The Indian government’s pollution watchdog has proposed new guidelines to steer decommissioning of coal-based power plants in the country, suggesting a range of measures including an Environmental Management Plan and an Environmental Impact Assessment report for the decommissioning process.
The draft guidelines were prepared by the Central Pollution Control Board following the March order of the National Green Tribunal in a case where the appellant, Dharmesh Shah, had sought framing of proper guidelines for decommissioning of thermal power plant units in the Neyveli Thermal Power Station in Tamil Nadu.
Shah had told the court that there are no proper guidelines by the central government for decommissioning of such units that ensure “safe management, handling and disposal of hazardous substances as well as the dismantling, reclamation and/or disposal of scrapped thermal power plant sites and structures including machinery, buildings, ash ponds”.
He had told the court that, if decommissioning is not done properly, it can pollute water, air and soil in the area as hazardous substances such as asbestos, arsenic, lead from power plants seep through. These can cause severe ailments in human beings such as brain damage, kidney failure or fatal diseases such as Asbestosis.
Coal-fired power plants are typically decommissioned after completion of their useful life, which varies generally from 30 years to 45 years in India. The 600-megawatt Neyveli thermal power plant, which has six units of 50 megawatts each and three units of 100 megawatts each, was commissioned in 1962. The first unit was synchronised in 1962 and the last unit in 1970.
Following Shah’s application in the National Green Tribunal, the tribunal had asked the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change, the Central Electricity Authority and the Central Pollution Control Board to constitute a joint committee and “evolve a policy or guideline as to how the decommissioning of thermal power plant unit has to be carried out, prior to decommissioning of a thermal power plant”.
The order had said that the guidelines should include a “manner of creating mechanism to supervise as to how it is being properly implemented by the power plant and mining area”.
Now, the proposed guidelines aim to address major issues such as the Environmental Management Plan, Environmental Impact Assessment report, water and air issues, management of hazardous waste, ash, electronic waste, construction waste, toxic metals, asbestos, closures and capping of ash ponds and ash impoundments, removal and disposal of chemicals and monitoring after the decommissioning process.
The proposed guidelines note that predetermining the future use of the site (of the thermal power plant) can help reduce the costs of dismantling and cleaning up, if buildings and infrastructure are to be retained, while adding that “prior to permitting demolition operations, an engineering survey of the structure must be made”.
They recommend that while preparing the Environmental Management Plan and conducting the Environmental Impact Assessment report for the decommissioning process, “laws on environmental and safety issues, as well as community concerns should be taken into account and necessary permission taken prior to initiating the decommission process”.
Norms to follow
The guidelines noted that the decommissioning process should follow various Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution Act, 1981 and the Hazardous and Other Wastes (Management and Transboundary Movement) Rules, 2016, Construction and Demolition Waste Management Rules, 2016, and the rules regarding management and utilisation of ash.
According to the draft guidelines, “Thermal power plants located in the middle of a coalfield or in urban areas may have additional environmental concerns that must be considered during decommissioning”.
They suggested measures to deal with stormwater discharge once the plant is shut down and emissions from the demolition of the plant. They also noted that closure of ash ponds probably “will be the most challenging tasks to undertaken during a decommissioning process” and suggested that “closure of most surface impoundments of the power plant will require drainage, placement of an impermeable cap, and topping with soil and a vegetative cover until full compliance with ash utilisation notification is achieved”.
The draft guidelines noted that “improper demolition, collection, transportation and disposal of construction and demolition waste may generate dust and noise and cause air pollution” and called for proposal disposal of such waste.
On September 30, the National Green Tribunal bench headed by Justice K Ramakrishnan directed the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to finalise the notification within six months (by March 2022) after following an extensive consultation process involving all the stakeholders.
Environmental lawyer Ritwick Dutta, who fought the case for Dharmesh Shah at the National Green Tribunal, said the tribunal’s order “recognises a crucial gap as far as decommissioning of thermal power plants are concerned”.
“We are very clear that we are not opposed to decommissioning of power plants but there should be a scientifically proven and safe method for this process in order to ensure there is no leakage of toxic materials and any harmful impact is avoided,” Dutta told Mongabay-India.
He said, “Given the fact that a large number of power plants are going to be decommissioned in the next few years it is very important to finalise the guidelines and bring them into operations at the earliest while keeping international best practices in mind.”
India’s energy transition
In India, as of March 31, there are 267 thermal power plants with a total installed capacity of 2,34,728.2 megawatts – which is over 61% of India’s total installed capacity of 3,82,151.2 megawatts. In fact, according to the official data, in the last five years, thermal power plants of about 9,908 megawatts capacity have retired and about 1,988 megawatts capacity have been identified for retirement in near future.
According to an analysis released by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water in July, over 1,25,000 megawatts of coal-based power capacity, which is about 65% of India’s total coal power generation capacity (as of March 2020), was installed or commissioned in the last 10 years.
The Council on Energy, Environment and Water study by Karthik Ganesan and Danwant Narayanaswamy had proposed that “30,000 megawatts of the surplus capacity, which represents the older and some of the least efficient assets, be taken up for accelerated decommissioning as these have been identified in the National Electricity Plan (2018) for decommissioning during the course of this decade (2021-2030)”.
“Each passing year of delay increases the burden on us with a higher electricity bill and more air, water, and soil pollution to manage. It also results in a one-time saving of Rs 10,200 crore in avoided pollution-control retrofits, which would otherwise be needed should some of these plants continue to operate,” the study had said.
It had emphasised that nearly 20,000 megawatts of capacity “can be considered for mothballing and based on a more rigorous assessment, it can be decided where they would be called upon to generate if contingencies are likely to arise”.
The study had said the “power sector needs to address some critical issues before it, as it prepares for the larger energy transition”, which is a path that India has taken with the rapid adoption of renewable power over the next 10 years. Recently, at the Glasgow climate summit, Prime Minister Narendra announced that India has planned an installed capacity of about 5,00,000 megawatts of renewable power by 2030.
“The first step to India’s energy transition in the power sector must be to improve the efficiency of generation in the thermal fleet,” said Ganesan, in the study. “The current focus on lowering variable costs, with all the distortions that currently exist, needs to be reviewed and stress should be laid on minimising environmental fallouts.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.