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Thermal plants: Signalling distress and dent

In the current scenario, the efficiencies of our thermal power plants are not improved to the expected level where we can set a standard baseline. Here, the industry experts’ analyses what is going wrong with those mammoth thermal power plants.

The grand blueprint for the coal based power generators, the thermal power plants, to make the country power surplus, did not go down well. Now, there is a need to rapidly scale up electricity generation capacity but also to drastically lower emission levels.

The efficiency scenario of India’s thermal power plants
A good majority of thermal plants are probably running below the standard 30 per cent efficiency. Atanu Mukherjee, President, MN Dastur & Co Pvt Ltd says, “Even if one accommodates for the parasitic efficiency loss due to lower quality high ash Indian coals, such a large difference in operating efficiency points to inconsistencies in operating and maintenance practices, low plant load factors and grid conditions.”

According to Anil Kadam, General Manager, Business Development, Solution Architect- Smart Grid/Smart Cities, Schneider Electric India thermal power generation, still, has the lion’s share with about 65 per cent of the total electricity generated in India.

Parag Yelegaonkar, Manager – Business Development, Testo India Pvt Ltd says, “Regarding the PLF front of conventional power plants other than NTPC, we are still struggling and has been able to achieve only between 40-50 per cent on an average basis across the country and for NTPC it is between 70-80 per cent on an average basis throughout their power plants across the country.”

Emission mitigation from thermal power plants
About half of the country’s thermal power plants are over 25 years old with 40 per cent less power generation capacity, resulting in huge climate impact. Digital plants help monitor the emissions of a power plant. Kadam suggests that microgrid monitoring system, such as Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure microgrid advisor, ensures that decisions can be made according to real-time conditions.”

Ultra-super critical technology can take down the carbon dioxide emission down by over 20 per cent. Mukherjee says, “Super critical and ultra-super critical technology will lay the efficiency foundations for potentially engineering post-combustion carbon capture from the flue stacks at manageable cost points.”

Sanjib Mitra, Country Head & Sr. VP – Transformer Division, Electrotherm India says, “Modern technology helps controlled burning and chemical filtration of exhaust gases.” Electrostatic precipitators, flue gas desulphurisation, etc. are some of the process to reduce the emission of unexpected gases which are harmful to mankind.

Yelegaonkar says, “Testo-350 flue gas analyser precisely monitors the emissions from the coal based and gas-based power plants, enabling the power plants to fine tune their processes to minimise the emissions to the permissible levels and improve combustion efficiencies.”

The concerned regulatory boards need to be very stringent on regular audit to monitor implementation of new technologies for the older plants.

Indecision looming over old thermal plants
The variable and intermittent nature of the renewables, along with the grid constraints and grid scale battery storage limitations prevent renewables from becoming the base load power supply any time soon. Mukherjee of MN Dastur says, “The expectations, subsidies, investments and proclamations on renewables in India adversely affect the investments in the critically required thermal power plants.”

India requires significant investment in new thermal power capacity which will require government priorities, in addition to energy, a greater private participation. Mukherjee adds, “The twin dilemma is of investing at such large scales where debt markets and capital markets are not fully developed, and the risk of stranding assets makes the private investors shy away.”In the end, the status quo of perpetuating old thermal plants continues.

A thermal power plant reaches payback saturation at 25 years’ age in terms of depreciation and loan repayment. Mitra of Electrotherm India says, “37 GW coal fired boilers are more than 25 years old. Many of them are highly polluting and generation cost is to the tune of 40 paisa per unit.”

Yelegaonkar of Testo Indiapoints out that the inefficiency is caused mainly due to lack of repairs and maintenance of the plants and failing to implement new technologies. The procurement policies are still not transparent and there is huge delay in procurements due to slow moment of proposals approval files.

The biggest unresolved challenge
The primary unresolved challenge for a healthy and efficient thermal power sector has to do with the DISCOMs, according to Mukherjee. He says, “Our distribution system is broken and has made the entire power eco-system toxic and unviable.” Bottlenecks created by the DISCOMs have accumulated huge losses and disrupted the entire power chain.

Lack of seamless grid connectivity across regions causes demand supply mismatches, adds Mukherjee. Most of the coal mines are situated in the eastern region, while a lot of generation plants are elsewhere. He adds, “Due to logistic capacity constraints, we can have substantial demand supply mismatches on feedstock and near-stock outs in power plants which are not close to the pit-heads.”

According to Yelegaonkar, the biggest challenge is to allocate the funds from government for R&M of plants and procurement of new equipment for improvement in efficiency and reduction in emissions for older power plants.

Coal based power generation has been the backbone for India’s thermal power needs. Kadam says, “Coal transportation often forms a prohibitive part of the delivered price, finding a suitable linkage for the thermal power plants remains a huge challenge.”

Delays in project implementations due to challenges such as land acquisition, approval of required permits, environment clearance certificates result into cost overrun. Mitra says, “A stranded asset in complexity of coal linkages has been the major challenge in power industry.”

Is digitisation the answer?
By digitising current operations, one can improve efficiencies of the main plant equipment, as well as the emission control systems, fuel management systems and balance of plant (BoP) systems on a real-time basis.

Our EcoStruxure power 2.0 builds on this innovative energy management system with comprehensive ISO certifications, the latest cybersecurity standards compliance and new digital enhancements, like thermal monitoring, power event analysis and microgrids applications, adds Kadam.

National Electric Plan 2018 prepared by the Indian government states that we do not need any non-renewable energy power plants in utility sector till 2027.

Mitra says, “We have 50k MW under commissioning which put together with existing capacity would generate 275k MW power. Typically, efficiency of thermal power plant lies between 30 to 32 per cent as ratio of produced energy to coal burnt energy.”

“Thermal power plants, old with 40 percent less power generation capacity, result in huge climate impact.”
Anil Kadam, General Manager, Business Development, Solution Architect- Smart Grid/Smart Cities, Schneider Electric India

“The procurement policies are still not transparent”
Sanjib Mitra, Country Head & Sr VP – Transformer Division, Electrotherm India

“The subsidies and investments on renewables affect the investments in the plants.”
Atanu Mukherjee, President, M N Dastur & Co Pvt Ltd

“The procurement policies are still not transparent and there is huge delay in procurements due to slow moment of proposals approval files.”
Parag Yelegaonkar, Manager – Business Development, Testo India Pvt Ltd.

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