The environment ministry has decided that it will no longer regulate the ash-content of coal used by thermal power plants. On May 21, the ministry issued a notification that overturned its January 2014 regulation that made it mandatory for all coal-based power plants located 500 kilometres or more from the coal mine to use raw or blended or beneficiated coal with no more than 34% ash content.
Under the new norms, thermal power stations will be able to use coal irrespective of ash content but should be liable for proper disposal of coal ash to meet emission standards set by the Central Pollution Control Board.
The notification stresses on use of pollution control technologies by thermal power to meet the particulate matter emission standards. It has also set out norms for disposal of rejects at washeries, management of ash ponds and disposal of ash by power plants. The new regulation makes it compulsory to transport coal in covered vehicles—freight trains and trucks.
The 2014 notification was an attempt to ensure that power plants were best able to do this. The notification effectively made it mandatory for coal producers to remove impurities from the coal before transporting it to end users such as thermal power plants. This meant coal companies had to invest in setting up washeries at the pit head or close to the mine. The recent notification does away with this implicit requirement for coal producers.
The focus of the 2014 notification was on dealing with pollution and emissions from the high ash content of India's domestic coal. The ash-content norm together with the more stringent emission and water usage norms for coal based power plants were meant to be a demonstration of India's effort at balancing its commitment to reducing emissions and tackling pollution while also making it clear that coal was to continue to be critical component of the energy mix.
However, the 2014 notification by mandating a ceiling on the ash content made it incumbent on coal companies to ensure that their product met the specifications. The current notification makes no such demand of coal producers instead the onus of addressing pollution due high ash content lies with power plants.
Compliance with the 2014 order has been patchy. "Many coal producers were not washing coal. There were also instances coal washeries contributing environmental problems like pollution of water sources," said an official involved in the discussions on the notification.
Experts point to the way the ministries of power and coal have consistently viewed environmental norms as something of an irritation and hindrance and cost enhancing exercise. It is therefore no surprise that the coal ministry argued that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to "immediate requirement of utilization of domestic coal by stimulating coal sector demand for power generation in the country".
Coal washing is one possible way to tackle the problem of high ash content in coal. Experts say that impact of washing coal on the price of electricity is less than 10 per cent as washed coal burns longer and provides more energy. It has the added benefit of lower carbon emissions.
Another option to deal with ash is the use of flue gas desulphurisation (FGD) systems. Used along with the use of electrostatic precipitators, FGDs can address particulate pollution from coal-fired power plants caused in part due to the high ash content. It is this option that the environment ministry has now chosen to deal with the problem arising from the high ash content of domestic coal.
For now the environment ministry appears to have found a different route to fulfil its mandate of tackling air and water pollution, What however remains unclear is how it will manage to stem particulate matter pollution from coal ash. It is this lack of surety that has led to the questioning of the efficacy of May 2020 notification.
(Writing by Alex Guo Editing by Tammy Yang)
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