New Delhi: In another retreat from environmental protection regulations, that too in pandemic times, the central government has pushed through a notification permitting thermal power plants to use any quality of coal regardless of its ash content. The notification has further done away with the need for coal washing, a mandatory process to rid raw coal from pollutants before it is fed into thermal power plants.
The notification, issued on May 21 by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) headed by Cabinet minister Prakash Javadekar, has been perceived in several circles as a move to make commercial coal mining a viable investment option for private players. Private investment is anticipated through reducing capital costs by doing away with washeries and allowing usage of low-grade coal. The notification was issued in a hurry, merely 15 days after circulating a draft note for stakeholders to submit their recommendations and objections.
Through this notification, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has nullified an earlier rule vide which thermal power plants were required to use coal with a maximum ash content of 34%. The notification justifies this by stating that “requirement of maintaining average ash content to 34% prompts industries to undertake import of coal, resulting in outflow of foreign exchange etc.”
In January 2014, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government had issued a notification setting a timeline upon thermal power plants, based upon their respective distances from coal mines, to switch over to using coal with ash content not exceeding 34%. This notification issued through the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, as it was called under the UPA regime, had set June 2016 as the maximum deadline for any plant to switch over completely to coal with 34% ash.
Usage of raw unwashed coal in power plants is expected to increase environmental pollution, through emissions and generation of fly ash, which, it is believed, will make it difficult for India to achieve its COP 21 commitments by the year 2030. In the Paris Agreement, at the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in December 2015, India had made four commitments. It includes reducing greenhouse gas emission intensity by 33-35% of the country’s GDP by 2030, considering 2005 as the base year, and also utilising non-fossil fuel sources for generating 40% of its power.
“If we consider India’s GDP to grow at an average of 7% between the years 2005 and 2030, then consumption of coal should not be more than 67% of that average percentage. It works out to 4.9%. At 4.9% CAGR based on the 2005 base year, our consumption of coal cannot exceed 1,500 million tons by the year 2030. Today, consumption of coal is around 965 million tons. The difference is just about 600 million tons. It will be difficult to contain our requirement within 1,500 million tons if unwashed coal is used in power plants. Our COP commitments will go for a toss,” said former Coal India Chairman Partha Sarathi Bhattacharya.
The May 21 notification is apparently based on a report by the NITI Aayog which had arrived at the conclusion that “washing process increases the cost of power generation with no commensurate environmental advantages, etc.”. The notification states that despite being subjected to washing, “the extent of ash content in mined coal remains the same”. It further states that with washeries, the ash content gets divided at two places (washeries and the power plant), whereas if unwashed coal is used in power plants, the ash content is handled at only one place, that is, the power plant.
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“With the supply and use of unwashed coal, the quantity of it will definitely go up for the same amount of power generation. Unwashed coal will have lesser calorific value than washed coal. Between unwashed coal and washed coal, respectively, the ash percentage is somewhere in the average of 42% and 34%. Eight per cent reduction in ash leads to about 500 kcal to 600 kcal improvement in heat value. You will require a lesser quantity of washed coal per unit of power generation than raw coal,” added Bhattacharya.
In contrast to the May 21 notification, which explicitly states that washing does not reduce ash content of raw coal, the MOEF&CC had granted Environmental Clearance in March 2017 to a washery constructed by Mahanadi Coalfields Limited at Lakhanpur in Jharsuguda district of Odisha. The clearance was granted despite the fact that the washery had proposed for usage of non-coking coal with an average ash content of 41.5%. The clearance granted by the Expert Appraisal Committee, at a time when rules did not allow thermal power plants to use coal with ash content exceeding 34%, in itself clearly implies that washing indeed reduces ash content. A copy of the Environmental Clearance letter is with Newsclick.
Further, as far as environmental safeguards are concerned, usage of unwashed coal is expected to result in a spike in generation of fly ash. At the same time, the notification clearly rules out any entitlements for thermal power plants to expand fly ash ponds that are used to store the toxic waste in the form of slurry. In the recent past, numerous instances of toxic slurry floods have been reported from various parts of the country due to breaches in dykes of fly ash ponds that have been filled beyond their capacities. Thermal power plants are themselves struggling with 100 per cent disposal of toxic fly ash which has piled up in ash ponds for years. A report published recently by the Central Electricity Authority highlighted that around 195 thermal power plants were able to dispose of only 78.9% of fly ash generated by them over a period of six months comprising the first half of the year 2019-20.
The ministry has strangely justified its haste to put in place rules permitting usage of low-grade coal in thermal power plants to the COVID-19 pandemic. The notification states the Ministry of Coal has represented that “in view of the existing unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant immediate requirement of utilization of domestic coal by stimulating coal sector demand for power generation in the country, it is desirable to issue the notification at the earliest”.
Experts believe that the premise that usage of unwashed coal in thermal power plants will reduce capital costs is based on a flawed assumption.
“Now, the Railways will have to transport 20% additional raw coal, most of which will be dirt, if it is unwashed. There will be additional cost in terms of transporting unwashed coal. Most railway routes that transport coal pass through Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The Railways does not have the capacity today to transport coal through these routes saying that they are congested. Again, in peak summer, when electricity demand increases, thermal power plants are invariably pushed to the brink every year with Railways pleading its inability to transport additional coal along these routes,” said Dr R Srikant, Professor and Dean, School of Natural Sciences & Engineering of the Bengaluru-based National Institute of Advance Studies.
Capital costs are further expected to increase as all thermal power plants will have to install alternative technology to clean raw coal. An imported technology, Flue Gas Desulfurization (FGD), is being talked about as an alternative to coal washing.
“This technology is only to remove oxides of sulphur from coal. Indian coal is in any case very low in sulphur content. Studies have shown that FGD technology results in an increase of Rs 0.35 per unit cost of electricity while coal washing increases cost by a mere Rs 0.05. This decision is a vendor-driven approach by the government of India,” said RK Sachdev, Director, Coal Preparation Society of India, promoting the washing of high ash domestic coal to improve its quality.
The writer is an independent journalist.
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