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Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Coal-fired Power Plants: Hazardous to your Health

The aspiration for rapid economic growth leading to express industrialization, accelerated urbanization and mechanization of agriculture has been responsible for the increasing energy demand ever since the independence in India. In the recently concluded 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Paris, a resolution on limiting the use of coal across countries was proposed for consideration. Coal-fired power plants are among the most polluting industrial facilities. This is of particular relevance in the Indian context as coal fired power plants form the back bone of Indian electricity generation sector.

Pollution from Coal-fired Power Plants

In 2014, nearly 79% of the electricity generated in India was from thermal power plants. Power plants in the country use different qualities of coal, different combustion technologies and operating conditions. As a result these plants have different efficiencies and different emission levels. Main emission from lignite based coal-fired  power plants are CO2, NOx, SOx and air borne particles such as fly ash, soot, Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) and other trace gases. 

As per the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) report the best specific coal usage for any Indian coal-fired power plant is less than 0.6 kg/kWh whereas the worst has been 1.0 kg/kWh. The Indian coal has high ash content (35-50%) and low Calorific Value (CV), about 2500-5000 kCal/kg. Low CV means more coal usage and high ash disposal requirements. 

The emissions per unit of electricity generated (kWh)  are estimated to be in the range of 0.91 to 0.9 kg/kWh for CO2, 6.94 to 7.2 g/kWh for SO2 and 4.22 to 4.38 g/kWh for NO during the year 2010. The future emission scenario (for the year 2020-21), based on the projected coal consumption in Indian coal-fired power plants is in the range of 714976 to 914680 Gg of CO2, 4734 to 6051 Gg SO2 and 366 to 469 Gg of NO. The continued use of older coal-fired power plants, many of which have minimal or no pollution controls and the construction of more of these power plants will only worsen the situation.

Health Hazards from Coal-fired Power Plants

So these coal-fired power plants, by burning of coal, releases a lot of Green House Gases (GHG) and other harmful pollutants into the atmosphere. These pollutants such as Sulphur-dioxide, Nitrogen Oxides and particulate matters released in the air and water, may cause respiratory problems along with other serious health consequences. Pollution produced by these plants is responsible for thousands of non-fatal heart attacks and millions of Asthma attacks each year.

Coal-fired power plants annually produce millions of tons of Coal Combustion Waste (CCW) – coal ash, scrubber sludge and other by-products. This waste contains toxics such as arsenic and heavy metals. Arsenic increases the risk of skin, lung, bladder, liver, kidney and prostate cancer. It can also cause liver disease, anaemia, gangrene and various skin diseases. Heavy metals such as cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel etc. can cause cancer, nervous system and brain damage and learning and behavioural problems in children.

A single large power plant may require several hundred acres of landfill space to dispose of its coal ash causing damage to the green land. The pollutants in the coal ash can get into the soil and contaminate the nearby ground water and make the drinking water hazardous.

Pollution from NTPC's Badarpur Coal-fired Power Plant: An example

Barely 25 km from the Central Delhi, a 40 year old coal-fired power plant run by NTPC is working way beyond its life. Along with other reasons this power plant is responsible in listing Delhi, the Indian capital, as one of the worst air polluted cities in the world. It is ranked at 11th position among the most polluted cities on the Earth with worst air quality, a WHO report says.  

New Delhi has the world's highest levels of tiny, toxic particles that lead to respiratory diseases, lung cancer and heart attacks as already mentioned above. The city averaged 153 micrograms/cubic meter in the year 2013 as per the WHO report. The level of pollution reported is 15 times higher than the WHO's recommended pollution level. PM 2.5 level has been increasing in the city since last 5 years and the measured average annual PM 2.5 was 122, whereas WHO recommends that it should be kept below 10.  Residents nearby the power plant go out using handkerchiefs as masks to avoid breathing soot and fly ash. Eye burns and headaches because of coal dust are common to many residents.

National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) is now seeking to cut emissions across its facilities in the country and is planning to spend 12 billion INR annually on technology upgrading to enhance efficiency and reduce the pollution.      

Future Agenda

Now the question is who is responsible for all this, the government, the utilities, the pollution controlling agencies or somebody else. Can we play a more interactive role in reducing the deadly pollution? The answer is YES. To meet the future energy needs safely while protecting Human health and the nature, we must:


  1.        Judiciously use the energy with greater efficiency i.e. increase energy efficiency and conservation, and
  2.          Aggressively pursue RE resources such as Solar, Wind, Bio-mass etc.
  3.        We must eliminate these polluting power plants in phases like France.