Calcutta, July 27: Power to the people, but at what cost'
The recently-enacted Electricity Act, 2003, allows “any generating company” to “establish, operate and maintain a generating station without obtaining a licence”. Earlier, industries were allowed to run diesel-generating sets as a standby when the grid supply was interrupted and after obtaining permission from a central agency. Now, they can simply opt out of the existing grid and generate their own captive power.
The move, apparently aimed at promoting “efficient and “environmentally progressive” policies, can open a Pandora’s box on the pollution front. The green alarm is sparked by the fear that use of cheap fuel and lack of proper technological safeguards will add to toxic gases like sulphur dioxide, carbon and nitrogen oxides that will be emitted in the process.
Power department officials confirmed they were “concerned regarding the blanket permission vis-à-vis captive generation of electricity” and had taken up the matter with “the central ministry and the pollution control board”.
The solitary advantage-taker of Part III, Clause 7 of the new electricity act in the Calcutta metropolitan area has no complaints. The Kharda plant of Hindustan Heavy Chemicals has opted out of the CESC grid as it is “capable of producing 6.3 MW” through a captive power system.
“With the act in place, power is like vegetables in the market, with cost being the decisive factor. We paid Rs 18 crore to CESC last year, at Rs 5 per unit. Now our cost is down to Rs 3.75 per unit,” said S. Roy, the vice-president (finance) of the plant. “Other big industries, especially power-intensive ones like ours, may go the same way.”
Precisely, this prospect has pushed the pollution control board to worry. “We are aware of the problem,” said chairman Hirak Ghosh. “We will consider each case independently before giving no-objection certificates for the setting up of generator sets for captive power generation.”
The act could prove financially beneficial to some industries but it could have disastrous consequences, warned environmentalists. “Most generators will run on old technology with cheap fuel like furnace oil or heavy fuel oil to cut costs,” said one of them.
Siddhartha Dutta from the chemical engineering department of Jadavpur University said: “The switchover could have a significant environmental impact with increase in sulphur dioxide. Nitrogen oxides and suspended particulate matter can also go up. All plants should carry out an environmental impact assessment study before opting for captive power.”
The mandatory no-objection certificate to be obtained from the pollution control board is not considered safeguard enough. For one, it will only have theoretical control. Now, anybody running a 5 kilo volts generator needs its permission but a small fraction takes it. The board does not have the infrastructure to monitor all units switching to captive power generation, said experts.
Debasish Bhattacharya of the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology said: “This could be the final nail for a city gasping under the dual impact of diesel-run vehicles and industrial emission.”