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A coal power plant for Mysore - (A reader's contribution and opinion)

Dear all,

As was mentioned in one of my e-mails earlier there has been efforts by the state govt. to set up coal based thermal power stations in few locations in the state, one of them being Chamalapura near, Mysore.

I do not know whether fellow citizens of Mysore have a correct picture of the social, economical and environmental impact of a coal power station in one's own backyard. I enclose an article I had prepared in the background of Tadadi UMPP, in Uttara Kannada district. Though the proposed plan size for Mysore is about one fourth of the size of Tadadi UMPP, the impacts will be similar but reduced in magnitude.

What is required is a series of meetings of the interested/ concerned people to discuss all the relevant issues, and come to an objectively considered opinion whether to support such a project, which is generally considered all over the world as highly polluting project. Most importantly, we need to discuss the feasibility of suitable alternatives available to us to meet our growing energy requirements.

It will also not be out of context to mention here that a massive opposition to the Tadadi UMPP has resulted in the central govt.'s decision to drop the idea of such a huge project in Tadadi.

Shankar Sharma
# 1120, 6th Main, K - Block
Ramakrishna Nagara, Mysore - 570022
Phone: 0821 2462502 & 94482 72503


Mega sized coal fired power projects in West Coast

- Socio-environmental impacts and viable alternatives

By Shankar Sharma
Consultant to Electricity Industry

SYNOPSIS: Recently the govt. of India has taken a policy decision to locate two ultra mega coal based power stations of capacity 4,000 MW each (out of seven such projects) in coastal Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka and in coastal Rathnagiri district of Maharastra. The West Coast of India and the Western Ghats are very rich in bio-diversity, ecologically very sensitive, and hence are very important to a healthy environment on a sustainable basis. In view of the serious implications associated with large size coal fired power stations, especially on such eco-sensitive areas, there is an urgent need to review the implications of the proposal, and also to consider the viable alternatives available to us to meet the electricity demand in the region.

Impact on the natural habitat: The West coast of India in the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and part of Maharastra has the Western Ghats, with evergreen and rich forests, running close to it for most of the length. UN has declared the Western Ghats as one of the 8 most important bio-diversity hot spots in the world. The narrow strip of coast between the Western Ghats and the sea has a rich habitat for millions of people living contentedly for centuries. The proposed large projects like the two ultra mega coal based power stations of capacity 4,000 MW each in coastal Rathnagiri district of Maharastra, in coastal Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka; 1,500 MW coal power project at Nandikur near Mangalore; the proposed 1,200 MW gas fired power station by ONGC etc. will have huge deleterious impact on the local flora, fauna, people, and general environment of the whole region. In this regard the following points should be objectively considered in any proposal to set up coal fired/gas fired power stations in the West coast:

The known ability of these forests to attract rainfall to the main land India.
Western Ghats are the source of a large number of rivers like Godavari, Narmada, Cavery, Krishna, Tunga Bhadra, Sharavathy, Kali etc.

They are the habitat for a large number of rare and endangered species of flora and fauna.
Reportedly decreasing rainfall in these areas due to a number of projects affecting the forest cover in recent decades;
Large number of stake holder groups (estimated to be few millions in number) relying on these habitats with or without any legal land holdings;

The West coast area has a large number of rivers draining into sea; these deltas are of immense importance to the ecology, food chain and life sustenance to a large number of people. The proposed location in Karnataka is between the delta of two important rivers providing such life sustenance.

A large number of industries/projects in recent decades have affected the flora and fauna: a number of polluting industries near Mangalore and Karwar; Konkan Railway; Kaiga Atomic Power Station; Sea Bird Naval Base; a number of hydro electric power stations on the rivers like Sharavathy, Kali and Varahi etc;
Some additional projects are also reported to be in the pipeline: a large size petro-chemical complex, including a gas fired power station, near Mangalore by ONGC (Rs. 50,000 Crore investment); earlier approved coal fired station at Nandikur by Nagarjuna Power Company Ltd.

Large scale felling of trees under various pretexts is continuing.

Environmental scientists believe that the Western Ghats have had more than their share of abuse, and cannot take anymore without damaging the ecology irreversibly.

There are a large number of agricultural, fishing and salt making sites in these areas.
While the West Coast and the Western Ghats have been the source of livelihood for millions of people for centuries, the proposed projects are likely to deny such source of income to a large number of families by a combination of factors like displacement, reducing access to sea, destroying many species of plants and vegetation, polluting rivers and sea vicinity etc.

The statement by the project authorities and the governments that the projects will provide employment to the locals will fall short of expectations, because such mega projects employing advanced technology cannot employ the locals, who are generally not equipped adequately. If at all few local people are absorbed in low end jobs, the number is likely to be much less when compared to those who will loose their livelihood because of the projects.

Suitability of coal fired power stations to the West Coast: Without any known coal reserves of its own the coastal region on Western India has to import large quantity of coal, which can devastate the local ecology and quality of life. An objective assessment of all the direct and indirect costs of such a proposal may reveal that the real cost of electricity produced could be many times higher than the projected cost of Rs.1.90 per Unit. Some of the major issues in this regard are:

Even a high grade imported coal will pose huge problems of dust and ash for the rich green vegetation of the coast: coconut, banana, rice, fruits and vegetables etc.

The flue gases like Carbon-di-oxide and Sulphur-di-oxide, fly ash and heat can have devastating impact on the local flora and fauna.
As per the guidelines of Central Electricity Authority, on an average, about 3,000 to 4,000 acre of land will be required at each of these sites, and most of it will have to be carved out of fertile agricultural lands or thick forest land.

A considerable percentage of the proposed site in Karnataka appear to be surrounded by low lying wet lands and may need a lot of investment to make it suitable for a power station site.

Both these sites in Karnataka and Maharastra appear to be within the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ), which is against the restrictions imposed on coastal area preservation.

Thousands of acres of forest have to be pulled down to provide the right of way for the required transmission corridor, which has to climb over the Western Ghats; once these dense virgin forest are opened up there will be accelerated deforestation due to various reasons.

The estimated area of forest land, which needs to be cut for the purpose of transmission line for each of the two projects, will be about 200 Metres wide for a length of few hundred kM in Karnataka alone. This is a huge forest area to loose. For the quantity of power to be transmitted there may not be any other alternative other than this much of forest destruction.

Karnataka has already lost a lot of dense/unique forest areas because of the projects like Sharavathy, Kali, Varahi, Bhadra, Kaiga etc. In the opinion of the environmental scientists the Western Ghats have already taken more abuse than they deserve, and cannot take anymore.

The people, who are likely to be displaced, may not have any where else to go on the narrow strip of coast, and may have to put up with totally unfamiliar territory after displacement; Sea Bird Naval base and Kaiga project have already displaced a large number of families.

Unless Sea water is to be used for the project purpose, there will be a severe stress on the already stressed fresh water resources.

Atmospheric pollution generally associated with coal fired stations will destroy the clean green image enjoyed by the coast so far.
The acid rains associated with such highly polluting industries will be much more pronounced in the West coast because of the high levels of humidity prevailing throughout the year, due to which the thick forests of Western Ghats and the fertile agricultural lands nearby will be at serious risk.

Tall chimneys (one for each generator) of a height of about 250 meters will scar the skyline and obstruct the flying paths of many bird species. In addition the tall transmission pylons (corresponding to the highest transmission voltage in the country) and the switch yard will destroy the clean green image of the coast.

The transmission corridors needed for these projects will lead to the fragmentation of the natural habitat of certain animal species, and is likely to lead to reduction in number or extinction of those species.

The Karnataka state forest department is reported to be earning revenue of over Rs. 100 Crores per annum from the forests of Uttara Kannada district alone. Destruction of such forests would lead to loss of such useful revenue on a perpetual basis. A large number of medicinal plants would be lost for ever, whose economic value is difficult to accurately determine.

The proposed project would not be of any direct benefit to the locals, but only result in huge loss, which cannot be compensated adequately even with the best intention of comprehensive rehabilitation.

Whereas on one hand, the governments are talking about the urgent need to increase the forest cover from the present level of 19.1% of the total geographical area to 33%, the destruction of thick forests through such ill-conceived projects can only add to the public apprehension that the governments are not serious about the upkeep of our environment.

Whereas on one hand thick forests and fertile agricultural lands are being destroyed in the name of various other developmental schemes, the governments seem to be paying only lip sympathy to increase their coverage.

The proposed project site in Karnataka is very close to many culturally important locations like the Shiva temple in Gokarna.
The rich fishing sites, and a rare agricultural environment in this region, where rice can be grown in both salty water and fresh water, are the only source of lively hood to a large number of people, who will be devastated by the proposed projects.

The proposed tax holiday for the developers of these ultra mega projects can only be seen as a tragedy of errors, in addition to the devastation of the local socio- environmental conditions.

The alternatives for large size power projects of such high societal impact: The potential for the high societal impact will beg to ask the question whether such large projects, whether coal based thermal projects or dam based hydro electric projects, are really essential for our society. An objective assessment of the following issues will help to provide a stark reality as far as viable alternatives are concerned:

The existing electricity industry infrastructure of our country in the areas of generation, transmission, distribution and utilizations are known to be grossly inefficient as compared to the international benchmark. There is a considerable scope for improvement in these areas, which alone can do away with the need for additional power generation capacity for few years.

There is a considerable potential to add to the generating capacity at the existing stations through modern techniques like R, M & U and through replacing old inefficient units with higher capacity efficient units.

The overall efficiency of energy conversion from Indian coal to electricity and then to heating/motive power is very low, probably of the order of 15%. Despite this low conversion efficiency level and the heavy pollution potential our planners have embarked on coal energy as a primary source of electricity for next few decades at a tremendous cost to our resource starved society.

Though the transmission losses in some pockets of the network may compare with that of the international benchmark, the aggregate transmission losses are increasing and have considerable potential for reduction.

The aggregate technical and commercial losses in the electricity industry are unbelievably high, of the order of about 40%. There is a scope to bring this down below 10%, if international best practices are adopted effectively.

In addition, the utilization sector also has tremendous potential for improvement as per the National Productivity Council, which is of the opinion that there are opportunities to save energy to the extent of a minimum 25%. The agricultural sector alone, which is known to be consuming about 40% of all the available electricity in Karnataka, is understood to be wasting 40 to 50% of the energy consumed at the individual pump set level.

A conservative estimate of potentially hidden energy in all the above mentioned areas reveals that the overall efficiency in the utilization of the generated electricity for productive use in our country as a whole could be of the order of only about 20 - 30%. The international experience is that this efficiency can be improved to above 60%.

A 25% increase in the efficiency of the industry could mean virtual addition of about 1,200 MW on a base of 4,500 MW installed capacity in the state of Karnataka alone. As the Bureau of Energy Efficiency has mentioned, at the prevailing cost of additional energy generation, it costs a unit of energy about one fourth the cost to save than to produce it with new capacity. This is in comparison to 1,500 MW as demanded by Karnataka from the proposed ultra mega project in coastal Karnataka.

The potential available with non-conventional energy sources is very huge for a tropical country like ours. The solar power technology for agricultural water pumping, water heating and lighting has a great potential to reduce the demand for grid quality electricity. It is estimated that in Karnataka even if 75% of the AEH consumers, 50% of agricultural pump sets, and 50% of the houses /offices /schools /street lights etc. can be encouraged to install solar panels for water heating, pumping and for lighting, a conservatively estimated 1,500 MW of morning peak demand, about 800 MW of evening peak demand, and about 3,000 to 5,000 MU of energy per year could be saved.

The bio-mass and wind energy also offer a lot of opportunities to reduce demand for grid quality electricity in the state.
In view of all these possibilities a perplexing question to the common public is as to why our society has not embarked in a big way on efficiency improvement and demand side management measures, before adding new installed capacity based on conventional fossil fuel technology at a huge cost.

Such alternative measures have smaller gestation periods, minimum environmental impact, least social cost, and no recurring additional fuel cost, and technical losses.

Distributed generation sources like solar, wind power and bio-mass are ideally suited for isolated villages under rural electrification programme.

Such distributed generation sources, if deployed effectively, can reduce the dependence on grid quality electricity and on the govt. expenditure perpetually to a large extent, and could change the scenario from chronic energy deficit to sustained energy security.

Distributed generation sources have the potential to be the main sources of electrical energy in the long run without any of the problems associated with the large size centralized generation projects.

Most of these alternative measures, aimed at high energy efficiency and generating green power, could be eligible for Carbon Exchange Credits under Clean Development Mechanisms with industrialized countries, which means that a sizeable portion of the relevant costs can be recovered from Carbon Income.

India, though not a signatory to the Kyoto protocol, is the sixth largest emitter of Carbon-di-oxide, which is a green house gas known to be contributing to the global warming phenomenon. Sooner than later there will be international pressure on developing countries like India and China also to reduce the Carbon emission. Even otherwise, it is only expected of a responsible member of the comity of Nations that India demonstrates a sense of responsibility by minimising the Carbon emission.

The electricity industry as a whole has the potential to be the biggest polluter of our environment, if not managed responsibly.
Hence it is very sad that the local population and other concerned sections of the society have not been consulted at all before deciding to go ahead with such proposals. On the other hand the governments, even before preparing the pre-feasibility report and any public consultation, are issuing statements to the effect that all preparations are going on definitely in favour of the project. It is unthinkable that in a democratic society like India, such major policy decisions are being made without taking all the stake holders into confidence.

Various governments and government agencies in our country would do well to remind themselves that unlike 50 years ago, now the society has more number of relevant experts outside of governments than inside the governments. The expertise and the good intention of such people should be put into effective use.

Other alternatives: Once the above mentioned alternatives have been fully exploited, if there is additional need for energy, the other alternatives available to individual states like Karnataka and Maharastra for the longer term energy security could be suitable understanding with other states like Uttaranchal, Jharkand, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh or private agencies like Reliance or Tatas to provide us power supply. Some of the issues that could be of relevance in this scenario are:

Many states like Uttaranchal, Jharkand, Orissa, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh etc. are keen on harnessing their rich energy sources like hydro power and coal power. A long term agreement with these state governments to supply assured quantity of power is one credible alternative. Already many states are understood to be availing this opportunity. However, the environmental issues in each of the individual locations should be properly addressed.

The private agencies like Reliance and Tatas are reported to be planning super thermal projects in UP, Jharkahand and Orissa, who can provide assured supply of power on long term basis.

Karnataka Power Corporation should also consider investing in some of these projects outside of Karnataka as a partner and secure power supply as return on investment. Such an option is certainly better than the ill conceived idea of transporting coal over thousands of kM and putting up coal fired power station in environmentally sensitive areas with all the attended problems.
The alternative sites for such mega sized coal fires stations: If, in the overall objective analysis, it turns out that the proposed mega sized coal fired power stations are in the best interest of the nation aren’t there alternative sites with lesser societal impact?

Why can we not consider the sites of old and inefficient coal power stations in many states like UP, Bihar, Orissa etc? There are a large number of such stations with very low PLF in many states. Such inefficient stations are severe drains of the nation’s resources; why cannot we use such sites, even if it means building entirely new facilities?

If an existing station site (say of few 60/110 MW units) is not adequate to house the proposed 4,000 MW station, the possibility is always there to spread 660/800 MW units at more locations than in two locations as proposed. Such an approach may also address the issue of evacuation paths for 4,000 MW in one location.

The resources like existing power station land, coal & ash handling facilities, fresh water sources, transmission corridors etc, if needed to be upgraded or even built anew shall be lot more acceptable to the society.

The Raichur Thermal Power Station in Karnataka has 7 units of 210 MW capacity each and the 8th Unit is being planned. The first unit was commissioned in 1980s, and is nearing the end of its economic life. KPCL should consider whether it is feasible to put one unit of either 500/660/800 MW in place of Unit 1 and the proposed Unit 8. Such a consideration can assist in increasing the overall efficiency of the station, and also can produce more power at the existing location. If this is feasible, the other units also, could be considered for replacement by 800/1000 MW units at appropriate time.

Such old power station sites should be seriously considered instead of looking to set up large coal fired power stations in environmentally sensitive areas, and in the process destroy the thick forests or fertile agricultural lands. As a resource constrained society with a large and growing population, we have to be extremely conscious of the need to optimize the use of our meager resources, so that we achieve the social, economical and environmental goals on a sustainable basis.

At a time when many of the developed countries like USA and in Europe, who had depended upon coal fired power stations and had bitter experiences, are moving away from such high pollution industries, we should learn lessons from their experiences than re-inventing the wheels.

The need for a paradigm shift: All the points discussed in part I and II of this series should serve to initiate a review of our national level priorities on large power projects. As already experienced during last few decades, the electricity industry has the potential to become the worst abuser of our natural resources, if not managed properly. In this regard some of the critical issues we, as a society, should address urgently are:

We cannot hope to attain energy security unless we increase the overall efficiency of the electricity industry to the maximum extent possible, adopt the best possible demand side management techniques, and conserve energy. We should be able to clearly distinguish between the energy needs and energy profligacy, and make all out efforts to reduce the wastage to the minimum.

The entire electricity industry has to assume very high level of responsibility, accountability and transparency, and achieve the levels of international benchmarking in all business processes.

The western world’s practice of associating high per capita energy consumption with progress is not suitable to our scenario, because it is more than likely to encourage profligacy by certain sections of the society than ensuring affordable energy for all. The earlier we stop comparing the per capita electricity consumption of our country with that of OECD countries like USA and Canada, it will be better for us to focus on issues specific to our society.

We should assign objectively realistic value to forests, agricultural fields, human displacement, and water resources in order to arrive at realistic cost of supplying energy.

Tariff mechanisms can play a crucial role in encouraging energy efficiency and energy conservation, and in discouraging energy profligacy. Suitable tariff mechanisms should be implemented not only to achieve these objectives but also to protect the weaker sections of the society.

For a modern welfare society it should be anathema that all the concerned stake holders are not part of the decision making process. There should be action plan to mandate effective public consultation at the stage of application registration stage itself on all aspects of large project. Such pro-active action will reduce the incidences of subsequent public opposition to the approved projects, and corresponding project completion delays. The bitter experience of Bedthi project in Uttara Kannada district and Silent Valley project in Kerala, which had to be stopped because of the popular opposition are examples of how things can go wrong without public’s co-operation.

The energy supplied at present is highly subsidized in many ways. What our society doing at present is to supply inefficiently derived energy from limited conventional sources at subsidized rates for highly inefficient/wasteful end uses, for which the real subsidy cost will be debited to the account of future generations. If we take into account all the relevant costs, whether direct and indirect, in an objective manner the energy derived from such large projects based on conventional technology will be much higher than that is being projected by the project developers.

At a time when other primary sectors of our economy like poverty alleviation, health and education are starving of funds shall we continue to pour thousands of crores of Rupee worth precious resources in adding new generating capacity through conventional technology only to end up with productive and economic usage of about 20%, without first exploring cheaper alternatives?
In view of the fact that because of the extensive cultivation technique adopted in our country we probably need more and more land areas to come under the agricultural cover to cater to the growing population, such projects will take away some of the most productive agricultural lands.

Since any human endeavor has a deleterious impact on the nature, we have to be extremely cautious before even considering such large projects. There cannot be any argument that the compensatory forests can never substitute for natural forests, which have taken thousands of years to develop.

As a civilized society we should demonstrate adequate farsightedness by constantly reminding ourselves of the obligations to our future generations. As Mahatma Gandhi said, we should consider ourselves the Trustees of the nature, which we inherited from our ancestors, only to hand it over to the future generations in as pristine a condition as humanly possible.

In view of the present and future difficulties in getting adequate energy through conventional energy sources, which is so vividly discussed in the draft report on integrated energy policy by Planning Commission, the inevitability of harnessing the renewable non-conventional sources become evidently clear. Our society has a lot at stake in actively encouraging the increased use of such sources and in participating in R&D activities to reduce the relevant costs.

With only initial capital cost and negligible recurring costs, the efficient deployment of non-conventional energy sources will not only eliminate all the issues with conventional energy sources, but also will slowly shift the burden of supplying energy from the State to individuals. It may be safe to assert that the present day crises of meeting the basic needs, including energy, is because the State has assumed the responsibility of supplying basic needs to every one, as compared to past centuries when the onus of arranging energy and the basic needs was with the individual, which had naturally lead to higher efficiency and high level of conservation. As a society we must debate whether the State can revert back to this system as best as possible within the constraints of present day life.

Many energy intensive industries like steel, alumina, cement etc. are embarking on measures like energy audits and conservation measures and are reported to have reaped huge benefits. Why can’t our electricity supply companies undertake similar measures to establish highest possible efficiencies?

The conclusions: In view of the close relationship between energy availability and the progress of all sections of the society, and since the State has failed to ensure adequate electricity to all by conventional means during the past 58 years, we should adopt suitable non-conventional methods. Electricity should not necessarily be viewed as grid quality electricity alone, and the role of generating companies should be modified to that of a champion of non-conventional energy also. Demand side management, energy efficiency, and energy conservation should be considered as an integral part of the corporate objective of all electricity companies.

The society has to carefully deliberate on how much forest land and agricultural land can it afford to loose to get additional power. The forest cover as of today is only 19.1 % of the total land area against the national forest policy target of 33%. With more and more of such large size projects more and more forest cover and fertile agricultural lands would be lost. With such policies we may never be able to attain the forest cover goal. What would happen when we require more power in few years’ time? Shall we go for more of coal fired stations in such environmentally sensitive areas? Since the states like Karnataka have no known reserve of fossil fuel sources it would not be a wise decision to opt for a coal fired station/gas fired station and depend on imported energy sources on a perpetual basis. From the energy efficiency point of view it is considered ideal to generate electricity (if, by conventional means) very close to the source of primary energy, and transmit it to the load centres.

The state governments have a serious case to address the electricity requirement on a sustainable basis to achieve energy security without compromising on our fragile environment. The Western Ghats and coastal areas are too precious from the welfare point of view of the entire region, and hence we should not do anything which will damage them irreversibly. The state governments should initiate public discussions in this regard before taking any decision. A high powered committee of energy experts, environmentalists and economists should debate these issues objectively, and come up with a sustainable energy policy for each state.

The serious implications of such large size polluting projects in a bio-diversity hotspot have become a serious concern to the environmental scientists and all the concerned citizens in Karnataka, who have already started a mass based agitation against the proposal. The public would expect all responsible governments to take such popular oppositions in the past into account, and to avoid the wastage of public money by taking the progressive route of effective public consultation.

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