Coal-based thermal power plants in India are heavy utilisers of resources. Land, water and most importantly, coal are used in large quantities. Most communities located near the plants do not benefit significantly from these plants although they share their resources with them.
Land: Situated on the southern fringe of Delhi, NTPC’s 705 MW Badarpur power station is luxuriously spread over 874 hectares (ha). Of this, 362 ha have been used to dispose of its waste. A few kilometres away, Sangam Vihar’s 1 million residents are packed into about 680 ha.
The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) suggests using 0.44 ha per MW of capacity. CSE data found that the plants possessed far more, using an average of 0.72 hectares/MW, of which over 40 per cent was used for disposing ash; old state-owned plants used nearly four times more area per MW than private plants. If land used for coal mining, water reservoirs and ash ponds is added to this, a 1,000 MW plant would use about 8,800 ha over its life, a figure that dwarfs land use for all technologies except hydropower.
GRP study found widespread mistrust in local communities related to acquisition of land for power plants. Most said that adequate compensation was not paid and jobs and benefits did not materialise. These past experiences are impeding land acquisition for upcoming projects.
Coal: India consumed about 700 million tonnes of coal in 2012-13, of which 70 per cent was used for power generation. The insatiable demand by the power sector has been the major driver of coal mining, an activity responsible for significant environment damage. A number of districts, where Coal India Ltd (CIL) runs extensive mining operations, have been classified as critically polluted by the Central Pollution Control Board. Nearly 22 per cent of India’s forest land diversions (44,900 ha) between 2007 and 2012 were for coal mining. CIL, a public sector company, which mines about 80 per cent of the coal in the country, is notorious for its poor compliance. Its mining operations have devastated large swathes of land.
The biggest issue involved in the use of coal as a resource is pollution. Indian coal is of poor quality: around a third of the country’s coal content is ash; it also has fewer calories hence more of it needs to be burnt to generate power. The result is more emissions and ash, necessitating better pollution control technologies. But the case is just the opposite, with lower investment in pollution control.
Since transporting coal with high ash is economically inefficient, regulations cap ash content at 34 per cent for plants located beyond 1,000 km from the mine. However, four of 12 plants in the study which fell under this category–-GSECL in Wanakbori, TANGEDCO in Tuticorin, HPGCL in Hisar and MAHAGENCO in Nashik–-were using higher ash content coal. Based on our survey, we believe a lot more plants were violating this norm as they were getting poor quality coal from CIL. Reducing ash in coal is possible by “washing”. However, India’s coal washing capacity is a meagre 131 million tonnes against the current need of over 240 million tonnes.
The study found coal handling, considered the most accident-prone activity in a plant, to be seriously deficient. It is routinely outsourced to unskilled contract workers with little health benefits; safety protocols are ignored in most plants. Most had poor provisions for controlling dust emissions and water pollution: almost all power plants stored coal in open yards with no wind breakers; some of the plants studied transported coal through uncovered conveyor systems. Also, very few plants had proper storm drainage system; most posed the risk of leaching into groundwater or overflowing into nearby fields and water bodies. For instance, the Guru Gobind Singh Super Thermal Power plant in Ropar, Punjab, was found storing coal rejects in a low-lying area with water logging leading to acidification.
Water: In the dry, water-starved desert district of Bikaner lies Neyveli Lignite Corporation Barsingsar’s massive 12 ha reservoir, fed by water from Indira Gandhi Canal, the lifeline of Rajasthan. Thirty per cent of the reservoir’s water is lost to evaporation. This does not bother the company since it pays paltry Rs 0.7 per cubic metre. Even for JSWEL, Toranagallu, which paid the most for water in the study (Rs 20 per cubic metre), the water cost was a mere 0.9 per cent of the tariff it received for power. As a result, wasteful consumption is common. At an average of 4 cubic metre per MWh, Indian plants with cooling towers consume twice as much water as their global counterparts.
Some plants, such as JSEB, Patratu (9.8 m3/ MWh) and DVC, Bokaro ‘B’ (8.7 m3/MWh), are profligate users as they use significant amount of water for cooling and ash handling. There are few encouraging examples such as GIPCL, Surat, and JSWEL, Toranagallu, that consume a scant 2 m3/MWh employing a host of water-efficient measures.
Nine plants in the study use fresh water for once-through-cooling, a process that is no longer permitted for new plants. These plants withdraw 7 billion cubic metres annually, a phenomenal 90 per cent of the total fresh water drawn by the plants studied. All of these plants are state-owned.
Exacerbating the situation is the fact that nearly half the plants studied are located in areas where severe water scarcity has been reported. Conflicts have ensued—plants such as KPCL, Raichur, and MAHAGENCO, Chandrapur, were forced to close down in the past due to water shortage. Overall, the thermal power industry’s annual water draw, estimated at 22 billion cubic metres, is equal to over half of India’s total domestic water needs. DOWN TO EARTH