What will be the future of UPCL…?

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By Philip Mudartha
Bellevision Media Network

Doha, 12 April 2011:

UPCL and Social Activism:

The local opposition to operating the twin power plants of UPCL in our backyard is unyielding in its demands that its operations be ceased completely. The local farmers’ association, clergymen of all three major faiths in the region-especially the seer of Pejavar Mutt, environmentalists, doctors representing Indian Medical Association and some political opposition groups are keeping the heat on the company management. The district-in-charge minister and the state minister for environment, forests, fisheries and ports have toured the campus to hold parleys with company management. This bodes well because such social awareness and activism is healthy as long as strong arm tactics and violence are not employed.



Management Quality and Commitment:

I have dealt with the historical and technical aspects of UPCL in previous episodes. I re-cap: state, public and private enterprises, many of them, failed to execute the project for more than twenty years. Credit must be given to the management of Lanco Infratech for its tenacity in treading a difficult path. Within three years from finding the required money (financial closure of the project), it began operations of both the units, and is poised to deliver power at near capacity. It also became the largest independent private power producer in the country during the year. It also acquired a loss-making colliery in Western Australia for over 4000 Crores rupees, which would supply thermal coal with very low ash content, to its plants, especially to UPCL at significantly lower prices over internal market. These are remarkable achievements and establish the company’s visionary leadership and commitment to excellence.


Energy Efficiency of Process technology:

Describing the technical aspects, I have mentioned that the process of power generation by burning coal in boiler drums to produce steam that turns turbines is energy inefficient; two-thirds of heat is released to the atmosphere: to air at the flue stack, to air through cooling towers, and to the sea by the returning sea water used for cooling in the condenser. Black smoke was reported from the chimney which occurs due to incomplete burning, mainly during burners light-up and unstable operations. Carbon soot and carbon monoxide are released during black stacking. However, a fine-tuned power station run by skilled process operators using optimized control automation, will not pose this hazard.   Laypersons often mistakenly think that the fog of hot humid and wet air rising from the giant hyperbolic cooling towers as smoke. The neighborhood air certainly got hotter, humid and saline. During winter, the moisture will condense and dew drops. Some adverse impact on fauna and flora, structures etc is likely.


Air Pollution by fly ash:

UPCL uses imported low ash (5-7%) coal. Yet, the flue gases vented through the tallest chimney stack contain very fine solid particles. In environmental laboratories, we measure them as particulate matter (PM) according to grain size in microns. The PM2.5 and PM10 are measurements required by environment law to be routinely made, and controlled within permissible limits. Of these, PM2.5 is of concern, because the particles are very small in diameter; our nostrils are not equipped to keep them out of our lungs; and they cause respiratory illnesses. UPCL has installed cyclones and electrostatic precipitators (ESP), to remove fly ash from flue gases. The chimney height is more than 275 meter, as legally stipulated. This significantly reduces local air pollution by ash. UPCL reports that it has installed Air Quality Monitoring Stations in six localities within affected region and claims that legal limits for PM10 and PM2.5 are met.


Air Pollution by Obnoxious Emissions:

Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) is a gaseous pollutant. Imported coal contains 0.8-1.0% sulfur; hence, the plant produces several tons of it each day. UPCL has installed Flue Gas Desulfurization (FGD) which uses wet limestone and claims to capture 99.9%. The slippage is monitored and documented in parts per million volume (ppmv). Oxides of Nitrogen (NOx) are harmful for humans, flora and fauna and hence they are continuously monitored. The plant’s Pulverized Coal Fired Burners (PCFB) are equipped with steam injection. This is a proven method to reduce NOx generation. Continuous Emission Monitoring Systems (CEMS) measure both SO2 and NOx; they are standard products, inexpensive to install, and fairly simple to operate and maintain. UPCL claims to have installed these and meets legal limits.



GHG from Power Plants and Climate Change:

Power plants produce large amounts of CO2.  Technologies to capture this Greenhouse Gas (GHG) are available. Some petrochemical plants capture, strip and commercially exploit the gas. However, at UPCL, there are no such installations in order to keep capital investment down and operating costs lower. World-wide, there are no laws regarding the capture of CO2. After Kyoto Protocol, UN sponsored meetings on Climate Change, government and non-government agencies are considering incentives for industry to cut these emissions. Even without these incentives, UPCL plant trees and harness forests. It must commit itself to continual improvements in thermal efficiency. In-house R&D must focus towards use combined cycle power generation, even considering coal gasification. When sufficient incentives are available, it must install GHG capture, strip and sequester plant.


Soil and Water Pollution by Effluents:

UPCL draws thousands cubic meter of sea water and pumps it over several KM of underground piping to its plant. This is once-through system. How it returns is not clear. UPCL appears to use an open drainage channel. Since the villagers have reported soil and water contamination by sea water, UPCL must review its sea water effluent handling system designs and adopt international norms. It would not cost the sky to fully solve this. The marine life and fisheries is important as livelihood for coastal communities.


Air and Land Pollution by Handling, Transportation and Storage of Coal:

UPCL imports ‘washed’ coal. Its moisture is 10-15%. Dust emission in handling is insignificant. With its own jetty and storage at the port, and transportation in rakes by train, the impact is controlled. However, covered storage at pant is desired. Operating practices such as maintaining low inventory, first in first out and installation of wind guards around plant premises, foggers at transfer points etc are easy options.


Air and Land Pollution by Handling, Transportation and Storage of Ash:

To operate 2x600MW plants at 80% load factor, UPCL burns 10,000tons of coal every day. This means 500tons of ash. Handling, transporting and dumping in ash ponds in Santhoor village has caused big controversy and bad media publicity for the company. No doubt, handling ash is a challenge; not insurmountable. Lanco Infratech is a power major. It is bidding to build similar power plant in Oman. Its international ambitions would be served better, if its house is set in order quickly. Floating ancillary industries to manufacture bricks, slates and cement products is a viable option to fulfill its commitments to preservation of local environment.


The cost of power generation:

International prices for bituminous grade coal are over Rs6, 000/ton, landed at site.  After acquisition of its own colliery, UPCL possibly could get coal for Rs4, 500/ton. At this price, I estimate the cost of coal to generate 1 unit of power is Re1.91. During FY2010-11, net sales revenue per unit sold was Rs3.16. Providing for returns on Rs5700 Crores of investment, operating costs, interest, tax and depreciation, the announced Price Purchase Agreement is fair. The insinuation of ‘suckering’ does not hold.



We cannot afford to be hypocrites:

Our lifestyles and means of livelihood have changed since sixties. There is large scale electrification of rural communities. Hundreds of new urban settlements and townships have sprung that consume more electricity. Powered irrigation has replaced manual systems for agriculture. Piped water supplies for domestic use by municipalities in towns and by private households in villages require power. The per capita consumption of electricity in our districts will increase ten-fold in coming decade. We continue on this path of consumerism.


Yet demand that our nature and environs must remain untouched and unblemished. These are contradictory aspirations. To demand immediate shutdown of the power station is reckless and irresponsible. It is unfair and selfish to expect that our power needs will be met by importing it from distant lands, and people of those locations will be our guinea pigs. We must pay our own price. We must accommodate and pursue a compromise: minimize environment hazards, manage health risks, and strive for shift of focus of the corporations from economic development only to a balanced approach of profits with social development and engagement at local community level. Is this possible?


What the local community can do

The campaign against the operations of the company may have many motives, both good and bad. Political leaders have their business and community interests. Local activists and NGOs also depend on funding agencies which have their own agenda, sometimes benevolent and mostly malevolent. The local community must continue to exert sufficient pressure on the company by peaceful means and within the purview of laws, in order to meet the limits laid down by the Environment protection Act 1984, and rules framed under its amendments till date as well as statutory requirements issued by both central and state pollution control boards from time to time. The increased incidences of upper respiratory tract (URT) infections have complex origins. As I said earlier, lifestyles have become sedate for many. Obesity is a norm in our communities. Lifestyle illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, cardiac illnesses, etc are due to bad food and drink habits. Too many people aren’t actually walking these days nor doing any strenuous work, but eat more calories than they burn. The local community must pay attention to the auto pollution as much as it cries foul of the power station. Saving electricity by judicious use of electric equipment is a must. Abstinence from constructing large poorly ventilated homes which also keep the sunshine out, and indoors are illuminated by electric lights even during day is desired.



What the company should do?

The company says in its vision statement that it strives to be socially responsible corporate citizen. It should deliver. When it secured the finance for the project, it submitted the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) conducted by independent technical advisors of the bankers.  This report must be available to public. The measurements of all pollutants, from CEMS, Air Quality Monitoring Stations, and manual lab checks must be posted at public places in affected villages and at the company gate and website. They must be updated timely.


What the political leaders should do?

The Regulatory Business of Industrial Safety, Environment Impact Mitigation and Rehabilitation and Resettlement of Displaced Population must be conducted in the legislatures. It is not street politics. It is time our MLA, MP, and ministers employ competent advisors to educate them on issues and bring them up-to-date. It is time the EPA-1984 is overhauled and the Pollution Control Boards re-write their rulebooks.



Comments on this Article
Melwyn D Souza, Dubai Tue, April-12-2011, 6:12
Company should adhere to strict environmental and safety policies and standards. Then only it can function smoothly. Shortcuts in any measures are threat to the nature and it leads to disasters.
Victor DSouza, Moodubelle / Doha Mon, April-11-2011, 2:36
All the aspects have been very clearly explained by Philip. Now the cards are on the table. The local community, the politicians and the company need to take a wise, responsible and bold decision considering the present and the future, even though it is not easy.
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