Delhi needs to switch to cleaner fuels to beat smog

Switching to gas would improve Delhi’s air quality, but the government’s response has so far been short-sighted Switching to gas would improve Delhi’s air quality, but the government’s response has so far been short-sighted.
By Andrew Walker 15 November 2017 0 28390
Bicycle in Delhi smog Smog in Delhi. (PA)

The Indian government has responded to Delhi’s worsening air quality by shutting down coal-fired capacity and boosting gas-fired generation. But while this may increase gas demand in the short term, analysts do not expect the trend to continue.

The city’s air quality has been getting worse. Twelve months ago, the smog provoked a court case against the government that forced it to create an action plan to address the causes of the problem. 

The Central Pollution Control Board, part of the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change, published its Graded Response Action Plan (GRAP) in January 2017. The GRAP identifies and recommends actions to reduce pollution.

Virtually all of the measures detailed within the GRAP have been implemented in recent weeks as particulate matter (PM) levels have risen above 700 micrograms per cubic metre of air. Under the GRAP, PM pollution reaches ‘severe’ and ‘emergency’ levels once it exceeds 500 mg/cm.

The measures included temporarily shutting down the Badarpur coal-fired power plant, which lies southeast of Delhi. It also included recommendations to “maximise generation of power from existing natural gas-based plants to reduce the operation of coal-based power plants in the [Delhi area]”. Although this will lead to a brief increase in gas demand, as pollution levels fall the coal-fired plant will be restarted, meaning there will be no long-term improvement in the city’s air quality.

Manek Narang, associate director of CARE Ratings & Research, described the GRAP as reactive, noting it imposes restrictions on burning fuels and the use of vehicles only when pollution levels are already rising. It does not tackle the underlying causes of the pollution, he said.

Unless the government changes tactics, analysts consider it unlikely Delhi’s air quality will be a significant factor in bringing about an increased use of gas – at least in the power sector.

“While there is an incentive to switch to cleaner energy sources, particularly from a public health and political standpoint, the cost difference between coal and gas (imported LNG) is likely to be an obstacle accelerating the switch to gas,” analysts at BMI Research told Interfax Natural Gas Daily

“The government is unlikely to jeopardise economic growth by reducing the use of lower-cost power sources,” the analysts added. Without government intervention to make gas more attractive, it will continue to lose out to coal and renewables in the power sector.

Transport restrictions

The GRAP also proposes restricting the use of private vehicles and trucks within the city when PM levels exceed 500 mg/cm. Last week, the government implemented a scheme based on vehicle registration plates to restrict the number of vehicles on the road on any given day.

This too is only a temporary measure, which means there needs to be a concerted effort to reduce the number of vehicles operating in the city or to switch to cleaner-burning fuels such as gas to cut PM emissions from transport in the long term, according to Manish Vaid, junior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

“The use of LNG for trucks and buses, and mandating CNG usage in private vehicles, would go a long way in increasing the usage of natural gas in vehicles, thereby curbing both emissions and smog to a greater extent,” he told Interfax Natural Gas Daily.

Delhi has switched all of its city buses to run on CNG and also requires taxis to run on the fuel. However, it could still do more to make LNG available for trucks and large vehicles, which are the source of around half of all vehicular pollution in the city. 

Delhi suffers from particularly poor air quality at this time of year because it gets blanketed in smoke caused by the burning of agricultural waste from surrounding farms. This adds to the pre-existing sources of PM pollution in the city and makes conditions worse, Vaid said. 

“Burning crop stubble [in the] states of Punjab and Haryana, [the use of] diesel vehicles, [a] coal-based thermal power plant on the edge of Delhi, and road and construction dust are some of the major factors behind the smog,” he told Interfax Natural Gas Daily.  

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