Thermal power plants will have to control their emissions of sulphur and nitrogen oxides that contribute significantly to air pollution, even it means increased cost of production

Air pollution in India has reached alarming levels (Photo by IISD/CEEW)

India’s thermal power plants are not only belching the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide into the atmosphere but also copious amounts of other noxious gases such as sulphur and nitrogen oxides and small particulate matter that contribute significantly to the air pollution problem in the country.

In 2015, the environment ministry reset standards to limit the concentration of sulphur oxides (SOx), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM) and mercury (Hg) in stack emissions from coal-fired power plants. Existing thermal generators were expected to comply by December 2017 and new plants were required to comply at the point of commissioning from January 2017.

However, virtually none of these polluting plants had installed the required equipment to control these emissions by December 2017, and the government had to extend the deadline to 2022. Now, a new study has estimated the cost of compliance for the thermal power sector.

The capital expenditure required to install SOx, NOx and PM pollution-control technology in India is estimated to be INR 861.4 billion (USD 12 billion), or INR 732 billion (USD 10 billion) if plants to be retired by 2027 are excluded, according to an issue brief prepared by the International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD) and the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW).

This additional cost of producing coal-fired electricity will add INR 0.32-0.72 per kWh to coal power plants, depending on the size of the unit and other factors, the brief said, which is an extension of analysis in India’s Energy Transition, 2018 Update, a report by IISD and CEEW on India’s energy subsidies for two financial years ended March 2018.

See: India’s energy subsidies favour fossil fuels over renewables

The cost of compliance is expected to increase average electricity tariffs by 9% to 22%, the brief estimated. “Most experts are of the view that the deadline will still see many plants not complying with the new standards. To avoid this situation, the Ministry of Power must take a stricter position, which precludes all non-compliant plants from generating, unless they exhibit a clear retirement or phase-out plan or have made material progress in awarding tenders and beginning the construction process.”

It is important to control the emissions of SOx and NOx for several reasons. These two gases harm the human respiratory system and make breathing difficult. They also react with other air-borne chemicals to form both particulate matter and ozone. SOx and NOx also contribute to acid rain, which harms ecosystems.

A major portion of India’s electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. Although the South Asian nation has in recent years rapidly deployed renewable energy capacity, coal still accounts for nearly two-thirds of its power production capacity.

Energy-related emissions of carbon dioxide rose steeply by 1.7% to a record 33 gigatonnes in 2018, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said in its latest status report in March. Energy demand grew by 2.3% last year, its quickest acceleration in this decade that was driven by a robust global economy, the agency said.

The spurt in emissions growth could compromise the aims of the Paris Agreement to keep average temperature rise since pre-industrial days within 2 degrees Celsius. The additional emissions will add 2.3 ppm of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere to reach 407 ppm by the end of 2018, which is 45% above pre-industrial levels.

India is likely to surpass its commitments on greenhouse gas emission checks and energy transition to renewables made under the 2015 Paris Agreement 10 years ahead of time. The South Asian giant’s climate action plan under the agreement has promised that it would increase the share of renewables to 40% of its power generation capacity and reduce its economy’s emission intensity by 33-35% by 2030 from levels seen in 2005. But India is unlikely to meet its afforestation target, an important third part of the commitment.

SeeIndia to achieve emissions control targets well ahead of time

Despite the progress, the country faces severe air pollution in cities and indoor air pollution everywhere due to a variety of factors, with industrial and vehicular pollution being the main drivers. Air pollution has in recent times emerged as a principal health risk for millions of Indians, particularly children and the elderly. The control of SOx and NOx emissions in thermal power plants assumes importance in this context.

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