviews etc, please contact Sukanya Nair of The CSE Media Resource Centre, sukanya.nair@cseindia.org, 88168 18864.