As the Great Delhi Paddy Souper of 2017 lifts, the city’s residents rediscover the still-dull shade of blue that, for many days, they could find only in Facebook photos of friends in cleaner climes. The authorities have been quick to lift emergency measures that had anyway come several days too late. Among the few long term measures that have been proposed is the mixing of crop residue in coal for use by the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), thus building a market for crop residue (to discourage on-field burning) as well as reducing coal use.
As an analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment has shown, most Indian thermal power plants do not meet environmental standards. Among power companies, NTPC languishes at the bottom, with the Badarpur plant being described as the “worst of the lot”. As has been argued in The Wire before, NTPC’s Badarpur plant is likely to be the single-largest source of the National Capital Region’s (NCR’s) air pollution. The continued operation of any coal-fired power plant, let alone India’s worst polluting plant in a densely populated area, is unconscionable. In a power-surplus era, the easiest effective thing the government could do to address the pollution crisis over a longer term would be to shut down the plant altogether.
Having said that, let us examine if mixing crop residue with coal could be a solution in the interim. Stubble (especially that of paddy) is an extremely low-grade fuel, which means that one needs to transport a lot more residue than coal for every kilowatt hour of power produced. For this reason, biomass plants are almost necessarily small and local. Plus, aside from economics, it is unknown if an analysis of diesel emissions, together with road dust and increased pollution due to added congestion, of the large number of trucks carrying crop residue that is likely to result was performed before the decision was announced.
In addition, boilers and pollution control equipment are closely tailored to very particular grades of coal, with Indian high-ash coal presenting additional challenges. Biomass usually needs specialised boilers as well. Given NTPC’s already poor emission standards performance, it is likely that a low-grade fuel burnt in a boiler meant for coal will not help matters. As Amitabha Pande, a retired IAS officer who had a major role in initiating early experiments to use paddy straw for power production in Punjab noted in a Facebook post, the high silica content meant that paddy stubble was unsuitable for gasification and combustion even in a specialised biomass-fired plant – among other issues.
If NTPC is to be a part of the solution to the NCR’s environmental woes in the contradictory situation of continued operation in the region, it could convert the Badarpur plant into some kind of – gasification-based or otherwise – biomass- and waste-fired power plant, or build a smaller waste-to-energy plant in a more suitable location. While such plants come with their own environmental problems, it could secure its baseload of fuel from the overflowing landfills of Delhi, and eventually have waste directly delivered to its gates, thus solving the landfill crisis. This crisis, in addition to many other environmental hazards, also contribute to both carbon dioxide and air pollution emissions. While decisively breaking Punjab’s paddy-wheat cycle must be the ultimate solution to multiple environmental problem, in the interim, this plant could also burn crop residue during the season.
It has also been reported that the Punjab government has taken steps towards yet another status-quoist solution by signing a deal with a Chennai-based firm to build 400 paddy-stubble-to-biofuel plants in a rural part of the state within a year. The few available details make even a back-of-the-envelope techno-economic evaluation impossible. The technology section of the firm’s website was, as of November 17, still “Under Construction”. The atmosphere of desperate frustration engendered by the current emergency may well have led to a “Something must be done. This is something. Let’s do it” syndrome.
Such an attitude may not cause any more problems than minor inconveniences, with experiments like the odd-even rationing. But where Rs 10,000 crore of public money is at stake, haste may have potentially catastrophic consequences.
Inner London’s iconic Battersea Power Station, featured on the cover of the Pink Floyd album Animals, was shut down in 1983, and the NTPC Badarpur plant must ultimately follow. While competing plans over the decades to redevelop Battersea, while retaining the heritage façade, have finally resulted largely in a block of multi-million pound luxury flats bought in significant proportion as investment property by non-resident East Asian and middle Eastern citizens, the NCR must seize the possibilities of reclaiming Badarpur as a public space. It would be most fitting if, in addition to parks, open spaces and land returned to nature, it be turned into a massive museum complex: of the NCR’s (sadly necessarily declining) industrial heritage, of NTPC (indeed, of thermal power more generally, including boiler-makers such as BHEL) and, most importantly, of environmental pollution. The smokestack of the existing plant at the heart of the complex could be declared the National Monument to the Victims of Air Pollution.
As countries take firmer steps towards committing to reduce emissions, a post-fossil-fuel world seems an increasingly closer reality. As the world’s sixth largest carbon dioxide emitter, NTPC must act forthwith to radically reshape its business. As the era of coal comes to an end, some skilled personnel, particularly electrical engineers, will no doubt find employment in the renewables sector but there are likely to be not just job losses but also an incredible waste of institutional expertise at the thermal engineering end of technology and the workforce. Our crown jewels, the heavy industry and power producing Maharatnas such as NTPC, may do well to deploy that expertise in solving contemporary social challenges such as environmental pollution, thus continuing their service to the nation.
Kapil Subramanian is a historian of science. In the interest of getting the air pollution crisis to be taken seriously, he discloses that he has two degrees in mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur; one in thermal energy and environmental engineering. His other writing is available here.