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Coal Power Fiasco In India Karnataka's Case Study

By Shankar Sharma

04 May, 2012

A large number of coal power plants in excess of 700,000 MW (as per one estimate) are reported to be in the various stages of planning, approval and implementation. All these are being claimed as necessary to meet the growing demand for electricity, and most importantly to electrify those houses/villages which are without electricity even after 6 decades of huge growth. Without the processes of due diligence in realistic demand projection, project design, analysis of costs & benefits to the society, approvals etc. these projects have the potential to become a huge liability in view of the need for large tracts of land, fresh water and coal. The social, economic and environmental implications of such projects; lack of adequate public consultations; poor regulatory regimes; inadequate/absence of approval mechanisms, global warming implications etc. should be of major concern to the communities. Unless these issues are addressed objectively, the true potential for social, economic and environmental distress for the vulnerable sections of our society can be massive.

With many such coal power projects being planned for the state, Karnataka can be cited as a case study to highlight some of the contentious issues.

NTPC's huge size coal power plant near Bijapur, Karnataka (4,000 MW) is scheduled to begin construction shortly. Other coal power projects proposed in Karnataka amounts to about 17,000 MW. In view of the huge deleterious impacts of coal power plants on the social, environment and economic aspects of the state, it is sad that the need for an effective public debate on the costs and benefits to the society as a whole from such power plants is not realised by the authorities. In particular, the total costs and real benefits to our communities of Bijapur power plant need to be analysed as a case study so that the public can decide whether it is in the best interest of the state.

It is critical to note that Karnataka has no known reserve of any type of fossil fuels, including coal, and hence coal for all the coal power plants in the state has to be brought from a far off place. As per well established power plant economics, a coal power plant would be most economical if it is situated either at coal pit head or near the electrical load centre. All the power plants proposed in the state, being neither near a coal mine nor being a major load centre, cannot be suitable sites. For the same reasons the Chief Minister of Karnataka was known to have said some time ago that since setting up a coal power plant in Karnataka is not economical, a coal power plant for the exclusive use of the state was being set up in Chhattisgarh.

It should be highlighted that t he existing coal power plants at Raichur and Bellary in the state are repeatedly getting affected from unreliable coal supply. Even though NTPC may get priority in getting coal supply , the logistics involved in bringing the same from the far off coal fields are immense, as has been experienced in the case of Raichur power plant. NTPC power plants in the country are also reported to be suffering from shortage of coal. Due to various technical, logistics and price related issues adequate coal supply to Bijapur plant cannot be fully assured.

The districts of North Karnataka , where most of these coal power plants are proposed, have been facing water crises since many decades. All the reservoirs such as Almatti, Hidkal, Malaprabha, Tunga Bhadra, Narayanapura etc. in this region, were built primarily to supply water for households and agriculture in the region. Most of these reservoirs, including Almatti, are getting dry generally during summer. If 5.2 TMC/year of water is to be diverted to NTPC plant from Almatti reservoir, how will the people in the districts of Bijapur and Bagalakote be compensated for this quantity of water? One can realistically expect aggravated water shortage and hence popular opposition for diversion of water in summer months since it will result in deprivation of water to the locals.

The Karnataka Government has already identified water as the biggest impediment for industrialisation. About 77% of the total geographical area of the state is arid or semi-arid; drought is a threat to reckon with as two thirds of the state receives less than 50 mm rainfall per annum. Karnataka ranks second in India , next only to Rajasthan, in terms of total geographical area prone to drought. 54% of total geographical area of the state is drought prone, affecting 88 of 176 taluks and 18 of the 33 districts. Global Warming is projected to severely impact the state worsening the water problem. Hence the drought prone characteristics of the sate should be a critical consideration for any developmental plan for the state. In this grim scenario, can the state afford to divert 5.2 TMC per year for this NTPC plant? Can we also afford to divert such huge quantities of fresh water for other coal plants?

This NTPC project may need about 3,200 acres of land. Not all of the land identified for this purpose can be said to be unfit for agriculture. The agricultural lands to be diverted for this project will impact the agricultural/horticultural output in the state. Can our state, with a growing population, afford to loose agricultural land for this plant and many other coal power plants planned in the state?

The NTPC plant will burn enormous quantity of coal and generate mountains of ash, particulate matter, huge quantities of CO 2, Sulphur di-oxide and mercury and many other flue gases. Such a high level of pollution of the environment invariably leads to serious health problems and will affect horticulture and food crops in the two districts. As per media reports this NTPC plant, when fully commissioned, may emit around 800 ton per day ( tpd ) of SO 2 (at 100 per cent load factor, 0.7 per cent sulphur content in coal), 160 tpd of NO 2 and 20 tpd of particulate matter (at 34 per cent ash content, 99.9 per cent electrostatic precipitator efficiency) and around 24,000-30,000 tpd of coal ash. Emission of Mercury is another concern from Indian coal power plants. There appears to be no formal emission standards for SO 2 , NOx and mercury emissions in coal-based power plants. How can the people, flora and fauna in the region face this much of pollution year after year for about 30 years of plant life? Will the resultant pollution of water in Almatti dam and the Krishna river be acceptable?

Taking into account the constraints of a coal power plant and the requirement for its own use (80% PLF; 10% aux. consumption) , one can expect a daily maximum output of about 2,880 MW on an average. As per reports Karnataka will get 50% of this which will be 1,440 MW. In view of the prevailing losses in Karnataka power system of about 25%, about 1,080 MW only may be available for economic and welfare usage of the state. This much power will be meager when compared to the enormous cost to the state in the form of land, water, pollution, loss of agricultural/horticultural production etc. Similarly, the benefits of other coal power plants also will be meager when compared to the enormous costs to the state.

In this backdrop, a modest understanding of the electricity sector in Karnataka can clearly establish that the state can realise much more virtual additional capacity than 1,080 MW by efficiency improvement measures alone in generation, transmission, distribution and utilisation. As per well established norms these measures are expected to cost only about 25% of the cost of new coal power plants without any other attendant costs such as land, water and pollution. Additionally, the measures like Demand Side Management, energy conservation and widespread use of distributed type renewable energy sources such as roof top solar power, community based bio-mass, hybrid of wind/solar etc. can meet most of the additional electricity demand satisfactorily in the near future. In this context few credible alternative available to the state in order to bridge the gap between demand and supply of electricity should be considered.

Alternative Option 1: Loss reduction in transmission and distribution from 25% to 5% can provide about 1,200 MW virtual additional power. Alternative Option 2: Technical loss reduction in IP sets can provide about 1,100 MW virtual additional power.

Alternative Option 3: Demand Side Management, such as use of CFLs and efficient domestic applicances can provide about 1,100 MW virtual additional power .

It can be noted that each of these alternatives can provide virtual additional power equivalent at much less cost and without impacting the state's agriculture, water, and environment.

Karnataka also has huge potential in wind, solar and bio-mass energy sources. The true potential of these renewable energy sources can be very huge if they are harnessed effectively in distributed mode such as roof top solar PV panels, community based solar, wind and bio-mass plants. A high level estimate indicates that if on average 1,000 Sq. ft of roof top in each of the 20% of the total households in the state (those houses which are structurally and economically strong) are used to set up solar photo voltaic panels a total solar power capacity of about 20,000 MW can be achieved with virtually nil GHG emission addition, nil water requirement and nil displacements of people. Such roof top solar photo voltaic panels will drastically reduce the energy lost in transmission and distribution, and if connected to the existing grid network can minimise the need for additional conventional power plants. If the roof tops of various types of other buildings in the state such as schools, colleges, industries, offices, ware house etc. also are effectively used the total solar capacity which can be realized will be mind boggling.

An objective consideration of the electricity scenario in the state will reveal that in reality there is no shortage of the electricity generating capacity if we can achieve international standards in the performance of the assets in generation, transmission, distribution and utilization. Hence, efficiency improvement, energy conservation, DSM, and optimum deployment of distributed renewable energy sources will not only enable us to eliminate the deficits, but also will reduce the reliance on conventional power generating sources. In the long term the scope for eliminating the conventional power sources entirely (including the coal and nuclear power) is credible, and hence should be pursued with determination. There is huge potential for this approach to ensure much improved status in social, environmental and economical aspects of the state.

Major issues with coal based power policy


Puts huge pressure on natural resources such as land, water and minerals; demands a lot of

construction materials like cement, steel, sand; will increase average cost of power; road and rail transportation infrastructures need a lot more strengthening; pressure on ports will increase due to the need for import of coal; land costs around coal power projects will become unaffordable to locals; overall efficiency from coal energy to end use of electrical energy is very poor of the order of about 10% only.

Social and health

Peoples' displacement will cause additional unemployment & increase in slums; will affect

agricultural production and health; prospect of displacement will create social tensions and stiff opposition; local buildings of heritage importance will degenerate; nearby places of tourist and religious importance loose prominence; causes serious erosion of local community development; livelihood and drinking water needs of the local communities will be threatened. Coal plant emissions contribute to some of the most widespread diseases, including asthma, heart disease, stroke, and lung cancer


Safe use for all the ash generated is not available yet; acid rain will affect flora and fauna including forests and agricultural crops; coastal power plants will affect marine creatures; destruction of forest lands to open more of coal mines; have to contend with nuclear radiation in coal ash; credible threat to bio-diversity; fresh water sources will be polluted; reduces the access to fresh water sources near mines; huge contribution to Global Warming and Climate Change; negates the purpose of National action Plan on Climate Change.

These issues are relevant to any state which is planning/operating coal power plants; may be with different magnitude. In the background of all these glaring issues, the public has to decide how prudent it is for the STATE to spend thousands of crores of rupees of its revenue and precious natural resources in establishing coal power plants without first harnessing all the techno-economically viable and environmentally benign alternatives.

At a time when the entire nation is looking to reduce the total Green House Gas (GHG) emissions, and when the state should honestly be looking at credible ways and means of preserving our water resources, fertile agricultural land and tropical forests, the cumulative impact of so many coal based power projects should be objectively studied keeping in view the welfare of all sections of our state.

Keeping all these issues in objective consideration, the state and the union governments should involve all the concerned stake holders in detailed discussions regarding the total costs to the society and benefits from coal power projects, and their true relevance to our society.

Shankar Sharma is a Power Policy Analyst



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