India, the world’s most coal-dependent nation, has over the last few months very publicly shifted its stance on coal power.

In October, the country announced its commitment for the upcoming COP21 global climate talks in Paris, pledging to improve the carbon emissions intensity of its gross domestic product (GDP) by 33% to 35% below 2005 levels by 2030. That compares to China’s recent pledge to reduce the intensity of its GDP by 60% to 65% during the same period. The Indian government, which introduced the plan with much fanfare, said the target would allow India and its carbon-intensive industrial neighbor to have almost the same emission intensity levels by 2030.

Perhaps more noteworthy, however, is that India also pledged to increase the share of electricity produced by non-fossil fuels to an impressive 40% by 2030. While that isn’t a steep increase for the country whose current power mix includes 30% renewables, including hydro, it is detrimental to its coal sector, which it depends on to produce about 60% of its power (Figure 3).

3. Coal giant. Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd. (BHEL) this August commissioned the 500-MW Unit 13 of the Vindhyachal Super Thermal Power Station in Vindhyanagar in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh. This is the seventh 500-MW unit commissioned by BHEL at the plant. Vindhyachal is a 4.7-GW pithead power plant. Courtesy: NTPC

Plant Closures

The central government’s strategy to boost power capacity yet cut carbon emissions and utilize coal efficiently is novel: It wants to close coal plants with a total generation capacity of 36 GW that are more than 25 years old and replace them with newer supercritical units. The driving factor for this approach is scarcity of resources like land, water, and coal.

In a comprehensive review with states held this September, the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) pointed to proposed supercritical coal power capacity additions of 84.6 GW in its 13th Five Year Plan (2017–2022) and directed utilities to explore possible options to use existing land and other facilities more efficiently. The CEA will also require states to submit plans for the retirement, replacement, and renovation of aging plants. Several states—including Maharashtra, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and the newly created Telangana state—have already chosen to kick-start the replacement of older plants, seeking environmental clearances from the Ministry of Environments, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEFCC).

Strict New Environmental Rules Are Coming

Finally, the government is committed to curbing air pollution from coal-fired power plants.

This May, MoEFCC proposed the first-ever federal standards for sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx), and mercury. The rule proposes to require the nation’s fleet of plants larger than 500 MW to meet SO2 limits of 200 milligrams per normal cubic meter (mg/Nm3), and NOx limits of 300 mg/Nm3. New plants commissioned after 2017 will be required to have flue gas desulfurization to cut SO2 emissions to 100 mg/Nm3, and they would need to meet NOx norms of 100 mg/Nm3.

According to the Center for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi–based public interest research and advocacy group, the limits would imply cuts in SO2 emissions of 80% for existing plants and about 15% in NOx emissions.

The rule would also limit mercury emissions (achieved via pollution controls and coal washing) to 0.03 mg/Nm3, the same as China’s. (Comparatively, the U.S. limit is 0.0017 mg/Nm3.) Then, they would substantially tighten particulate emission standards—India’s only federally mandated air pollution standards—to between 50 and 150 mg/Nm3. That’s “quite relaxed compared to global norms of 30 mg/Nm3,” notes CSE, but still effective. Earlier this year, the group estimated that almost two-thirds of India’s coal fleet doesn’t meet existing limits.

And, as stringently, the rule calls for water consumption limits. Once-through cooling system–based plants would need to convert to cooling towers and cut water draw to 4 m3/MWh from the current average of around 150 m3/MWh. “New plants would need to cut water use to 2.5 m3/MWh, which is equal to the average water use of Chinese plants,” says CSE. “A global best cooling tower based plant has water consumption as low at 1.6m3/MWh.”