10 Jan 2012
Coal-based power industry expands rapidly while solar power trots behind
By: Joel
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Tuticorin, a coastal district in southern Tamil Nadu, is a large hub for coal-based thermal energy generation with many more such projects in the pipeline. Currently there are 2 power stations commissioned so far. The Tuticorin Thermal Power Station being the largest of them all, as of now, produces power to suffice as much as one-thirds of Tuticorin's demand. The power plant managed by the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board, produces power through a capacity of 1050 MW. Besides, there is the Ind-Bharath Power Infra Private Ltd which has a 189 MW power generating capacity.

As of now, there are so many projects in the pipeline that once all of them are working on the ground, Tuticorin district would have power generating capacity of about 8000 MW by 2015. For instance, Coastal Energen Pvt Ltd had been sanctioned for a capacity of 1200 MW. The first unit was expected to be completed by December 2011. However, in early 2011, the same company had filed a request for expanding their power generating capacity with another 1600 MW capacity well before the first power unit was even commissioned.

This quick uptake of coal-based thermal power plants all over the country, in recent years, is definitely kindling opposing reactions by the general public. In Tuticorin, small-scale salt manufacturers are first one to be affected by this trend. “Fly ash accumulates on the salt which we have left for evaporation on the salt pans. This leads to poor quality of salt. We cannot attain the standards set by the Food Safety & Standards Act (2006) that is under operation with such externalities at hand,” says A Dhanabalan, a distressed salt manufacturer. “Tuticorin comprises of at least 96% of small scale salt manufacturers. It is their products that will be affected because the few bigger players have good refining technology to survive the food standards. Again, going back to basics, only the fittest will survive,” according to Arulraj Solomon, a salt manufacturer. Johnson, from the Fisherman's Association, claimed during a public hearing (held on 3rd May, 2011) on the expansion of Coastal Energen's unit that these big industries are allowed to discharge their effluents into the sea which affects the lives of the fisher folk. Now, the government does not let any fishing activity due to the polluted stock in these areas.

The good news is that the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM) is bringing about small changes in the power generating units in these places. Under the first batch of Phase I of the mission, a 5 MW solar photo voltaic project has been selected which is being set up in Kumbakarnatham (about 25 km from Tuticorin town). The bid was won by Consolidated Construction Consortium Limited. The engineering, procurement & construction (EPC) has been handed over to Staten Solar of Punjab. Although the deadline for commissioning was 9th of January, the project is expected to be delayed. “This can be pointed out to the fact that the land (45 acres) chosen has black cotton soil. Even a 15 minute shower does not let any progress for at least two days because the soil gets sticky due to the presence of clay”, according to Sridhar, the project manager. He expects the project to be ready by the end of February as the area was frequented by rains towards the end of 2011. On visiting the site, it was clear that the land was being leveled all over again. Another company, Sujana Towers Limited, has won a bid to set up a 10 MW solar power plant in the second round of bidding. This is expected to be set up in Keela Arasadi (30 km from Tuticorin town).

However, 15 MW of solar power is no match for the 8000 MW of the coal-based thermal power that is in the pipeline. “Coal power plants come up usually next to a port or close to the coal mine to over come the problem of domestic transportation of coal and to satisfy the power plant's need for water”, according to Ranjan, a consultant for the power industry in Tuticorin. It is also a pity that the 5 MW solar power plant misses its deadline where as the coal-based thermal power plant is capable of expansion without even having the initial project on the ground to understand its environmental impact.