February 28, 2024

Syllabus– General Studies 3(environment/economy)

Context

  • As part of the Union Budget address for 2020-21, the Finance Minister, said that the shutting down of old coal power plants, which are major contributors to emissions, will aid the achievement of India’s Nationally Determined Contributions.

Furthermore

  • It is argued that the availability of under-utilised newer (and presumably more efficient) coal-based capacity means that shutting down older inefficient plants would lead to improved efficiencies, reduced coal usage, and hence, cost savings.
  • It is argued that it would be uneconomical for old plants to install pollution control equipment required to meet the emission standards announced by the Environment Ministry, and hence it would be better to retire them.
  • The recent order from the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC) allowing Delhi’s BSES distribution company to exit its concluded 25 year old power purchase agreement with the National Thermal Power Corporation Limited’s Dadri-I generating station, also lends some credence to this.

How Significant are the Potential Benefits?

  • While there are some old plants tied up in expensive power purchase agreements, as in the case of the CERC order, there are also several old plants, which generate at lower costs. 
    • For instance, plants such as Rihand, Singrauli (both Uttar Pradesh), and Vidhyanchal (Madhya Pradesh), are all over 30 years old and have very low generation costs of around ₹1.7/kWh, which is lower than the national average.
  • The total savings in generation cost from shutting down plants older than 25 years would be less than ₹5,000 crore annually, which is just 2% of the total power generation cost.
    • These savings may not be sufficient to even pay for the fixed costs (such as debt repayment) that would have to be paid anyway, even if the plants are prematurely retired.
    • Similarly, savings in coal consumption by replacing generation from plants older than 25 years with newer coal plants are also likely to be only in the 1%-2% range.
  • The argument about older plants finding it uneconomical to install pollution control equipment to meet environmental norms is a stronger one, as all coal plants should indeed reduce emissions.
    • However, even here, the argument is not black-and-white. There are some old plants that may continue to be economically viable even if they install pollution control equipment as their current fixed costs (which would increase with pollution control equipment installation) are very low.
    • Indeed, about half the coal capacity older than 25 years has already issued tenders for pollution control equipment installation.

Issues

  • Whether these limited savings are worth the risks associated with early retirement of coal plants, especially given the current trends in the country’s power sector.
    • To support the growing intermittent renewable generation in the sector, there is an increasing need for capacity that can provide flexibility, balancing, and ancillary services.
    • Old thermal capacity, with lower fixed costs, is a prime candidate to play this role until other technologies (such as storage) can replace them at scale.
  • There is also a political economic risk, as aggressive early retirement of coal-based capacity, without detailed analyses, could result in real or perceived electricity shortage in some

Way Forward

  • This is not to say that no old plant should be retired. However, using age as the only lever to drive these decisions is too blunt an instrument, and can prove counterproductive. Instead, a more disaggregated and nuanced analysis, considering the various technical, economic and operating characteristics of individual plants and units, while also accounting for aspects such as intermittency of renewables, growing demand, and need to meet emission norms, would be appropriate to make retirement-related decisions.
  • Hence, it may be prudent to let old capacity fade away in due course, while focusing on such detailed analysis and weeding out the needless capacity in the pipeline, to derive long-term economic and environmental benefits.

The Hindu link- https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/revisit-the-idea-of-aging-out-indias-coal-plants/article35804949.ece

Question- Retrofitting of old coal based thermal plants, rather than shutting them down might be the best option to ensure that energy security is not compromised in making the power generation sector cleaner. Comment.  

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