Supercritical technology coupled with emission control norms will utilise coal to its maximum potential to boost the Indian economy.
India is planning major investments in its power generation and distribution infrastructure as nearly 400 million Indians lack reliable energy supply. Most of this investment will be made in the renewable energy sector. India has a set a target to generate 175-GW of renewable energy (100 GW solar, 60 GW wind and 15 GW biogas and others) by 2022.
Most agencies including the Central Electricity Authority, agree that although little additional coal power capacity is needed over the next decade in India, coal will continue to be a significant source of electricity generation in the next two decades.
Renewable vs Coal Energy
According to an estimate by the Centre for Science and Environment, if India meets the 2022 renewable energy target, it will realise half of its energy needs from non-fossil fuels by 2031-32. The remaining half, however, will still have to predominantly come from coal. Early in 2017, Piyush Goyal, the then Minister of State with Independent Charge for power, coal, renewable energy and mines, had noted that without a baseload of coal-based capacity, it would be difficult to add any more renewable capacity.
While discussing about clean energy in India, the focus is almost always on the government's drive for renewables but a critical component is often overlooked. Solar power works well when the sun shines, but stops at sunset, just as power demand soars to its evening peak. Partial thermal power has to remain idle during the day and be ready to pick up the slack when solar production stops. This forced idleness carries huge costs hidden by ostensibly inexpensive solar power. Renewable energy is essential to sustainably power future growth; in the present, however, when most of India's energy comes from coal, cleaner energy conversations need to be the focus.
About 60 per cent of India's installed power capacity is currently coal-based. This is set to increase to 70 per cent in 2026, according to BMI Research. The electricity generation target of conventional sources from 2017-2018 has been fixed at 1,229.400 billion units.
The power industry in India has been facing less stringent emissions regulations than more developed countries because of the critical need to rapidly grow the generation capacity to bridge the gap between power supply and demand.
Now, for the first time, this coal capacity (new and existing assets) has to meet emissions standards for sulphur dioxide (SO2), oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and mercury. In addition, there are significantly tighter standards for pollutants such as particulate emissions. The new emissions standards are expected to cut particulate emissions from new plants by 25 per cent, SO2 emissions by 90 per cent, NOx emissions by 70 per cent and mercury emissions by 75 per cent compared with existing state-of-the-art plants.
The current deadline for compliance is December 2017, but an extension is likely. The cost of compliance, according to the Association of Power Producers, could be as much as Rs. 2.5 trillion. NTPC Ltd, India's largest energy conglomerate, has estimated that implementing the new standards could increase its cost of power production by 10 per cent.
The path to compliance is challenging for supercritical technology towards cleaner coal for operators building new assets. The government has passed a legislation to ensure that all Ultra Mega Power Projects, and all new capacity built after 2017, uses supercritical technology. In addition, the government has identified old plants totalling 7,738 MW - owned by central and state agencies - for replacement with supercritical plants.
Complex, costly supercritical retrofits are also a possibility for operators of existing coal-fired power plants, but advanced combustion alone is insufficient. To ensure compliance with SO2, NOx, particulate emissions and other new emissions norms, all coal power plant operators need to understand, procure, construct and operate air quality control systems with which they have little or no experience.
Because of the task's complexity, the Department of Science & Technology recently called for proposals for clean coal research and development. The project, however, will not report for three years. Signs that the new norms deadline may change, or be phased, also increase the challenge. Last year, SD Dubey, the then Chairman, Central Electricity Authority, said 'Particulate matter emissions should be addressed in the first phase. The next step would be sulphur dioxide emissions and later on NOx. That's the direction we are moving in.'
There were reports that the Ministry of Environment is likely to defer implementation of these norms to December 2019 and some articles have suggested that standards for SO2 and NOx may be 'revisited' This, however, is in the face of opposition from environmental groups and the government's very public backing for environmental improvement initiatives such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and domestic Swachh Bharat Abhiyan programme.
What is clear is that the need to comply with some form of stringent new emissions norms, in the near term, is inevitable. Supercritical technology coupled with emission control norms will not only reduce pressure on renewable, but will also utilise India's black diamond to its maximum potential of boosting the Indian economy.
Author: Rajiv Menon, Country Manager & Managing Director, Black & Veatch India
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