The article delineates the increasing severity of climate change in India in regards to thermal power plants, the steps taken by the government to prevent pollution from coal-based power plants and develop renewable energy, a few technological solutions which have been implemented across the globe and can be useful in Indian conditions, and other challenges.
The Severity of Crisis
Human life cannot be imagined without air. However, this impossible imagination could soon turn into reality in India unless concerted efforts are made at policy levels. As per UNEP’s Emission Gap Report India is one of the top 7 countries that account for 55% of Global Greenhouse Gas emissions. India is going through the worst crisis in terms of air quality in its history. Though it may seem a bit alarmist at present, the situation on the ground is quite severe. A total of 39 Indian cities are on the list of 50 of the world’s most polluted cities. One of the prominent reasons being the high dependence on coal-based thermal power plants. Thermal Power plants are the major source of generation of electricity for any developing country. Around 60% of electricity generation in our country is met by thermal power plants.
This coal-based Thermal Power Plant seriously impacts land, soil, air and water resources. Thermal Power plants emit a large amount of mercury, ozone, suspended particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and several other pollutants which not only destroy the surrounding environment but also have a disastrous impact on human health. The process of opencast mining and underground mining of coal affects the vegetation pattern. Due to severe air pollution life expectancy in India has gone down by 2.6 years. According to a report by the Lancet, the increase in levels of pollution has led to an increase in infectious diseases and threatened food security. Approximately 4.3 million people worldwide die annually due to poor air quality.
The unprecedented crisis has forced the government out of its cocoon. Recognizing the severity of the issue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the ambitious “PANCHAMRIT” at COP26 SUMMIT IN GLASGOW that targets to increase non-fossil energy capacity by 500GW by 2030 and meeting 50 per cent of energy requirements from renewable energy thereby replacing coal-based Thermal Power Plants. Further, as a part of the Union Budget address, the Union Finance Minister gave a call for shutting down of old coal power plants. Also, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has notified specific standards for Thermal Power Plant to control the emissions under “Environment (Protection) Amendment Rules 2015’.
However, as per a recent study, only 1% of the total coal-fired power plant capacity has installed mandatory Flue Gas Desulphurization (FGD- for controlling SOx emissions) systems. According to the Centre for Science and Environment, less than half of the coal-fired capacity is in compliance with the particulate matter (PM) standards. Also, shutting down old power plants could not only result in electricity shortage in some states but also growth in financial liability. For instance, plants such as Rihand, and Singrauli despite being more than 30 years old, have very low generation costs.
The shift from coal technology brings its own challenges. The international cost of natural gas has increased severalfold in recent times making the gas-based power plants financially unviable. While renewable energy sources are cheaper than coal, their ability to generate power is subject to the whims of nature, the wind and the Sun. Storage technologies are also not sufficiently developed to make renewable energy a reliable source.
In order to limit pollution and improve the efficiency of the fleet of Power Stations, there is a need to adopt clean coal technology. While Flue Gas Desulphurization can be used for controlling SOx emissions, Selective Non-Catalytic Reduction (SCNR) and Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) systems can be used for controlling NOx emissions. Further, Electro-Static Precipitators can be deployed for control of particulate matter in thermal power stations. Innovative Carbon Capture, Utilization and storage technology can be used to reduce emissions.
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Apart from strategic decommissioning of old and inefficient Power Plants, steps can be taken for efficient distribution of electricity to Discoms to avoid excessive wastage of electricity and thereby control the levels of pollution. Technologies like the Web-based trading of Un-requisitioned Surplus power systems can be used which involves the exercise of knowing the surplus of electricity generated from a particular plant. It involves real-time searching of buyers, fixing the price of electricity being sold and trading it as per the demands of different Discoms.
Further in line of National Wind-Solar Hybrid Policy, a Hybrid power generation plant can be set up. This Hybrid power plant will harness the full potential of renewable energy by resolving the production gap and shall provide a more reliable solution to meet the growing power demand in a more sustainable way.
Of late, several Indian startups have also been supporting the country in its goal of shifting toward renewable energy. For example, a Uttarakhand-based startup is making use of nanotechnology to power cars, homes and communities. Another startup is making use of AI and IoT to enhance the efficient usage and distribution of electricity.
With efficient use of technology, India can adopt the Sweden model where systematic use of technology to harness natural resources led to approximately 60% of energy production from renewable sources. Another classic example is the China model where in order to address pollution the government adopted planning, monitoring, alerting and prescribing unified standards in multiple contiguous regions.
Matching Institutions with Technologies
However, for the successful implementation of these technologies, strong local institutions and community participation are a must. For example, Modhera, a village in Gujarat was declared as the first round-the-clock solar-powered village in India. This could be done only after taking villagers into confidence and transferring them the technical know-how of managing these systems.
But these are essentially localized technologies and their implementation depends upon the local geographic and climatic conditions. Hence, these cannot be scaled up to a large nation. To make such localized systems successful, it is important to build strong institutions which are well-trained to install, repair, maintain, and manage such technologically demanding systems.
The government must, also, encourage private players to provide technological solutions to tackle the environmental crisis. However, it is equally important for the government to ensure that the accessibility of electricity remains a basic and universal right. Government subsidies and policy initiatives encouraging startups in this domain would reinforce India’s position in the alarming crisis we, as a nation, have put ourselves into.
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About the author
An electronics engineer by profession, pursuing M.A. in political science from IGNOU, Delhi, and having wide-ranging interests in the contemporary social, economic, administrative and political issues of India.