Thermal Power Plants - Emissions and Health Impacts of India's Coal Expansion

Update December, 2014
(click on the images/tables to enlarge view)

Air Pollution from India Coal TPPs - Coal Power ExpansionAs the 3rd largest economy in the world with more than a billion people, the supply of power in India can scarcely keep up with demand. Across the country, households and industry suffer from regular power cuts, while more than 400 million lack access to even this unreliable supply. Given the energy scenario, the need to expand power generation capacity and deliver more electricity for India is immediate. To meet the growing electricity demand, the expansion of the coal-fired thermal power plants (TPPs) is the most likely scenario, which consequently also leads to an array of environmental and health impacts.

Air Pollution from India Coal TPPs - Cover PageThe National Ambient Monitoring Program (NAMP) collects 24-hour averages of particulate matter with diameter less than 10m (PM10), sulphur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), 2-3 times per week, at 400+ manual stations in 150 cities. This network is operated and managed by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB, New Delhi, India). Of the three pollutants, one pollutant is routinely shown under compliance – SO2. Interventions such as introduction of Bharat-4 diesel (equivalent of Euro-4, with 50 ppm sulfur) for cities and relocation or refurbishing of industries with better efficiency norms have led to this compliance. For most cities, the smaller power plants within 30-50 km of the city limits are also converted to operate on natural gas, which further drops the sulfur emission levels in cities and the ambient SO2 levels below the national annual ambient standard (50g/m3). This does not mean that the sulfur emissions in India are dropping. Since all these monitors are in the cities and often the contribution of the TPPs to the air pollution problems is underestimated. Using the OMI satellite data, Lu et al. (2013) reported that the annual average SO2 concentrations in coal-fired power plant regions of India increased by more than 60% between 2005 and 2012 . The Indo-Gangetic plain, with states of Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh harbour the largest coal mines in the country, and a cluster of TPPs. Several of the large TPPs also exist in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, and Uttar Pradesh, making the north and north-eastern belt the most polluted.

Air Pollution from India Coal TPPs - PM and SO2 pollution through 2030Our last assessment, found significant impacts from the existing fleet of coal fired TPPs including between 80,000 and 115,000 deaths annually due to exposure linked TPPs emissions in 2011-12. These findings were discussed in Rajya Sabha’s Q&A session in August 2013. Keeping that in perspective, this study is an attempt to help rationalise the discourse around expansion of coal power generation - with the goal of presenting the likely impacts of planned future coal-fired TPPs and the likely benefits of more stringent environment regulations on human health. (Link to the previous study and support material)

Air Pollution from India Coal TPPs - Population Weighted PM2.5Our key findings are

Coal generation capacity grows 300% - The total installed capacity is expected to increase three times from 159 GW in 2014 to 450 GW in 2030; under the proposed list of power plant projects. Largest (three fold) expansions are expected in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, and Jharkhand, all of which have coal reserves. A two fold expansion is expected in the states of Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Tamilnadu, and Uttar Pradesh

Coal consumption increases 200-300% - The total coal consumption is estimated to increase 2-3 times from 660 million tons/year to 1800 million tons/year; accordingly the CO2 emissions from 1,590 million tons/year to 4,320 million tons/year

Air emissions at least double through 2030 - The PM, SO2, and NOx emissions will at least double in the same period. Most of the planned plants are supercritical- and ultra- TPPs, which tend to utilise less coal per MWh of electricity generated. With no emission regulations in place for SO2 and NOx, these are assumed uncontrolled and allowed to release through the elevated stacks for dispersion

100% increase in health impacts - The total premature mortality due to the emissions from coal-fired TPPs is expected to grow 2-3 times reaching 186,500 to 229,500 annually  in 2030. Asthma cases associated with coal-fired TPP emissions will grow to 42.7 million by 2030

Limited emission standards for power plants - India currently has no standards for either SO2 or NOx both of which drive a large portion of the estimated these health impacts – in the form of secondary suphates and secondary nitrates.

Air Pollution from India Coal TPPs - Anticipated Health Impacts

Technology improvements worldwide have made electricity generation more efficient and hence cleaner and safer for the environment. Establishing standards, especially for SO2 and NOx, at par with those observed in USA, EU, and China, and mandating the flue gas desulphurization (FGD) systems like limestone injection during the combustion process, wet FGD using limestone scrubbing, and high efficiency regeneration, could reduce the annual premature mortality by at least 50% every year.

Air Pollution from India Coal TPPs - Benefits of FGD

Air Pollution from India Coal TPPs - Health Impacts by State

Our key recommendations are

Set emission standards - Immediate introduction of emission standards for SO2, NOx, and Mercury for all the coal-fired TPPs. This should be applied also retrospectively to all the operational power plants, in order avail all the possible benefits

Mandate FGD at the plant level - Regulating emissions at the plant level by mandating FGD operations for all the existing, the newly commissioned, and the planned TPPs in India. The secondary contributions to the ambient PM pollution in the form of sulphates and nitrates is significant. While the supercritical technologies are likely to reduce the coal consumption rates, FGD should be mandated to reduce the emissions of SO2

Practice rigorous monitoring - Introduction of protocols to continuously monitor emissions at all stacks and make the data available to pollution control authorities, civil society, and the public, for further analysis and verification of the emission loads. At present, there is absolutely no data available publicly on emissions or the ambient concentrations surrounding the TPPs. The larger TPPs are suposedly  equipped with continuous stack monitors; however this information is not open

Ensure transparency - Use of information to enforce the emission and the pollution standards as necessary, pending the introduction of emission standards and protocols to release monitoring data

Improve EIA protocols – The environment clearance procedures require self assessment for only 10km radius of the TPPs; whilst the impacts are observed at much greater distances, considering the minimum stack height for a 500MW TPP is 275m. When combined with the prevalent meteorological conditions in the region, impact of the large TPP emissions can be observed at farther distances.


Update May, 2014

Atmospheric emissions and pollution from the coal-fired thermal power plants in India
Journal article in Atmospheric Environment (2014) Download along with a 3:30 minute video explaining the key messages from the study. More details on the study and the support material is available here.


Update: August, 2013

A note from the Press Information Bureau of India, discussing this study report in the Rajya Sabha (Indian Parliament), leading up to formation of a standing committee to address the emission and environment standards for the coal-fired power plants. Download the press release.


Update: March, 2013

India's electricity generation is dependent on coal and will remain so for the coming decades. However, there is an immediate need to address the air emission standards for the coal-fired thermal power plants - for regional clean air and cleaner electricity production. An interview in New York Times.

UrbanEmissions.Info    Conservation Action Trust - Mumbai India - Power Plants in India

We would like to thank the Conservation Action Trust (Mumbai, India) for their support towards this research.

Download the Full Report.



Energy Policy Journal - Re-fueling Road Transport in India

An article in Energy Policy "Re-fueling Road Transport for Better Air Quality in India"

download HERE


Our Indian coal-fired power plant study discussed in the Rajya Sabha.
An interview in the New York Times.
An interview in the BBC News.