Only 5% of India’s coal-based thermal power capacity meets SO2 emissions norms: CSE report

None of the plants in the eastern states were found to be compliant;
Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

Emission reduction has been the unequivocally accepted pathway for limiting global warming. 

But despite ambitious targets, one of the most polluting sectors of India – coal-based thermal power generation – was found to be brazenly flouting emission norms and not doing the bare minimum required to reduce their environmental footprint. 

A case in point is the poor implementation of the sulphur dioxide emissions regulations issued by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in 2015. The ministry made it mandatory for thermal power plants to instal a flue gas de-sulfurization (FGD) system to remove sulphur dioxide from their exhaust. 

As of April 2023, however, only 5 per cent of the country’s installed coal-based thermal power generation capacities had the FGD mechanism in place, according to a new report by Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). 

Moreover, 17 per cent of the overall coal power capacity was still at very initial stages of compliance. 

The organisation analysed the updated status of FGD systems in thermal power plants from data released by the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), the technical arm of the Union Ministry of Power. 

The findings for eastern India were abysmal: No plant in the region was found to be compliant of SO2 emissions norms. 

Maharashtra has the highest capacity complying with the norms, followed by Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Tamil Nadu, showed the analysis. 

The results indicate that the sector has been unwilling to comply with the central government regulations, according to the authors of the report. This is despite the fact that the norms have been diluted for several parameters and deadlines delayed since they were issued eight years ago, said Nivit Yadav, programme director, industrial pollution unit, CSE. 

Another finding that is symptomatic of the feet-dragging by the industry is that even new projects are not compliant of the SO2 emissions norms. 

Only 0.81 GW of the 32.63 GW newly commissioned capacity is complying with the norms, the researchers found. 

Moreover, the actual extent of non-compliance may be greater, they added. The 5 per cent of plants that have so far installed FGDs include 9,280 megawatts that have been reported to have commissioned FGDs and another 1,430 MW that ‘claim to be SO2 compliant’. 

“How far these claims are true is difficult to say, considering that there is no information available about on-ground inspections conducted by state-level regulatory bodies,” said Anubha Aggarwal, programme officer, industrial pollution unit, CSE.

The team also estimated the likelihood of a coal power plant meeting the emission norms on the basis of the stage of compliance and the duration in which the power plant must meet the deadline.

Just 57 per cent of the capacity within 10 kilometres of Delhi-NCR or million-plus cities will be able to meet the deadline, based on the analysis. Around 11 per cent of the capacity within 10 km radius of critically polluted areas is unlikely to meet the deadline. 

Around 13 gigawatts of the installed capacity is now likely to comply because of the extension in deadline, the report noted. 

None of the plants that have installed FGDs or are reported to be complying with SOx norms are state-owned, the analysts found. 23 GW capacity is still exploring the feasibility of commissioning FGD in its premises.

The technology has been around for decades in the global market but Indian industries began exploring its feasibility only since the regulation. The equipment isn’t cheap and some of the components are not locally available. 

The latest National Electricity Plan (NEP) for 2022-32 cited various factors that may have delayed the implementation of the norms: The sector’s dependency on the external market for some FGD components, novelty of the technology for the Indian market and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“It is unclear how one or two years of the pandemic would contribute to delaying the implementation process by five-six years,” said Yadav. 

The compliance deadlines have been revised thrice already. Moreover, the NEP has advocated for different standards for plants in different locations. 

“It will not be surprising if we see another extension in the deadline soon; or worse, diluted norms for several plants,” he added. 

The likelihood of compliance is higher now compared to December 2021 — the only positive takeaway from the analysis. This may be because of how generously the compliance deadlines have been pushed back by the government to allow the sector to adjust, the researchers pointed out. 

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