Air pollution from Thermal Power Plants and its Impacts

Air pollution from Thermal Power Plants and its Impacts

The performance and progress of the core sectors determine the overall economic growth, level of industrialization, and advancement of a country. The thermal power industry is crucial for the growth and development of the Indian economy. Along with a significant contribution to the economy, the thermal power sector is responsible for industrial emissions in the country. 

Indian Thermal Power Sector-Economic contribution:

Indian thermal power sector is in full bloom, recording an increase of 2.2 % in July 2022 over July 2021. Its cumulative index saw an increment of 13.1 % from April to July 2022-23 over the corresponding period of the previous year. Following China and the United States, India ranks third among the largest electricity producers globally. 

India produces electricity using fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. Renewable energy sources like hydro plants are also widely used in electricity generation in India. India not only has high electricity consumption but is also a huge exporter. India exports power to countries such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Nepal. India exports more than five billion units of electricity to the mentioned neighboring countries annually.

The biggest growth drivers of the Indian thermal power industry are factors like the rapidly growing industrial sector, upcoming ambitious projects due to increasing investments, and growing urban and rural populations also likely to boost the electricity demand. Also, with an increase of 74 mn tonnes in two years, India currently has the highest-ever coal production.

Sustainability in the Indian Thermal Power Industry:

India reached 22nd in 2020 from 137th place in 2014 on the World Bank Ease of doing business "Getting Electricity" ranking. The Indian power sector is estimated to attract investments of up to $ 128.24-135.37 Bn between FY19-23. By 2026-2027 power generation installed capacity in India will close to 620 GW, of which 38 % will be from coal and 44 % from renewable energy sources, making the future of this sector look bright.

From a green energy transition standpoint, like any other country in the world, India was also a non-player in the renewable energy segment till about 2010. However, over the past decade, India has emerged as one of the fastest-growing renewable energy markets worldwide. Even traditional companies are shifting and expanding their portfolio toward becoming a mix of thermal and renewable energy production. 

The current measure of sustainability is an amalgamation of economic, environmental, and social factors. There is a rising consciousness of sustainable practices among producers and consumers. It is expanding the room for better via collaborations keeping the shared interest of the planet and environment protection as the sole mission and vision.

How Polluting is the Thermal Power Industry?

Several researchers suggest that a majority of the PM emissions in the country come from the industrial sector, especially from coal-based thermal power plants. 

Indian thermal power industry uses bituminous/ Sub-bituminous coal with GCV (gross calorific value) ranging between 3000 kcal to 5000 kcal. Mostly, the coal of GCV is between 3000 to 3500 which is abundantly available in Indian mines. However in view to reduce the menace of high ash produced out of ash-enriched Indian coal, Indian thermal plants use blended coal. Also, blended coal is used generally in super-critical plants. it reduces loads on the Mills required to break the coal and generally reduces the size of the furnace as well since a larger area will be required to produce the same quantity of heat in case more fuel is required. Approximately, 0.7-0.75 Kg of coal is required to generate 1 kWh. 

Emissions during thermal power generation include ozone, suspended particulate matter, non-methane, gaseous emission sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbon, and secondary particulate matter (which is formed by SOX emissions). 

A significant share of India’s total PM emission is also contributed by secondary particles formed by SO2 and NO2 emitted from thermal power plants. A study on Kanpur city estimated approximately 34% contribution of secondary particles (inorganic aerosols) to the total PM2.5 concentration levels and a recent IIT Kanpur report (2016) done on Delhi & NCR has found that secondary particle contributes to approximately 30% of total PM2.5 concentration over the region. This establishes the close relationship between the overall PM2.5 concentration and secondary particles. 

Different stages like transportation of coal, loading/unloading of fuel, coal storage in the yard, and fly ash handling. Pollution in thermal power plants in and around Delhi contributes 35% of PM2.5 in the winter and 41% of PM2.5 in the summer.

Impact on Health and Environment: 

A power plant can affect the environment through its construction and operation. These effects, or impacts, can be either temporary or permanent. The auxiliary components of the thermal power plant as natural gas pipelines, water intakes and discharge, coal delivery and storage systems, new transmission lines, and waste disposal sites, take up space on the ground and in the air, use water resources, and in many cases emit pollutants into the air. These harmful substances can be risky to human health on inhalation. Coal combustion-based power generation emits pollutants that severely impact fauna and flora. Thousands of people around the world get sick or die from reasons related to inhaling coal/pollution. 

Operating power plants that burn coal, oil, or natural gas emit air pollutants into the atmosphere requires the plant to be fitted with pollution control equipment to reduce emissions. These power plants emit air pollutants identified and regulated by federal and state environmental regulatory agencies. Nonetheless, the emissions at the power plants require to meet air emission standards, and more sensitive individuals might not be adequately protected. The prevalence of chronic diseases due to ambient air pollution is on a constant rise. Factors like smoking, taking poor or excessive diets, lack of exercise and comorbidities may aggravate the effects caused by air pollution. Pathogenesis is likely to be inevitable when hazardous elements interact with vulnerable human cells. 


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