COAL-BASED power plants remain among the most inefficient units in the country. In addition to polluting air, they single-handedly utilize about 70 per cent of the total freshwater consumed by all industries.
While the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MOEFCC) rolled out guidelines to curtail water usage by the plants only in 2015, compliance by the sector remains extremely low. What's worse, the government agencies, instead of taking action against the erring plants, have actively diluted the rules and extended deadlines to allow non-compliance (see 'Indefinite delays', p17). So much so, the sector currently does not have a deadline to embrace the 2015 guidelines, and almost half of the plants continue to guzzle massive amounts of freshwater.
The 2015 guidelines, under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, mandate that coal-based power plants installed before January 1, 2017, need to keep their water consumption rate to 3.5 cubic meters per megawatt-hour (m 3 /MWh). Those installed after the specified date must limit their consumption rate to 2.5 m 3 /MWh. The plants initially had time till December 2017 to comply with the standards.
In June 2018, six months after the deadline, more fcc issued an amendment that distinguished power plants using freshwater for cooling from those using seawater. It then exempted the power plants that use seawater from the guidelines. The amendment also revised the norms for new coal power plants, allowing them to increase their water consumption from 2.5 m 3 /MWh to 3 m 3 /MWh.
The dilution and delays in the implementation of the guidelines are only one part of the story. The other is the complete absence of monitoring by the government agencies.
A power plant uses water for four broad functions: for the very process of power production in which coal is burnt in a boiler to produce steam which then flows into a turbine to generate electricity; cooling of the steam so that it is condensed back into the water; sluicing of the coal ash for disposal, and for domestic usage.
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