PowerGen India 2013, 6-8 May, Mumbai

PowerGen is an institution – a vast exhibition of power related industries with an associated conference on related developments in the power industry. PowerGen has annual meetings in different continents with the exhibitors and conference being selected and tuned to suit the local interests. The PowerGen conference in Vegas in 2011 had well over 1,000 exhibitors. With the US MATS (Mercury and Air Toxics Standard) just having been finalised, it was not surprising to find that over 50% of the Vegas conference focused on emissions control. The situation is entirely different at PowerGen India 2013, where, out of almost 400 exhibitors, only around 10 even mentioned emissions control in their brochure entry. The major focus of the meeting was on power expansion, efficiency improvements, and plant maintenance and upgrading. Emissions control was covered in only one session in which all of the speakers were from outside India.

After listening to the opening introductions and the panel session on “Indian power – a time to deliver” it was clear that the focus on energy in India is on maintaining and increasing output to feed spiralling demand, and other issues take a back seat. The country is currently running at a 10-11% deficit with respect to power and many regions remain unelectrified. Further, with 30-50% of the population not even paying their bills, the financing of the sector is in chaos.

Although there are many plants being proposed and going through permitting, there is the feeling that, as is apparently common in India, many will fail at one of the many hurdles along the way before reaching the commissioning stage. Issues such as land clearances and uncertainty over potential changes in the policy and regulations in the future are all hindering the completion of permits. Plans for at least one plant have been abandoned due to the sudden requirement for the inclusion of FGD (flue gas desulphurisation). A lively discussion focused on how significant changes were required to improve cooperation between investors and the authorities and that simpler and fairer permitting agreements are necessary. Private funding is seen as imperative and yet it is clear that the risks are regarded as significantly higher than the rewards. Delegates discussed the need for the promotion of investment from overseas, possibly through tax-free bonds or superannuation funds. However, some suggested that investors would still be put off because fuel risks and currency fluctuation risks are largely passed on to the bidder. The negotiation process could also be streamlined – most plants wait at least three years for a state decision and the success rate is low with numerous stalled and cancelled bids.

The electricity market needs to be organised with a better demand and price forecasting system. The country would also benefit from the creation of a market for demand response – for rapid response plants to be available to boost base-load output in times of increased demand.

NTPC Ltd  (formerly National Thermal Power Corporation, and the largest Indian state-owned electric utility company) has established a plan for a rolling repair and maintenance programme across its fleet of aging coal plants. Renovation of boilers and retrofitting of ESPs has already taken place at several plants such as Talcher and Tanda and is underway at several others (for example Ramagundam Badarpur, Korba, and Kaniha). However statements such as “NTCP is undertaking the retrofitting of ESP at several older plants to comply with demands of stringent environmental norms” reminds us how far the environment legislation lags behind that of other countries. Although new plants are required to leave space for future installation of FGD, the current rate of FGD installation is low (single figures).

The coal production shortfall over the last few years has been increasing and is expected to reach 238 Mt/y by 2016-2017. But increasing coal production “would be a challenge”. One of the panelists suggested that the shortfall in the 2011 FY was due not just to coal quantity but also coal quality issues. The issue of further coal production was very much front page news of the Hindustan Times during the run of the meeting – “Coal-gate” is the term given to the investigation into irregularities in the assignment of coal blocks for future mining.

There is a renewables obligation within India and there has been significant investment in solar and hydro systems. However, there was no doubt that the country still feels that coal will remain the major source of power in the country for many decades to come.

There were a handful of UK and US exhibitors present who admitted that this was their first visit to such a meeting in India and that they were “sticking their toes in to test the water”. There seemed to be a general feeling that India will soon open its doors a little further to allow more foreign companies to provide services such as boiler management and ash handling systems. India uses around 25% of its fly ash in the construction industry. But with rapid population and urban growth as it is in the country, this ash utilisation rate could easily be higher. This would, of course, rely on the fly ash produced being of a marketable quality.

One interesting development which was noted was that there are reported to be 11 mercury CEMs (continuous emission monitors) on place on plants in India. This is surprising given the fact that emissions of SO2 and NOx are hardly controlled, never mind air toxics. But it would appear that the government is in a new phase of “measurement and monitoring” – an evaluation phase that is expected to be followed by a move towards more stringent emission legislation and control. However, how well this may work in practice, bearing in mind the production and distribution challenges discussed earlier, remains to be seen.