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Insights into Editorial: Making the water-guzzling thermal plants accountable

Insights into Editorial: Making the water-guzzling thermal plants accountable



Water is essential for human survival, and for agriculture and industry.

The advancing monsoon has brought relief to many parts of India, but its progress has been slower than average and the country is still in the midst of a rainfall deficit, with millions facing an acute water shortage.

It is important that India which has only 4% of the world’s renewable water resources but about 18% of the world’s population consumes water more sensibly.

In India’s pursuit of 100% electrification goal, the country’s installed power capacity will need to be doubled.

Even with the growth of renewable energy (RE), coal has been projected to be the backbone of the electricity sector till 2030 and beyond.

Managing the electricity needs of a country that’s already dealing with water scarcity will be a challenge.


India’s Thermal power plants (TPPs) Located in water-scarce areas:

  • Most of India’s TPPs are located in water-stressed areas, and water shortages have led to electricity-generation disruptions and significant revenue losses to the economy.
  • Thermal power plants (TPPs) consume significant amounts of water during the electricity generation process.
  • In December 2015, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change issued a notification setting limits for water consumption by TPPs.
  • However, the amended Environment Protection (EP) Rules codified in June 2018 ended up permitting TPPs to use more water than what was initially specified.
  • There are certain mechanisms that need to be strengthened to make these regulations more effective.
  • The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) recently released the format for TPPs to report on their annual water consumption.
  • The power plants were asked to specify both metered and un-metered usage, report on the source (like river, canal or sea), and state the percentage of deviation from the water norms, along with the reasons and the corrective measures undertaken.


Only 51% of Thermal Power Plant Meet Regulations:

In recent, RTI activists obtain compliance status (self-reported) for thermal power plants or units from 12 states. Just about 51% of the plants were found to be in compliance with the regulations.

Out of the total 156 plants/ units for which they could obtain the status, 66 claimed that they complied with the water consumption limits, while 30 admitted that they were non-compliant.

For another 46 plants, either data was not available, or replies were ambiguous or the plants were closed. As other 14 plants were using sea water, they are exempted from the regulations.

What is equally important is that this compliance status is self-reported status by the various power plants.

These figures or status have not been verified either by the state pollution control boards (SPCBs) or any other independent agencies.


Steps taken by the Thermal Power Plants to monitor the Annual Water Usuage:

These guidelines can be strengthened by including other relevant inputs.

  • First, TPPs should disclose the amount of water consumed by them in previous years, so that a baseline for water consumption per TPP can be established, and subsequent reductions in water consumption can be quantified.
  • Second, these reporting requirements currently in the form of an Excel sheet on the CEA website must be added to the EP Rules, to accord the disclosure process greater transparency and enforceability.
  • Third, TPPs should also be required to submit verifiable evidence (for example, water bills) to support and substantiate the disclosures. Without these, the self-reporting guidelines will remain weak.
  • Finally, the data supplied by TPPs should be placed in the public domain, so that the parameters disclosed can be studied in the context of region-specific water shortages, outages in the plants, and future research and analysis in this field.


Specifying Penalties and Framework required for Strict regulation:

  • Some States Gave No Information: Most did not Give for All Power Plants: Out of RTI applications filed with 15 states, through RTI also, did not get information for even one TPP from three states — Bengal, Karnataka and Rajasthan.
  • Most states did not give information about all the TPPs in the states, leading us to wonder whether the states are actually monitoring compliance by all the plants or just passively collecting information from whichever plant submits it, and ignoring others.
  • Self-Reporting, No Independent Verification: The status of compliance with the regulations of water consumption is entirely self-reported by the respective power plants with no verification from any credible, independent agency.
  • Section 15 of the EP Act provides for a blanket penalty for contravention of any provisions of the Environment Protection Act or EP Rules: up to five years of imprisonment and/or up to ₹1 lakh fine along with additional daily fines for continuing offences.
  • However, the Act does not stipulate specific penalties for specific offences.
  • Perhaps this is an area for review by the government, so that we have a more nuanced framework for enforcement and penalties.
  • Further, the relevant officials in charge of enforcement, across the Ministry and the CEA, should be identified, and their roles clearly defined.
  • The implementation of these norms should include milestones and time-based targets, and periodic monitoring of the progress of TPPs in making improvements.


Way Forward:

India will need to balance the needs of its growing economy with its heightening water stress.

In addition to reducing the stress caused by TPPs, shifting to a more aggressive Renewable Energy pathway will help India achieve its global climate targets.

However, this will need further work particularly to regulate water consumption by specific Renewable Energy technologies.

The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has taken a first step by issuing a notice to State governments on reducing water use for cleaning solar panels and to explore alternative mechanisms to ensure that solar panels remain efficient.


Stringent implementation of standards for judicious water use by TPPs, combined with the promotion of RE and energy efficiency, will offer pathways for achieving these goals.