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Power plants around Delhi are far from meeting norms to reduce air pollution

Dec 24, 2021 05:21 PM IST

While Delhi may have shut down its last thermal power plant in Badarpur in 2018, experts say air quality in the National Capital Region cannot improve until coal-based thermal power plants are phased out

NEW DELHI: Six years after the announcement by the environment ministry to impose more stringent norms for coal-based thermal power plants to cut down PM 10, sulphur dioxide (SO2) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions, only two power plants out of the 12 that currently function within a 300km radius of Delhi have installed devices to control these emissions.

A truck mounted with an anti-smog gun is being used to spray water droplets to curb air pollution, at Kashmiri Gate in New Delhi. (Amal KS/ HT photo) PREMIUM
A truck mounted with an anti-smog gun is being used to spray water droplets to curb air pollution, at Kashmiri Gate in New Delhi. (Amal KS/ HT photo)

While Delhi may have shut down its last thermal power plant in Badarpur in 2018, experts say air quality in the National Capital Region (NCR) cannot improve until coal-based thermal power plants are phased out.

Polluting thermal power plants

A recent study released by IIT Kanpur in June, 2021 highlighted how thermal power plants were the biggest contributor to Delhi’s PM 2.5 concentration in the summers (16%) after dust pollution (52%), while a different study, released a year earlier in July, 2020 by the same institution, had identified three distinct air corridors that were contributing to Delhi’s pollution in winters. One of these three corridors had high lead and selenium content, laced with sulphur – an indicator that these come from coal-based thermal power plants.

Professor SN Tripathi from the civil engineering department at IIT Kanpur, who was involved in both the studies, says while simple coal burning only emits sulphur, power plants also contain lead and selenium, allowing them to identify its emissions inventory more easily. “There is a clear pattern and corridor through which coal-based power plants within NCR are polluting Delhi’s air too,” says Tripathi.

While the first announcement to switch to cleaner technology came in December 2015 from the ministry of environment and forest, the notification had also set a limit for water consumption by power plants. However, no power plant was able to meet the initial deadline of December 7, 2017 and then a subsequent extension to December 31, 2019.

Between January 2020 and March 2021, all units except two at the Mahatma Gandhi Thermal Power Plant (TPP) violated the emission limits set, resulting in a newer deadline of December 2022 – five years after the lapse of the initial deadline set.

Lack of action

Experts say while thermal power plants may have initially escaped meeting new standards as the focus on air pollution only grew stronger after 2016, a lack of action from authorities has helped these plants to thrive in the region, without any fear of punishment.

All plants not meeting the norms were issued a fine of 18 lakh per month for six months from May 2020 onwards by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), but after approaching the Supreme Court, a stay order was issued.

Also Read: Delhi’s air crisis: Who pollutes, who suffers?

Sunil Dahiya, an analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), says with lack of enforcement, the likelihood of another deadline extension will not surprise anyone. “Those plants that have SO2 controls in place should be allowed to operate at maximum capacity as opposed to those that are yet to install these measures, but not only are all power plants being allowed to function, no penalties have been imposed on any of these yet. As per the current status, it appears many power plants will miss this deadline too,” says Dahiya.

In November, the Commission for Air Quality Management (CAQM) in NCR, for the first time, temporarily shut down all but five power plants within a 300km radius of Delhi, in order to reduce the pollution load in the region. Those allowed to run were the Rajiv Gandhi TPP, NTPC Jhajjar; Rajiv Gandhi TPP, RGTPS, Hisar; Panipat TPS, HPGCL; Rajpura TPP, Nabha Power Ltd, and Talwandi Sabo TPS in Mansa.

While the initial ban was till November 30, 2021, it was later extended for two more weeks, before they were allowed to resume operations from December 12, 2021.

Dahiya says not only does this highlight how polluting these plants are, but electricity data from NCR shows there was negligible impact in the region from the closure of these plants.

“From November 14 to 23 in 2020, when the electricity demand ranged between 175-275 million units (MU) and the shortage remained in the range of 0-5 MUs (0.65% of highest demand day, November 20, 2020) indicating that the region could meet any such or lower demands without operating coal-based power plants in the 300km radius,” he says.

The path forward

According to a Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) analysis from 2015, coal-fired power plants account for over 60% of the total PM emissions from all industries, as well as 45% of the SO2, 30% of NOx and over 80% of the mercury emissions.

Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, research and advocacy at CSE, says it is important to act on sources of pollution from each sector, with a need to not only phase out dirty fuels such as coal, but reduce dependence on coal-based thermal power plants too. “Already, several deadlines have been breached, and for improvement in the air-shed of Delhi NCR, we need to act on all these thermal power plants, in particular those not meeting the existing norms,” she says.

An analysis carried out by Greenpeace India in 2018 had also found that emissions from thermal power plants could go down by 89% and 79%, respectively, in terms of SO2 and NOx, if the new emission standards were implemented.

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