Most thermal power plants (TPPs) in the country are not geared up to comply with the revised environmental norms by the December 31, 2017 deadline. Aimed at regulating the pollution caused by TPPs, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) had revised the standards for emissions from TPPs in December 2015. Apart from tightening the already existing standards of suspended particulate matter (SPM) emissions, the ministry issued new standards pertaining to nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulphur oxides (SOx). As per the revised guidelines, power plants are required to comply with the norms by December 2017. As the deadline approaches, it is clear that the TPPs will not be able to meet the requirements and the timelines will have to be extended.
A look at the developments with respect to the emission norms…
The Central Electricity Authority (CEA), along with the regional power committees, has prepared region-wise implementation plans to install flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) systems to reduce emissions from power plants. Since FGD also significantly helps in reducing SPM emissions, along with SOx emissions, it has been given preference over other measures in plants that have the space for installing the technology. This is expected to avoid unnecessary expenditure on other measures to reduce SPM emissions for most of the units. The plan, however, states that FGD installations should be completed by 2022, considering the time required for pre-installation activities, shut-down time for installation as well as the need to phase out the implementation in order to have sufficient capacity in the system at any given point of time. The plan indirectly implies that the deadline should be extended from 2017 to 2022.
While the plan gives a lot more time to power plants to comply with the norms, it is also being seen as passivity on the part of the government to meet the standards. As per a study conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), FGD systems needs to be installed in only larger units (more than 500 MW), and not necessarily in all plants. Smaller units can meet the standards through other less expensive and time-consuming options, including refurbishment and retrofitting of equipment and optimisation of the combustion process.
Further, the timelines mentioned in the plan are not backed by specific milestones or commitments by individual plants. The plan does not stipulate any penalties for further delays. It also ignores compliance with the SPM and NOx standards that could have been achieved in the two-year period.
Apart from the phase-in plan prepared by the CEA, generation companies have also started issuing tenders for the procurement and installation of emission control technologies and systems. NTPC has already installed an FGD system at its Vindhyachal power plant and has issued a bulk tender for the procurement of FGD systems for its existing as well as under-construction plants. Mahagenco too is in the process of installing an FGD system at its Koradi power plant. It is expected that other state utilities will follow on similar lines. Meanwhile, equipment suppliers are gearing up to meet future demand by offering customised solutions and technological tie-ups with global technology players.
The biggest challenge in the implementation of the norms has been insufficient time. It was nearly impossible to identify appropriate technologies, analyse feasibility, prepare for installation and complete the process before the deadline. Another major constraint has been the high costs involved, along with a lack of clarity on recovering the expenditure to be incurred on the installation of new systems. Further, there was a lack of monitoring by the government and the pollution boards, which could have ensured timely action by the power plants.
The way forward
While there is no doubt that it is technically feasible to meet the norms, the fact is that only 6-7 GW of the 193 GW of coal-based capacity has installed FGDs systems so far. Countries like China have imposed even stricter norms. With aggressive timelines, a clear enforcement plan and continuous monitoring, the targets can be achieved. Further, power plants can begin with optimising operations and retrofitting equipment, wherever feasible. A clear guideline regarding the recovery of investment through tariffs from the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission can provide the necessary push for the implementation of the norms. Meanwhile, the government can first focus on the more polluted areas for the implementation, in order to get quicker results in emission reduction.