After allowing 16 thermal power plants that had come up this year to exceed the legal limits of air pollution, the environment ministry has now relaxed the rules on the amount of water that the new units can consume.

As opposed to an earlier cap of 2.5 cubic metre of water per megawatt-hour, the diluted rules allow plants to use up to 3 cubic metre per megawatt-hour.

This means a new thermal plant with a capacity of 1000 megawatts that is operating at 80% efficiency will now be allowed to consume about 21 million cubic meters of water a year (according to the relaxed rules), instead of 17.5 million cubic metre. The additional amount is enough to irrigate 700 hectares of land a year.

The relaxation was introduced on October 17 through an amendment to the rules notified by the ministry in 2015, which were applicable to power plants set up after January 1, 2017. The amended rules allow all thermal plants that have started operations this year, as well as the ones that will come up in future, to consume up to 20% more water than was permitted earlier.

With India expected to add more than 50,000 megawatts of coal-based thermal power capacity between 2017 and 2022, the revised rules mean the country would miss the opportunity to save at least 175 million cubic metres of water – enough to irrigate 35,000 hectares of land – every year by 2022.

Coal-based thermal power plants need water primarily to cool the steam that is used to produce electricity, and dispose the ash that is generated from the burning of the fossil fuel. In India, the industry has been using outdated and cheap technology that requires huge amounts of water as compared to global standards. In 2015, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change had formulated new rules to clean up the highly polluting sector.

But, as had reported earlier this month, the government did not impose the air pollution standards mandated by the 2015 rules on all the 16 thermal power plants that started operations this year. It also prepared a roadmap for another existing 300 thermal power plants to dodge the mandatory deadline for meeting these standards.

While the air pollution standards were bypassed informally, the ministry has officially amended the 2015 rules to relax the water consumption limits for the new plants. This is the first formal dilution of the new rules.

The environment ministry did not respond to’s queries on the reasons for diluting the standards.

Government documents accessed through a Right to Information plea showed that thermal power industry had been lobbying with the two environment and power ministries to relax water consumption standards as well as the air pollution norms. The industry said the changes they would need to make to their design and technology to meet the 2015 water consumption standards would mean additional costs, which they could not afford.

But environmentalists point out that some thermal power plants in India are already consuming less water than the 2015 norm, which shows it is possible for the industry to adopt new technology.

Water guzzlers

According to a study done by the Centre for Science and Environment, India’s thermal power plants withdraw around 22 billion cubic metres of fresh water per year, which is more than half of the country’s domestic water requirement. Even new plants with advanced technologies in the country use, on average, four cubic metre of water per megawatt-hour of electricity generation. Some of the old plants consume as high as 10 cubic metres of water per megawatt-hour. In comparison, the average water consumption in Chinese plants is 2.5 cubic metres of water per megawatt-hour of electricity.

This huge consumption by thermal plants adds to the water scarcity in the country, particularly in years of low rainfall, or in areas where such electricity-generating units are located in clusters.

Often this leads to conflicts with local people or to shutting down of the plants due to competing domestic and agricultural usage. According to an estimate by Manthan, a non-profit in Pune, India lost seven billion units of power generation because of water shortage at thermal power stations between June 2016 and April 2017.

Land Conflict Watch, a data-journalism initiative that maps ongoing land conflicts in India, has documented 29 conflicts related to thermal power plants, out of which at least in five cases, withdrawal of water by thermal plants from water bodies sparked protests and legal challenges. Some of these protests have turned violent. Two people were killed in Jharkhand’s Ramgarh in September last year when police opened fire on farmers protesting against a thermal power plant that was withdrawing water from the river they used for irrigation.

Labourers prepare the flooded field for rice farming as chimneys of Kolaghat Thermal Power Plant are seen in the background in Mecheda in West Bengal on July 26, 2011. [Photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP]

New rules

In an attempt to make thermal power plants water efficient, the environment ministry in December 2015 introduced rules under the Environment Protection Act of 1986 to cap water consumption in all plants starting operation after January 1, 2017 to 2.5 cubic metres per megawatt-hour of electricity generation. The earlier rules specified no cap.

For the existing old plants, the rules capped water consumption to 3.5 per megawatt-hour and gave them two years’ time till December 2017 to retrofit their technology to meet the new standards. This involved moving from the “once through cooling technology” where the water that is drawn is used for only one round of cooling, to “cooling tower technology”, in which the same water is used can be used in cycles.

However, the power industry resisted the implementation of the rules as soon as they were notified. It cited “technical limitations and financial implications” to demand that the standards are not imposed on old plants. The industry associations claimed retrofitting of new technology in old plants to meet the standards would add to their cost significantly.

The industry also contended it was difficult for new plants to meet the standard of 2.5 cubic metre of water per megawatt-hour of electricity generation. It demanded that the water consumption norm for the plants that have already received environment clearances from the government should be as per the conditions finalised in the clearances.

All power projects start construction only after they receive mandatory environmental clearance from the ministry, which stipulates the conditions the project must meet once it starts operations. Many plants that opened this year or are yet to begin operations had received environment clearance before the 2015 rules were notified. This means the water consumption conditions in their environment clearances did not adhere to the new rules. The 2015 rules, however, made no exception for such plants.

Environmentalists are not convinced by the industry’s argument that 2.5 cubic metre cap on water consumption is difficult to meet. They point out that some super-critical thermal power plants – which have the most efficient technology in terms of generating electricity per unit of fuel burnt – have been consuming as little as 2 cubic metre of water per megawatt-hour of electricity generation.

The industry, however, said not all new thermal power plants coming up in the country were super-critical and many of them were sub-critical – or less efficient in generating electricity per unit fuel burnt. Such plants would have to make changes to their designs to meet the 2015 standards, they argued, which would mean additional cost to them.

It is not clear if the new plants have so far adhered to the 2015 standards on water consumption. In October, the Central Pollution Control Board, the apex body under the environment ministry to govern pollution related matters in the country, presented a report to the National Green Tribunal which said that none of the 16 power plants that had started operations from January this year met the stricter air emission norms. The report was, however, silent on the water consumption norms. The environment ministry did not respond to’s query on the matter.

Bypassing the pollution control board

The 2015 rules were formulated on the recommendations of the Central Pollution Control Board and after repeated consultations between the ministries of power and environment.

Documents show that the power ministry called at least two ministerial meetings with the environment ministry last year to address the concerns of the power industry. The Central Pollution Control Board was asked to respond to all the representations made by power producers and industry bodies. It did so and found no reason to change the rules. It concluded that all the industry’s concerns, including technical and financial constraints, had been taken into consideration while setting the standards.

Yet, in October, the environment ministry went against the Central Pollution Control Board’s recommendations to relax the water consumption limit for new plants. The standards for the old plants, however, remain the same.

According to an estimate by the Centre for Science and Environment, if the 2015 rules were implemented in the original form, the water use in thermal plants would have come down by 85% by 2027. Most of the reduction would be because of the change in technology in the old plants as they are the ones currently using the most water. If the standards for old plants are implemented as per the December 2017 deadline, the overall water consumption by the industry will still come down, but the allowance made to the new plants means they would still end up guzzling 175 million cubic metres of extra water annually by 2022 that could have been saved through cleaner technologies.