December target to cap power plant emissions far from reach

India, which wanted to cap toxic emissions from power plants by December this year, is now discovering that target is at least six years away from its reach.

The Central Electricity Authority, the nation's power industry regulator, says a countrywide roll out of equipment to lower sulphur dioxide emissions won't be completed until 2023. And that's only one of the four types of pollutants plants it must cap. The CEA has asked that the environment ministry's December deadline be extended, according to Ravindra Kumar Verma, chairman of the CEA, which is under the power ministry, Bloomberg reports.

''There's no way the present deadline can be met,'' Verma said. ''We are very serious about it, but one has to consider that it's a very complex process. We have to maintain power supplies to people, which is our biggest priority. I am hopeful that the environment ministry will appreciate the challenges.''

The emission upgrades, estimated by an industry lobby group last year to cost as much as Rs2.5 lakh crore ($38.8 billion), have been delayed as power companies battle stressed finances and are under pressure to reduce costs in an increasingly competitive electricity market. The caps are meant to ease emissions from coal plants, which cause tens of thousands of premature deaths annually, according to a report published in 2013 by Greenpeace and Conservation Action Trust.

A B Akolkar, member secretary at Central Pollution Control Board, a unit of the environment ministry, didn't respond to an emailed request for comment. While Verma's predecessor at the CEA, S D Dubey, warned in November that the target might be missed, the environment ministry as recently as March said the December 2017 deadline is still valid, the Bloomberg report says.

The environment ministry in December 2015 set a two-year deadline for thermal power plants in India to cap emissions of particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury. The regulations followed public criticism over growing air pollution choking Indian cities, including capital New Delhi.

Ten of the 20 global cities with the highest level of PM2.5 - small particles that are the greatest health risk - were in India, according to data compiled by the World Health Organization published last year.

 Plants will need to be shut down while installing sulphur dioxide control units, which requires coordinated scheduling to avoid any grid imbalance to ensure uninterrupted power supplies, Verma said.

The progress on capping other types of emissions may be slower. The technology for controlling nitrogen oxides is still to be tested on high-ash Indian coal and will first be used on a few plants owned by state-run NTPC Ltd, Verma said. A plan for mercury emissions is yet to be finalized, he said.

''The industry needs a regulatory assurance that the costs can be recovered through tariffs,'' said Ashok Khurana, director general at New Delhi-based Association of Power Producers, an industry group that represents the interests of non-state power generation companies. ''Without that clarity, no bank is going to fund these projects.''

The delay is frustrating environment groups that are asking for greater urgency in the matter, citing the health hazards caused by coal plants in India.