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India's power pollution cap goal set at least 6 years too early

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An Indian Hindu devotee prays amongst foam in the polluted Yamuna river in New Delhi.

[NEW DELHI] India wanted to cap toxic emissions from power plants by December. It's now discovering that target is at least 6 years from its reach.

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

"There's no way the present deadline can be met," Mr 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 2.5 trillion rupees (S$53.1 billion), have been delayed as power companies battle stressed finances and are under pressure to reduce costs amid 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.

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

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The environment ministry in Dec. 2015 set a two-year deadline for thermal power plants in India to cap emissions of particulate matter, sulfur 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 sulfur dioxide control units, which requires coordinated scheduling to avoid any grid imbalance to ensure uninterrupted power supplies, Mr 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, Mr 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.

"The deadline was set after consultation with all the stakeholders and it was a reasonable time for implementation," said Sunil Dahiya, a campaigner for climate and energy at Greenpeace India. "We just didn't show enough will."

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