Coal toll

More than 70 per cent of India's electricity is produced by coal-fired power plants. Most of them do not have modern technologies and use low-grade coal that is low on energy and high on waste


Coal Toll


India's powersector, based predominantly on coal-fired plants, is one of the most polluting sectors of Indian industry. To highlight key environmental issues and rate the performance of power plants, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) intensively studied the sector for two years, covering 47 coal- and lignite-based thermal plants with a capacity of 54 gigawatts (GW), half of the Indian capacity when the study began in early 2012. CSE’s assessment found glaring inconsistencies between pollution data, especially stack emissions, reported by plants and actual conditions on the ground. Events like breach of ash dykes, which would be considered disasters in other countries, were taken in stride as common —a number of water bodies were found to be polluted with ash.

No country in the world uses coal as poor in quality as India, so our pollution challenges are huge. But our practices to overcome this challenge were found wanting. India’s standards for pollution and resource use lag far behind global norms, but its power plants fail to meet even such relaxed levels of performance, lacking the basic technologies to control pollution. With state pollution control boards understaffed to monitor performance, power plants routinely flout norms; nevertheless, the plants almost always report compliance. The situation is complicated by the fact that the power sector is a critical sector of the Indian economy. Thus, under the rationale of the need for power, even the most inefficient and polluting plants are allowed to operate. With one of the poorest levels of energy access and per capita consumption of electricity, at a third of the world average, India needs to rapidly expand its generation capacity.

Coal is the fuel of choice. Being plentiful and easy to mine, it provides reliable and dispatchable power. Capacity of coal-fired plants is projected to double between 2012 and 2022 and will contribute nearly 75 per cent of generation. Current environmental practices will have to be improved to make this increase acceptable. Coal-based electricity entails heavy costs on the environment, resources and health. It is responsible for significant emissions of harmful particulate matter and oxides of nitrogen and sulphur. Domestic coal’s high ash content introduces additional challenges of disposing off ash that has toxic heavy metals. Coal-based power consumes large amounts of water; coal mining has severe impacts on land, air and water which exacerbate the environmental footprint of coal-based power.

Instead of capturing the full costs of coal-based power, India’s tariff system subsidises it— land and water is provided at low costs and coal is subsidised; weak or non-existent pollution norms mean plants do not have to invest in pollution abatement technologies; finally, costs such as health impact and environmental damage, called externalities, are left out of the tariff calculations. These make electricity from coal “affordable”.

An environmental audit

Of a total of 104 coal- and lignite-based thermal power plants in India with a capacity of 98 GW in early 2012, the Green Rating Project (GRP) team of CSE assessed 47 plants with a capacity of 54 GW (see ‘Report card’). The sample was chosen to present a comprehensive picture of the sector, with wide representations from all regions, types of ownerships (Central, state and private), companies and unit sizes (see ‘Rating process’). The GRP team considered only the generation phase—from the entry of coal inside the plant boundary till the generation of electricity—to assess the plants. Although coal mining has significant environmental impacts, it was not considered because it requires independent assessment.

Source: Green Rating Project, 2014-15, CSE, New Delhi


Overall, 46 per cent of the selected plants agreed to participate in the ratings, which means they submitted detailed data and allowed the GRP team to visit the plant and audit its performance (see ‘Shy of public scrutiny’). GRP surveyors visited all of the 47 plants, spending several days at each, and conducted extensive interviews of all stakeholders, including community, media, NGOs, pollution control board officials and plant employees. They also collected extensive data from secondary, publicly-available sources for both participating and non-participating plants to prepare profiles of individual plants.

Shy of public scrutiny
Participation BY the coal-based thermal power sector in the Green Rating Project (GRP) was low, partly because a number of plants run by Central government-owned companies refused to participate. NTPC, the leading player, was the chief culprit with none of its six plants in the sample agreeing to provide data. The generation-related information was sought under the RTI Act from the six NTPC plants, but all declined the request citing confidentiality and competition-sensitive data. The Central Electricity Authority, the government regulator, asks all power plants to submit key generation-related data. NTPC has refused to allow even the regulator to publish efficiency data related to it. GRP did gather information from the regulatory bodies and local community and media. It found the NTPC plants to be heavily polluting and facing numerous complaints.

All companies that were selected, were rated irrespective of their participation to make sure the exercise was objective and unbiased. Companies were analysed with reference to global best practices and Indian averages. A technical advisory panel consisting of top industry and pollution experts oversaw the entire process to ensure credibility. They include B Sengupta, former member secretary, Central Pollution Control Board; Avinash Chandra, former professor and head of Centre for Energy Studies, Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi; Umesh S Bapat, former vice president of Operations Eastern Region, Tata Power; and Y P Abbi, former director of Power Station Engineering, Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd.

GRP rated the sector on about 60 key parameters which were assigned weightages depending on their environmental impacts (see ‘Weightage assigned...’). Resource use and pollution were assigned equally high weightages.

Resource guzzlers

Power plants utilise huge resources; communities benefit little from them

High emissions from all the stacks in MAHAGENCO, Chandrapur

Coal-based thermal power plants in India are heavy utilisers of resources. Land, water and most importantly, coal are used in large quantities. Most communities located near the plants do not benefit significantly from these plants although they share their resources with them.

Land: Situated on the southern fringe of Delhi, NTPC’s 705 MW Badarpur power station is luxuriously spread over 874 hectares (ha). Of this, 362 ha has been used to dispose of its waste. A few kilometres away, Sangam Vihar’s 1 million residents are packed into about 680 ha.

The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) suggests using 0.44 ha per MW of capacity. CSE data found that the plants possessed far more, using an average of 0.72 hectares/MW, of which over 40 per cent was used for disposing ash; old state-owned plants used nearly four times more area per MW than private plants. If land used for coal mining, water reservoirs and ash ponds is added to this, a 1,000 MW plant would use about 8,800 ha over its life, a figure that dwarfs land use for all technologies except hydropower.

GRP study found widespread mistrust in local communities related to acquisition of land for power plants. Most said that adequate compensation was not paid and jobs and benefits did not materialise. These past experiences are impeding land acquisition for upcoming projects.

Coal: India consumed about 700 million tonnes of coal in 2012-13, of which 70 per cent was used for power generation. The insatiable demand by the power sector has been the major driver of coal mining, an activity responsible for significant environment damage. A number of districts where Coal India Ltd (CIL) has extensive mining operations have been classified as critically polluted by the Central Pollution Control Board. Nearly 22 per cent of India’s forest land diversions (44,900 ha) between 2007 and 2012 were for coal mining. CIL, a public sector company, which mines about 80 per cent of the coal in the country, is notorious for its poor compliance. Its mining operations have devastated large swathes of land.

imageThe biggest issue involved in the use of coal as a resource is pollution. Indian coal is of poor quality: around a third of the country’s coal content is ash; it also has fewer calories hence more of it needs to be burnt to generate power. The result is more emissions and ash, necessitating better pollution control technologies. But the case is just the opposite, with lower investment in pollution control.

Since transporting coal with high ash is economically inefficient, regulations cap ash content at 34 per cent for plants located beyond 1,000 km from the mine. However, four of 12 plants in the study which fell under this category–-GSECL in Wanakbori, TANGEDCO in Tuticorin, HPGCL in Hisar and MAHAGENCO in Nashik–-were using higher ash content coal. Based on our survey, we believe a lot more plants were violating this norm as they were getting poor quality coal from CIL. Reducing ash in coal is possible by “washing”. However, India’s coal washing capacity is a meagre 131 million tonnes against the current need of over 240 million tonnes.

The study found coal handling, considered the most accident-prone activity in a plant, to be seriously deficient. It is routinely outsourced to unskilled contract workers with little health benefits; safety protocols are ignored in most plants. Most had poor provisions for controlling dust emissions and water pollution: almost all power plants stored coal in open yards with no wind breakers; some of the plants studied transported coal through uncovered conveyor systems. Also, very few plants had proper storm drainage system; most posed the risk of leaching into groundwater or overflowing into nearby fields and water bodies. For instance, the Guru Gobind Singh Super Thermal Power plant in Ropar, Punjab, was found storing coal rejects in a low-lying area with water logging leading to acidification.

Water: In the dry, water-starved desert district of Bikaner lies Neyveli Lignite Corporation Barsingsar’s massive 12 ha reservoir, fed by water from Indira Gandhi Canal, the lifeline of Rajasthan. Thirty per cent of the reservoir’s water is lost to evaporation. This does not bother the company since it pays a paltry Rs 0.7 per cubic metre. Even for JSWEL, Toranagallu, which paid the most for water in the study (Rs 20 per cubic metre), the water cost was a mere 0.9 per cent of the tariff it received for power. As a result, wasteful consumption is common. At an average of 4 cubic metre per MWh, Indian plants with cooling towers consume twice as much water as their global counterparts (see ‘Indian plants are...’).

Some plants, such as JSEB, Patratu (9.8 m3/ MWh) and DVC, Bokaro ‘B’ (8.7 m3/MWh), are profligate users as they use significant amount of water for cooling and ash handling. There are few encouraging examples such as GIPCL, Surat, and JSWEL, Toranagallu, that consume a scant 2 m3/MWh employing a host of water-efficient measures.

Nine plants in the study use fresh water for once-through-cooling, a process that is no longer permitted for new plants. These plants withdraw 7 billion cubic metres annually, a phenomenal 90 per cent of the total fresh water drawn by the plants studied. All of these plants are state-owned.

Exacerbating the situation is the fact that nearly half the plants studied are located in areas where severe water scarcity has been reported. Conflicts have ensued—plants such as KPCL, Raichur, and MAHAGENCO, Chandrapur, were forced to close down in the past due to water shortage. Overall, the thermal power industry’s annual water draw, estimated at 22 billion cubic metres, is equal to over half of India’s total domestic water needs.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :
Related Stories

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.