Tata Power Company claims to be one of the largest renewable energy players in India, but its plan to switch from gas to coal to fuel one of its 500 MW units in the Trombay Thermal Power Station here belies its stated concern for the environment.

For Mumbai residents, the New Year rings in a public hearing scheduled for January 15 on the change which the company calls modernisation, but is in reality a change of fuel — to low sulphur imported coal. Currently, Unit 6 is using low sulphur heavy stock and low sulphur fuel oil.

The company, which supplies power to bulk consumers like the Railways, refineries and ports, is gaining popularity among households too, thanks to its “most economic power tariff.” It has an installed capacity of 1,580 MW in Trombay, with five units (one on standby) — two running on coal, one each using oil and gas, and one a combined cycle power plant. Its proposal to change the fuel of Unit 6, which has been operational since 1990, requiring two million tonnes of coal a year could put pressure on an already polluted city, with air quality parameters worsening over the years owing to traffic and construction.

Tata Power is responsible for the ‘Islanding System,’ because of which Mumbai enjoys uninterrupted power supply. On its website, the company proclaims: “While we have ambitious growth plans, we are committed to ‘responsible growth.’ From focusing on producing clean and green power to investing in and implementing eco-friendly technologies; reducing our carbon footprint to joining global initiatives to combat climate change; scouting for clean power sources internationally to driving energy conservation and efficiency; creating sustainable livelihood for communities to green buildings and villages, we are doing all that we can to carry forward our green legacy.”

However, that legacy takes a back seat in Mumbai. The draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report of the proposed change, which will be discussed at the public hearing, says: “There will not be any additional adverse environmental impact...” The draft EIA, which is mandatory before environmental clearance, says the cost of power generation will be cut, thanks to the lesser price of coal than fuel oils or natural gas. Variable cost will be nearly one-third of the current costs and may even go down further.

However, only an executive summary of the draft EIA is online in English and not the complete one. Explaining the “dire need for modernisation,” the company says, in response to questions, that it has risen owing to the unavailability of natural gas, which has resulted in the use of expensive fuel like oil to run its Unit 6. However, a shortage of low sulphur oil from local refineries and the spiralling prices of imported oil and gas have led to a significant escalation in the absolute cost of power generation. Consequently, the unit, which previously operated at a best operating Plant Load factor (PLF) of 80 per cent, has been working at 50 per cent PLF for the past two years. This has necessitated modernisation, at a cost of Rs.1,174 crore, ensuring an additional option of coal firing, the company says.

Currently, Unit 6 can operate only on oil and gas. The modernisation plan includes addition of the state-of-the-art coal firing equipment and installation of the pollution control equipment to make it work on coal, oil and gas, with the option of combining all the three fuels in any percentage. The modernisation will provide multi-fold benefits to customers: lower tariffs and improved utilisation of the full capacity at the best operating efficiency, says the company.

For environmentalists, this is a case of history repeating itself. Debi Goenka, executive trustee of the Conservation Action Trust, had filed a case against the company in the Bombay High Court, along with others, when it proposed this coal-based thermal power plant. Mr. Goenka told The Hindu: “We had objected to this power plant in the 1980s on the issue of burning coal in what was then the most polluted area in the country. Our apprehensions were accepted, and the company agreed to use gas and oil instead. The Ministry of Petroleum also agreed to guarantee the supply of gas.”

Twenty years later, his worst fears have come true. “We had predicted that this situation would arise, wherein gas supplies would dwindle,” he said. Questioning the transparency of the company, he asked how this change of fuel could be called modernisation. There was also the issue of transport of coal and storage, and the disposal of fly ash. A while ago, coal imported through the Mumbai Port Trust was found on the Mahul-Sewri mudflats which are proposed as a Ramsar Site (for conservation and good use under the 1971 Ramsar Convention), along with the whole of the Thane Creek. The High Court had taken suo motu notice after media reports of mangroves being destroyed and ordered the removal of coal. This coal was being used by the thermal power plants, Mr. Goenka alleged.

It is learnt that a Bangladesh company rejected a proposal to export the fly ash from the proposed coal plant, citing less quantity, and now the Middle East market is being explored.

Mr. Goenka pointed to the marginal difference between the cost per kilowatt/hour of coal and that of gas or oil according to the company’s data tables.

The company claims there will be no additional pollution due to coal with the installation of pollution control equipment like the Electro Static Precipitators and Flue Gas Desulfurization systems to maintain emissions at current controlled level. Moreover, no additional water or any other resource is being sought to operate the modernised plant, the company says.