Slap moratorium, revamp environmental clearance procedure

A Pune-based think tank has called for an immediate moratorium on any further grant of environmental clearance for thermal power plants (TPPs). These include a 5,00,000-MW capacity awaiting environmental clearance, apart from plants which have reached the terms of reference (TOR) stage or are awaiting the TOR.

Massive expansion

The report, “Thermal Power Plants on the anvil, implications and the need for rationalisation” by Prayas Energy Group (Initiatives in Health, Energy, Learning and Parenthood), says a massive expansion of the thermal generation capacity is on the anvil. The total installed electricity generation capacity in India as on April 30, 2011 was 1,74,361 MW. Of this, coal-based capacity was 94,653 MW and gas-based capacity, 17,706 MW. Information collated from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) shows it has accorded clearance for a large number of coal and gas-based plants, whose capacity totals 1,92,913 MW.

Environmental clearance is at various stages for another 5,08,907 MW units. The report notes that denial of environmental clearance for a thermal plant is extremely rare. This means coal and gas plants, envisaged to produce around 7,01,820 MW, are waiting to be built. Coal-based plants account for 84 per cent of the projects in the pipeline.

Thermal capacity

These additions are more than six times the existing installed thermal capacity of 1,13,559 MW. It is also three times the capacity addition that is required to meet the needs of the high-renewable, high-efficiency scenario of 2032 projected by the Planning Commission's Integrated Energy Policy report.

The Prayas report points out that many of the projects in the pipeline will be concentrated in a few areas. Only 30 districts (or 4.7 per cent of the total 626 districts in India) will have more than half of the proposed plants with their capacity adding up to about 3,80,000 MW. Several of these districts are adjoining, and hence the real concentration of power plants is even higher than that revealed by the district-wise figures.

Private corporate groups

The private sector too has stepped in a big way and accounts for 73 per cent of all the projects in the pipeline. The State and Central sectors have a large share in the existing TPPs at 82 per cent. Only 10 corporate groups are planning to build projects of about 1,60,000 MW.

Revamping

Despite environmental clearance, the projects (about 2,00,000 MW), which could be put on hold include those causing very high social and environmental impact, which do not have broad local acceptance, and the projects which could lead to a sub-optimal use of transmission, fuel, land and water. The report also called for revamping environmental clearance procedures to minimise the social and ecological impact.

Considering the capacity that has already been granted environmental clearance and is under construction, a moratorium and review can easily be carried out without jeopardising power needs in the next decade, the report points out.

‘Critically Polluted'

The projects in the pipeline are likely to have a severe social and environmental impact. In 2009, the MoEF identified several areas as “Critically Polluted.” A large number of proposed plants, with a total capacity of 88,000 MW, are located within the same districts where eight of these critically polluted areas have been identified. The geographic concentration and location within critically polluted areas is likely to exacerbate the pollution impact of these thermal projects.

Coal production

Close to 85 per cent of the projects in the pipeline are coal-based. While coal resources are said to be abundant, such a massive expansion raises questions about the adequacy of fuel supply for these TPPs, the report says. As noted in the Mid Term Appraisal of the 11th Plan, coal production is falling short of projections, and there is a need to import a quantity larger than what was planned for.

In addition, coal-based plants need massive amounts of water, for both cooling and ash disposal. Out of the 1,92,804 MW plants that have got environmental clearance, about 138,000 MW or 72 per cent are inland. Of these, close to 50 per cent are concentrated in four river basins — Ganga (33,255 MW), Godavari (16,235 MW), Mahanadi (14,595 MW) and Brahmani (6,534 MW). This will impinge on water use for drinking and irrigation.

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