Photographer: Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images

World’s Worst Air Spurs Modi’s $25 Billion Utility Clean-Up Push

Updated on

Barely 16 miles from central Delhi, a 40-year-old coal-fired power plant run by NTPC Ltd. stands testament to the bargain struck by India’s capital city: The world’s dirtiest air for electricity.

The state-owned utility is now seeking to cut emissions across its facilities in India, starting with its oldest -- the one in Delhi. NTPC plans to spend 12 billion rupees ($189 million) annually on technology upgrades, a company official said, asking not to identified as the person isn’t authorized to speak on the subject.

“Their Badarpur plant is running way beyond its life,” said Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general at Centre for Science and Environment, a lobby group based in the city. “The result is its coal consumption is very high and so are the emissions.”

NTPC’s clean-up attempt is part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s $25 billion spending proposal to revamp aging utilities as he seeks to accelerate economic growth without further damaging the environment. Providing urgency to Modi’s plan is a World Health Organization report that shows India is home to 11 of the top 20 cities on the planet with the worst air quality.

Handkerchief Masks

New Delhi has the world’s highest levels of PM2.5 -- tiny, toxic particles that lead to respiratory diseases, lung cancer and heart attacks. The city averaged 153 micrograms per cubic meter in 2013, WHO said in May 2014, citing government data. That’s 15 times more than the average annual exposure recommended by WHO.

Far outlasting its life by a good 15 years, the smokestacks of NTPC’s Badarpur plant spew a blackish-brown exhaust as residents in the neighborhood go about their business using handkerchiefs as masks to avoid breathing soot and fly ash.

“My eyes burn at times and I get headaches because of the coal dust,” said Sarla Devi, 34, a shopper at a market in front of the plant’s main gate, where a rusty truck waits to ferry fly ash to a disposal site. “I’ve become so used to this that it’s stopped bothering me, which isn’t good really.”

NTPC said in an e-mail response that the Badarpur plant meets emission norms of the Delhi Pollution Control Committee. The company rejected a request for a plant visit.

In the densely populated neighborhood, busy markets and petty shops flank narrow alleys that are strewn with fly ash dropping off tractors carrying the waste to the ash pond about three miles away from the 705-megawatt plant.

Badarpur is located off National Highway 2 that connects Delhi with Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal.

More Needed

Power Minister Piyush Goyal wants to change all this and make the surroundings fit enough to be picnic spots for families. His goal is to replace such plants with bigger, more modern ones, an exercise that will cost $25 billion, he told lawmakers in March.

“Retiring the old plants is a very small part of the solution,” said Debasish Mishra, a senior director at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India Pvt. in Mumbai. “The clean-up would require improving efficiency of not just power plants, but also coal mines and coal transportation. India has to adopt clean coal technologies and allow only large, utility scale power plants, which make optimum use of the fuel.”

Diesel Vehicles

Coal-fired plants aren’t the only cause of pollution in India. Old diesel vehicles that can pump out exhaust gases with 10 times the carcinogenic particles found in gasoline exhausts are also among the major causes.

NTPC’s focus is on environment, safety and technical upgrades, and the company is also exploring setting up new plants with “ultra-super critical” technology at some locations, the official familiar with the matter said.

The company has invited bids for modernization of two 210 megawatt units at Badarpur, while leaving the older three units of 95 megawatts each, the company said separately in an e-mail. It had invited bids for executing the upgrade by April 22, according to the e-mail. The smaller units are about 40 years old, while the two larger ones are about 36 years old.

The Central Electricity Authority, a unit of the power ministry which monitors operation and execution of power projects, prescribes the normal life a plant should be 25 years.

Lowest Score

The Centre for Science and Environment released a report in February, rating power plants on parameters such as energy efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions, water use and ash handling.

The report, a general indictment on India’s utilities, found six of NTPC’s facilities, including Badarpur, scoring among the lowest. The CSE, which said NTPC plants were “found to be heavily polluting and facing numerous complaints,” said its findings were based on data gathered from regulatory bodies, local communities and the media, as the company refused to answer its queries.

India depends on coal to meet 60 percent of its electricity needs, while the nuclear option is stuck in a debate over safety. Other fuels such as gas remain expensive. Modi plans renewable energy additions that will cost about $200 billion. Wind, solar and small hydro power plants will contribute to about 15 percent of India’s needs, twice the current amount, Goyal said in November.

Coal Consumption

NTPC’s Badarpur plant spent 4.83 rupees (7.6 cents) on coal to produce one kilowatt hour of power in the year ended March 31, the highest fuel cost among the 11 stations that supply electricity to India’s capital city, according to data available on the website of Tata Power Delhi Distribution Ltd., one of the electricity retailers in the city.

The cost at the plant rose 70 percent over the past three years, the data show, an indication coal consumption is rising as efficiency declines with age.

NTPC shares declined 1.2 percent to 150.50 rupees at the close in Mumbai on Tuesday. The stock has gained 32 percent in the past year, compared with a 22 percent increase in the benchmark S&P BSE Sensex.

“The way forward for NTPC is to plan bigger capacities, which will be more efficient in terms of fuel as well as cleaner,” Deven Choksey, managing director at Mumbai-based brokerage KR Choksey Shares & Securities Pvt., said by phone Monday. “There’s good reason to do this and I don’t see funds coming in the way. The company can manage debt at reasonable cost and also has the option to raise equity from the market.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE