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India’s coal power sector dragging its feet to address avoidable air pollution

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New Delhi, August 6, 2019 – Most coal-fired power plants in India have not installed pollution control technology, although the Central Government revised emissions standards almost four years ago.

A new analysis estimates the cost of installing technology to control for sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter (among others) at between INR 73,000 crore (USD 10 billion) and INR 86,000 crore (USD 12 billion). The study, conducted by the Global Subsidies Initiative (GSI) of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), delves into the details of why plants have not yet complied with the regulation.

“Society is bearing the costs of ongoing air pollution, while thermal power producers delay the cost of retrofitting the necessary equipment,” says Vibhuti Garg, Senior Energy Economist at GSI.

The research found that capital investments and operational costs would increase the cost of electricity generated by coal power plants between INR 0.32 and 0.72 per kWh. This represents an increase of between 9 and 21 per cent. But the report’s authors suggest the cost of not abating pollution from power plants is higher and will impact millions of people across the country.

“These costs include the cost of treating the health impacts of pollution, as well as the consequences on productivity of illness and premature deaths. There are non-health related costs too —air pollution corrodes infrastructure of all forms, impacts agricultural productivity, degrades waterways and reduced in-bound tourism,” says Garg.

Every day coal plants in India emit harmful gases and particulate matter into the atmosphere. These penetrate deep into the lungs, affecting respiratory and vascular systems. Recent air pollution studies suggest that non-compliance with emission norms would result in ~3-3.2 lakh premature deaths and 5.1 crore hospital admission cases due to respiratory disorders between now and 2030. Existing and proven pollution control technologies can remove between 90 to 99.6 per cent of harmful gases and particles that are emitted by power plants.

“Given the rising air pollution problem and its damaging and permanent impact on health, the government should have a zero-tolerance policy and impose strict penalties for power plants not adhering to emission standards,” says Karthik Ganesan, a Research Fellow at CEEW.

Experts recommend that the price of coal-based electricity reflects the cost of installing pollution control technology. This will mean that coal-based electricity prices would go up for consumers. In addition, this would also mean that plants that find it too expensive to comply will either be used sparingly or be completely phased-out.  To protect end-consumers, retail price subsidies must be directed to those who truly need them—the poor and vulnerable.

The Ministry of Power is advised to create a fund to independently carry out an assessment of feasibility and retrofit costs for all non-compliant plants, in order to ensure that private generators in particular are not able to continually play a game of cat and mouse and delay the implementation of the necessary retrofits. “Emissions data from monitoring devices placed in power plant stacks need to be made available to the wider public and must be placed on record before the electricity regulator, to ensure that tariff increases are passed on only after sufficient scrutiny and ensuring standards have indeed been met,” says Ganesan.  

Full report is available here.


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