Unfit for habitation – Living amid Chennai’s industrial badlands

Newsletter - October 29, 2020

Laid to waste: Sepakkam in northern Chennai has been rendered practically unlivable due to toxic industrialisation in the once residential village | Photos: Nityanand Jayaraman

Unfit for habitation: Life in Chennai’s industrial badlands

Decades before fossil fuel became the villain of the climate movement, frontline communities of dalits, adivasis and other subordinate classes were already fighting solitary battles against mining, hydrocarbon extraction, air pollution caused by industries and automobiles, and the mindless destruction caused by the over-consumptive modern economy.

Where the battle cry of the climate crisis is a call to save the future, theirs was always and still is a struggle to improve their present day quality of life. Statistics often hide the fact that environmental problems affect different demographics differently. With 116,000 neonatal deaths (of children less than 28 days of age), India tops the list of countries that lose newborns to air pollution, according to the recently released State of Global Air 2020. Regional pollution indicators mask oppressive local conditions, turning local communities into victims of averages.

In this essay, CarbonCopy attempts to emphasise this disparity by travelling to three of the most toxic and dangerous residential areas in the Chennai Metropolitan Area.

Chennai – world-class city or toxic cesspool?

As cities go, Chennai is rated favourably as a place to live. Environmentally speaking, though, the city is starkly segregated. Where south and central Chennai are showcased by the state to lay claim to world-class status, north Chennai is a fetid cesspool of industrial badlands, targeted by the state for increasing toxic industrialisation. Where the south gets parks and walking paths, the north gets coal stacking yards and chemical industries.

This densely populated working-class region also has a higher-than-average proportion of people belonging to Scheduled Castes and OBCs (Other Backward Class). The ongoing and increasing pollution here is not merely incidental; it is a modern and environmental expression of casteism. Residents stuck in this putrid mix contend not only with industrial bane but also with intensifying manifestations of the unfolding climate crisis.

Extending from the Manali marshlands to the Ennore backwaters, this once bountiful region famed for its agriculture, salt and fisheries economies is now Tamil Nadu’s fossil fuel capital. More than 12 lakh people live in the five assembly constituencies hosting three large ports handling oil, gas, coal and other cargo, 3,300 MW of coal-fired power plants, 10.5 million tonnes/year petroleum refinery, coal and container stacking yards, a mega petrochemical industrial estate with fertiliser and plastics factories, and the city’s largest garbage dump.

The three worst places to live in the city are Ezhil Nagar, Kargil Nagar/Sadayankuppam and Seppakkam. According to parents and children from these areas, these are among the worst places to raise a family or be a child. Not surprisingly, all three places lie within the Ennore-Manali region — arguably among the most polluted places in the country.

Ezhil Nagar

The first residents to build their homes in this north Chennai neighbourhood must have had a twisted sense of humour, or a superstitious streak to believe that a name can change reality. The Tamil word Ezhil translates to beauty. There is nothing beautiful about Ezhil Nagar, even if you squint your eyes and hold your nose.

Photos: Citizen civic and consumer Action Group

Towering hills of trash squeeze out black, slimy trash juice into puddles of leachate that ooze out snake-like into a foul-smelling canal. A narrow road littered with trash separates the first row of homes from Chennai’s largest garbage dump, the Kodungaiyur dumpyard. Flies are everywhere. “You can’t afford to sleep with your mouth open. Flies will settle inside, outside, everywhere,” one resident offered.

Shruti, 19, plays the local guide for this toxic tour. She shows me a narrow fenced off open space with some vegetation on the fringes. “We got that park after years of petitioning. There are no places for children to play. Just being a child, playing or going to school is a dangerous thing,” she said. Shruti is part of a children’s group run by Arunodhaya, an NGO that works with local youth. The main road that is to be taken to get to nearby schools is chock-a-block with smoke-spewing diesel trucks carrying garbage, or cargo from the nearby Chennai port.

The infamous Chennai heat is bad by itself. But the overpowering stench of the rejects from Chennai’s consumer economy makes the heat intolerable. “This is nothing. Wait till it rains. If there is a slight rain, it raises a stink. If it rains too heavily, like it did in 2015, then the garbage comes flowing home,” says Shruti. The year that Chennai flooded, years-old rotten garbage, sewage, dead animals, and sulphurous goo filled up homes in the neighbourhood. The worst was when the waters receded leaving behind their deadly flotsam.

The dry season brings no respite. From February to May, spontaneous fires erupt in the dump as pockets of trapped methane ignite and explode into smouldering flames. An air sample taken during one such fire in 2012 revealed the presence of 19 toxic chemicals. According to the report, “Sixteen out of the 19 chemicals found target the central nervous system, 15 target the respiratory system, 13 target the eyes, 12 target the skin, six target the liver, five target the kidneys and reproductive system, two target the cardiovascular system and the peripheral nervous system and one targets blood, heart and bone marrow.”

Local residents challenged the dumping ground in the Madras high court pointing out that it was illegal and lacked the statutory license required under Municipal Solid Waste Rules, 2000. The Court sat on the case until rules changed in 2016.

Even under the new rules the yard is illegal. But no court is likely to act on this illegality, probably because the victims of this illegality are politically and culturally marginalised.

Kargil Nagar/Sadayankuppam

Kargil Nagar in Thiruvottiyur earned itself a city-wide reputation as a bad place to live after the 2015 floods. Located on the eastern bank of the 200-year-old Buckingham Canal, this settlement of 1,800 people is on a low-lying area. Once upon a time, the saltwater canal was used by slow-moving barges to carry firewood, shells for lime-making, salt and dried fish from the centres of production to the city. Now, it is a sewer carrying effluents from homes, commercial establishments and industries in north Chennai.

I was in the neighbourhood with four local high-school children, three girls and a boy. J Janani, 17, a Kargil Nagar resident, remembers the 2015 floods vividly. Buckingham Canal breached its banks and emptied the rainwater-laced effluents into their homes, she says. The road separating Kargil Nagar from the Canal is at least three feet above the homes in the area. So the waters that came in could not drain out, leaving residents stranded in a noxious soup for more than a week.

The Ennore Manali Industrial Area | Photo: Nityanand Jayaraman

But both she and her younger friend K Hairunnisha, who lives in nearby Jothi Nagar, agreed that there were worse places than Kargil Nagar across the road. They led the way to the busy, dusty Ennore-Manali expressway pointing to a bus stop across the road. “That’s our bus stop to school,” says Hairunnisha a.k.a Nisha. An endless stream of heavy diesel vehicles, buses, container lorries, oil and gas tankers and large trailer trucks trundled by spewing smoke and kicking up dust from the potholes and the edges of the expressway. If the pollution does not kill you, a speeding truck is quite likely to do the job.

“It is horrible on our way back from school. There is heavy smoke. Sometimes, in the mornings, we cannot even see across the road. The smoke is so thick,” Nisha says. Dodging lorries, we crossed the road and walked along a mud road flanked by homes and small-scale scrap iron smelters. A mound of plastic bags tied at the neck and dumped at the edge of the street had leaked out suspicious looking sludge. One of the youth enlightened me that this was faeces-rich silt removed from clogged sewers in the city that had been transported all the way here to be dumped alongside the canal.

The girls were taking us to an “iron bridge” across the canal from where we would see Sadayankuppam – the place even more unfortunate than Kargil Nagar.

A flight of steel stairs leads to a concrete bridge that serves as a great vantage point. Pointing to the west, Nisha says, “That is Sadayankuppam. Rescue boats were sailing above all those buildings,” she said. Reportedly, there was more than 15 feet of water at this point.

Sadayankuppam was located where the Kosasthalaiyar River emptied into the Ennore Creek before turning north for its final run to the Bay of Bengal. This was the confluence for floodwaters from three directions, including the Manali marshlands to the south. The marshlands are no more.

The thick oily film on the canal’s surface gives away the source of pollution. In the 1960s, the Public Sector Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited set up an oil refinery. It now processes more than 10.5 million tonnes of crude oil annually, and has spawned an “ecosystem” of petrochemical companies, which includes 21 large hazardous industries.

The view to the south from the bridge is a panorama of electric transmission towers, factory chimneys, flare towers and industrial piping. Three flares were burning bright orange. “They burn all the time. One time, early in the morning, when my friends were playing in a nearby ground, the flares stopped burning. Walkers and children who were playing felt a choking sensation and many collapsed to the ground,” says 17-year-old G Santosh.

Santosh and his friends took us to the playground, which is one of many inside a government-run market of iron and steel wholesalers. “This is a happening place on weekends. Every street corner, every empty plot is occupied by children playing cricket,” says Dr S Vishwaja, a young dentist-turned-activist, who is part of a local youth collective called Chennai Climate Action Group. The most sought after playground was the size of a field hockey ground. Three flaming flare towers leaned malevolently over a compound separating the ground from CPCL.

“It is always polluted, but sometimes major leaks happen,” my young guides informed me. They know all about ammonia, sulphur dioxide and dust not from textbooks, but just by breathing the air. In May 2020, a major leak of ammonia from Madras Fertilisers Ltd sent local residents into a panic. Despite police complaints, no corrective action is known to have been taken.


Seppakkam is photogenic in a dystopic way. The approach road to this village of 60 homes is ominously named the Ash Pipeline Road. The grey of coal ash is everywhere. Ageing leaky pipelines carrying a slurry of seawater and ash conveys the toxic payload from the North Chennai Thermal Power Station to ash dykes spread over more than 1,000 acres.

The backwaters of the Kosasthalaiyar River along the Ennore Creek are smothered under a carpet of ash several feet thick. Where once there were mangroves and waters abounding in fish, crab and shrimp, there is now a deathly grey wasteland. Further west, the pipelines run past the Electricity Board’s pumphouse and turn north along the ash dyke’s western bund to climb up to the point of discharge into the dyke.

View from the Ash pipeline road| Photo: David Grossman

The village, or what’s left of it, stands in a tight cluster a few 100 metres before the pipelines climb the 15-foot bund to disgorge their ash into the dyke. The pipeline’s route is a trail of destruction. The village is surrounded by water. What ash is outside water is caked dry, and what is under is slushy quicksand.

Even 20 years ago, this was a freshwater region. But now tens of acres of land marked as “scrub jungle” in the Survey of India topo sheet are a saline wetland. The original scrub is long gone. The water’s edges are marked by thickets of seepweed locally known as Umari chedi, a halophyte or salt-water loving plant. Only the dessicated stumps of the hardy Prosopis juliflora (known in Hindi as Vilayati Babul) stand, serving as perches for the occasional egret or painted stork.

An abandoned village, with a few dilapidated buildings sticking out of several feet of water, marks the entrance to the settlement. A slushy path leads up to the 15 metre bund of the ash dyke. In the distance, a fly ash dust devil moves rapidly and disappears as the devil drops.

It is hard to believe 46-year-old M Venkatesan. “All this was fertile paddy lands. And then there were the salt fields and then the river. We had an unlimited supply of sweet fresh water just a few feet below the surface,” he says, sweeping his hands in an arc to cover the bleak landscape occupied by the ash dyke and the spilled ash. “All that disappeared in just 25 years.”

In the early 1990s, Venkatesan’s father Munisamy’s homestead was acquired for the ash pond. The replacement house built for Munisamy is among the 60-odd structures that were abandoned after saline ash slurry from leaking pipes flooded the homes and ate into the concrete and the foundations.

Now, Venkatesan and his neighbours are squatters in their own village. Water for drinking and household needs is a challenge. A corporate donor built a 2,000 litre per day Reverse Osmosis plant. But if it is to be operated, all appliances in the village have to be turned off. The village does not have reliable three-phase electricity. “We only have single-phase connections. We have been petitioning the electricity board, but they want money and we cannot afford it,” Venkatesan says. That is ironic considering that their village was sacrificed for the promise of electricity.

“You should mention Seppakkam as the worst living place in your article,” says 28-year-old Elaya Selvi. Just talking about the living conditions was enough to get this mother of three children visibly agitated. Seppakkam is not part of Swachh Bharat, it would appear. Elaya’s home got a government-aided toilet six months ago, and a septic tank three months ago. The two are yet to be connected. “This has to be among the worst places for women to live. The ash has denuded the area of all vegetation. We have no sheltered place to use to answer nature’s calls. During our monthly periods, it is miserable, and if it rains then it is hell,” she says.

The natural channel that drains the village is choked with ash. Even a light shower is enough to flood homes with ash-laced water.

Dry weather brings a different set of problems as the ash gets airborne and invades every place. Elaya complains that ash gets even into closed water containers and settles as a film on the surface; and washed clothes are coated with ash when they are hung out to dry.

For children, too, life is bleak. “Forget games and play. We are too scared to let our children out of our sights. Just a few weeks back, a 7-year-old boy who went out to play got sucked waist deep into ash and had to be rescued,” Elaya says.

Children in Seppakkam play an eerie game. They jump up and down on the squelchy ash fields even as it yields and rebounds like a trampoline chanting “Thala thala bhoomi; thallatha bhoomi” (Squelchy, squelchy earth; unyielding earth).

Skin diseases, heart problems and breathing disorders are rampant, locals say.

The villagers have been begging to be evicted and relocated to a safe place. Last September, they headloaded their belongings and threatened to abandon their homes after a massive leak flooded their homes with ash slurry. Senior officials from TANGEDCO, Tamil Nadu’s electricity utility, rushed down to pacify them and promised to repair the pipelines, desilt the storm water channel and build a fabric screen to keep the dust out.

But routine pollution aside, the village is directly in harm’s way. The impoundment structures holding the ash dykes together are of questionable integrity. According to an expert committee report submitted to the National Green Tribunal on a case demanding the clean-up of spilled ash, the dykes hold more than 18 million cubic metres. If the impoundment structures fail, and the contents spill out, Ennore Creek will be history. 18 million cubic metres is enough to bury an area as large as New Delhi under a foot of ash.

The ash pond is illegal, and TANGEDCO’s operations are in violation of the Air and Water Acts. The utility’s environmental clearance requires the power plant to ensure 100% fly ash utilisation, and for the pond to be lined and used only in emergencies. Over the years, fly ash spills from the pipes and the ash pond has spread over more than 1,700 acres of the Ennore Creek and Kosasthalaiyar River’s backwaters.

More than two years ago, the NGT ordered remediation and a stop to all pollution. Neither the NGT nor TANGEDCO seem too concerned that the order is being violated. Meanwhile, TANGEDCO is building two new coal-fired power plants with the same promise of 100% fly ash utilisation, and emergency storage of ash in a lined ash pond. The ash from these plants, too, are destined for this illegal ash pond.

The international discourse on the climate crisis makes it appear as though apocalypse is around the corner, in the not-so-distant future. This hides the fact that entire sub-populations – of indigenous people, communities of colour, and Dalits and OBCs – within countries and cities are living in a disaster already.

Climate Science

Final flurry: After a delay of close to a month, the southwest monsoon is finally withdrawing from the Indian subcontinent, just in time for the onset date for the northeast monsoon | Photo: IMD

Southwest monsoon beats the retreat in India, records above-normal rain overall

The southwest monsoon season finally came to an end in India, 13 days after its normal date of retreating. The India Meteorological Department (IMD) announced the commencement of the northeast monsoon, which brings rain to Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala in the last three months of the year. Overall, the country received 109% rainfall of the Long Period Average (LPA) with the months of June, August and September recording excess rain, while the month of July recorded a deficit, IMD stated.   

Climate-resistant super wheat set to be grown in Argentina

As the threat of water scarcity and food shortages increase, possible relief comes in the form of climate-resistant super wheat that has just been green-lit for production in Argentina. The gene-edited wheat called BIOX.BA HB4 can be grown even in dry conditions, which is apt for the region that has suffered from water stress for the past few years. In field trials conducted over a period of 10 years, the seed varieties increased crop yield by an average of 20% during growing seasons that had been affected by drought. Concerns have been raised about the GMO wheat, however, as no other countries have approved its importation. 

Climate change could trigger mass migration from tropical to cooler climes within decades: Study

A new study predicted that within decades, increasing climate change would prove to be an additional incentive for hundreds of millions of people residing in tropical and subtropical countries to migrate to cooler temperate countries. The study, published in the journal Earth System Dynamics, found India would have the greatest number of people with this incentive to move. In general, the study stated that it was areas with the highest projected population growth rates that would be most adversely affected by climate change. 

Rapidly sliding mountains due to melting permafrost in Alaska trigger Tsunami threat 

New research indicated that mountains in cold places across the world, such as Alaska, are collapsing because the permafrost that holds them together is melting rapidly. This could trigger tsunamis if they fall into the sea. A particular area of concern is the popular tourist attraction Barry Arm fjord in Alaska, which began sliding early last century and the process has increased rapidly in the past decade. 

The Arctic sea ice in Siberia, meanwhile, is yet to start freezing, which has never been the case since records began. The delay in the Laptev Sea could be a result of unusual warmth in northern Russia and the intrusion of Atlantic waters, scientists said.  

Scientists, however, found evidence suggesting frozen methane deposits in the Arctic Ocean have started to be released off the East Siberian coast. This could potentially accelerate the pace of global warming, scientists fear.

Climate Policy

No Protection: The Indian government notified the public of its intentions to acquire protected land in Chhattisgarh for mining despite the Supreme Court observing that governments did not have the right to mine in eco-sensitive zones | Photo: Down to Earth

Centre plans to acquire land in protected forest area for mining

India’s coal ministry plans to acquire 1,760 hectares of land for mining in Surguja, Chhattisgarh. But the catch is around 98% of this land is a protected forest area. The ministry, however, has made its intentions known via a notice published in a Raipur newspaper earlier this month. The move comes despite the Supreme Court’s September 30 observation that neither the Centre nor the state has the right to mine an area that comes under an eco-sensitive zone. 

The coal ministry, however, seeks to acquire the land under a subsection of the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, which allows the Centre to take over the land for mining within two years of notifying if it is satisfied that coal can be extracted from the whole or part tract of the land.  

Japan and South Korea pledge carbon neutrality by 2050; EU one step closer to making pledge legally binding

China’s recent net zero by 2060 announcement seems to have spurred other countries to join in. The newest entrant into the ‘net-zero club’ is Japan that has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. While Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga did not give information on how the coal-dependent country would go about achieving this target, he said the country would promote renewable energy and focus on safety as it pushes for a larger role for nuclear energy. Just days after Japan’s announcement, neighbours South Korea too announced plans to pursue carbon neutrality by 2050. “We will go toward carbon neutral by 2050, taking action on climate change…We will replace coal power with renewable energy, creating new markets and industries as well as jobs,” said South Korean President Moon Jae-in while announcing the move.

Environment ministers in the EU, which set a similar target last year, are set to make the pledge legally binding. This law is likely to set as a goal for the EU as a whole, and not for individual countries. This could mean some countries could get away with having higher emissions if others make deeper cuts.   

Meanwhile, Switzerland and Peru signed a carbon offsetting agreement under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. As per the deal, while Peru gets to fund sustainable development projects, Switzerland gets to count the resulting emissions cuts against its national targets.

Banks financing projects leading to biodiversity loss to the tune of US$2.6 trillion, finds new report

With species extinction rates reaching alarming levels, concerns about unmitigated biodiversity loss and its impacts have also grown. A new report now delves deep into the financing of activities contributing to biodiversity losses around the world. The report, Bankrolling Extinction, has explored 72 business sectors to identify and calculate corporate loans, project finance, general corporate purposes finance, share issuance and bond issuance from 50 banks world wide. The banks analysed included 20 European banks (linked to 36 per cent of the total finance with risk of biodiversity impact identified in this report), 18 banks in the Asia Pacific region (24.7 per cent), 8 in North America (38.7 per cent) and two each in South America (0.4 per cent) and Africa (0.1 per cent). According to publishers portfolio.earth,  while banks in China exhibited particularly high levels of financing with risk of direct biodiversity impact, on average, North American banks invested USD 126 billion each in industry sectors linked to bio-diversity impacts. This was 2.7 times the USD 47 billion of finance provided on average by each of the European banks, and 3.5 times the USD 36 billion provided on average by each of the Asian and Pacific banks.

Poorer countries being driven to debt in name of climate finance: Oxfam report

A recent Oxfam report revealed the burden poorer countries are undertaking as part of climate finance. The report stated that billions of dollars were being loaned at high interest rates to these countries seeking help to deal with the impacts of climate change. These loans are sinking these countries into a debt-ridden hole that is sure to last for many more years to come, the report stated. Breaking it down into numbers, the report found poorer countries received $60 billion of climate finance from wealthy countries and publicly funded institutions in 2017-18. But the amount that actually reached these countries was between $19 billion and $22.5 billion after subtraction of interest, repayments and other costs, according to Oxfam. 

Experts cry foul over proposed ship efficiency measures

Shipping experts have expressed their disappointment with a proposal by leading maritime nations to cut the industry’s carbon footprint. The proposal suggests a slew of short-term and long-term technical and operational measures that will not be enforced until 2030, which, experts say, is a decade too late. The proposal, in its current form, falls short of the goals set by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and Paris Agreement climate goals, according to experts.

Air Pollution

Smoke and mirrors: The Centre is reportedly deliberating setting up a permanent authority to keep air pollution in the National Capital Region in check | Photo: The Hindu

Centre brings new ordinance to tackle air pollution in the NCR

The Indian government today passed the “The Commission for Air Quality Management in National Capital Region and Adjoining Area Ordinance” to control air pollution in the Delhi-NCR region. The move comes days after the Centre informed the Supreme Court that it was planning to bring a new law to install a permanent authority to check air pollution in the National Capital Region (NCR). Following this, the top court suspended the orders to authorise retired judge Madan Lokur to oversee the issue. 

The new commission will effectively replace the 22-year-old Supreme Court-mandated Environment Pollution Control Authority (EPCA) which currently oversees air pollution control measures and strategies in the region. According to the notification published by the environment ministry, the commission will have appropriate powers which can act against air pollution on a war footing and will coordinate with the NCR states and central government. The commission is to have members from all NCR states and the Central Pollution Control Board; from associated ministries like petroleum and natural gas, agriculture, commerce etc. While the statutory body has powers to enforce various environmental laws, it will function completely under the aegis of the central government.

Meanwhile, farm fires in Punjab and Haryana reached new peaks (1,619 fires on Sunday). Experts said the new law could be binding on states. But what if the states refuse to implement the law? Earlier, statutory orders under the Air Act by CPCB were also not implemented by state governments.

Less than half of NCAP cities have PM2.5 monitors, reveals new air quality dashboard

A week after the State of Global Air 2020 revealed that India had faced the highest exposure to toxic air in the world last year, a new dashboard now delves deeper into Indian states’ and cities’ air pollution mitigation efforts. According to data compiled across 23 states and 122 cities featured in India’s National Clean Air Programme (NCAP), Delhi, unsurprisingly ranked as the most polluted state on average PM10 monitoring data from 2016 to 2018. Meanwhile, out of the 23 states listed in the NCAP with non-attainment cities, only 3 states, Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh and Punjab, accounted for above average readings for all 3 years of PM10 monitoring.

Following Delhi as the worst-ranked state in terms of PM10 pollution are Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. As for cities, Ghaziabad topped with the worst PM10 level average across 3 years at 253, followed by Delhi at 246 and Dhanbad at 242. Dehradun ranked 4th, followed by Bareilly, Lucknow, Firozabad, Silchar, Noida and Kanpur. In terms of PM2.5 levels, Noida ranked the worst with 119 µg/m3, followed by Agra, Delhi, Lucknow, Ghaziabad, Muzzaffarpur, Kanpur, Chandigarh, Howrah and Kolkata at 10th.

Despite expansions in the country’s air pollution monitoring network, data is still scarce, especially with regards to PM2.5 levels. Out of 23 states listed under the NCAP, only 17 states had any PM2.5 manual data monitoring available from 2016-2018. Of the 122 NCAP cities, only 59 had PM2.5 data available at all.

World’s worst PM2.5 levels recorded in India in 2019

Exposure to PM2.5 is the highest in the world in India, according to the State of Global Air 2020 (Soga 2020) report. India was followed by Nepal, Niger, Qatar and Nigeria in exposure to PM 2.5, particulate matter with diameters that are generally 2.5 microns, or about 30 times smaller than a strand of human hair.

It’s the 10th consecutive year India has recorded an increase in PM 2.5 pollution, the report stated. In 2019, the Central Pollution Control Board had said India’s average PM2.5 levels had been rising in the past three years because of the rising number of vehicles and re-suspension of natural dust. According to the 2019 World Air Quality Report by IQAir AirVisual, Two-thirds of the most polluted cities, or 21 out of 30, are in India, and Delhi has the worst air among all national capitals.

China shows ‘significant’ improvement in PM2.5 levels: Report

The State of Global Air 2020 report shows decreasing levels of PM2.5 in China, which did not figure among the ten countries with the highest per capita PM 2.5 exposure in the world. China is now among the top 30 countries for pollution exposure. Due to demographic factors, China recorded 1.42 million premature deaths attributed to PM 2.5 exposure, compared to 980,000 in India in 2019. China showed significant improvement in air quality in the past five to seven years. The average annual PM 2.5 concentrations in China ranged from 45 to 75 micrograms per cubic metres in 2019 compared to 75 to over 85 micrograms per cubic metres in India.

Outdoor PM2.5 levels in China dropped by 30% because of policy actions over five to seven years, including a shift from coal to gas in residential and industrial sectors and a reduction in industrial emissions, according to the report. Experts point out that China’s national action plan is based on a monitoring network of approximately 1,500 air quality stations providing real-time data, and that enforcing industrial emission standards is included in the job appraisal of government officials.

Air pollution killed half a million infants worldwide last year: Study

Half a million infants died last year of air pollution mostly in the developing world according to the global data on deaths cited by the State of Global Air Report 2020. ( ). Medical experts are in the early stages to understand the deadly toll on babies in the womb. Katherine Walker, the principal scientist of the report, told the Guardian that babies across multiple countries are being born with low birth weight, who are more susceptible to childhood infections and pneumonia. The lungs of preterm babies also fail to be fully developed, the research said.

Experts also point out that the indoor pollution in India, Africa and Southeast Asia is equivalent to that of 150 year ago, Victorian London.  The State of Global Air Report 2020 is published by the Health Effects Institute, an independent nonprofit research organisation supported by the US Environmental Protection Agency and others.

H-CNG buses that run on hydrogen spiked CNG launched in national capital

Delhi got its first hydrogen-blended CNG buses, which emits as less as BS VI grade fuel from lower category engines. Indian Oil Corp (IOC) R&D Centre has developed the patented compact reforming process for H-CNG production directly from natural gas. The CNG was spiked with 18% hydrogen for the pilot run. 

H-CNG emits 70% carbon monoxide and is 25% lower hydrocarbon emissions in heavy-duty BS-IV engines as compared to baseline CNG, according to a statement by IOC. Power minister Dharmendra Pradhan said Rs4 lakh crore investment is underway to transform India into a gas-based economy. Government’s trial of HCNG on 50 buses will be a major breakthrough in India’s journey towards the hydrogen economy, he said.


Plotting access: A new draft policy for Distributed Renewable Energy may facilitate easy and reliable end-user access to energy in rural villages and town, which is a crucial gap for India’s rural economy | Photo: Eqmagpro.com

India proposes draft policy to back Distributed RE

The Centre has proposed a draft policy for Distributed Renewable Energy driven projects in small towns and villages in India. The government will support the adoption of PV-powered dryers, cold storage and charkhas (cotton-spinning wheels), as well as solar lighting systems, through DRE. 

The government will back a market-oriented framework to attract the private sector for development and deployment of DRE livelihood applications, provide easy access to end-user finance, introduce standards, monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. The draft allows assessment of demand for the DRE deployment to map needs of beneficiaries. MNRE will develop a list of DRE livelihood applications in consultation with stakeholders, which will be updated regularly, the draft says.

The distributed solar products rural market such as solar lanterns, pump sets and mini-grids was estimated to grow to ₹10,117 crore by 2023 before the outbreak of COVID-19. It is now facing a financial crunch. The draft policy is open for comments till November 2, 2020.

Solar manufacturers get another exemption from Indian Standards certification  

The Centre has extended exemption of Bureau of indian Standards certification of solar module manufacturers with production capacity of less than 50 MW. Mercom reported that nearly 80 module manufacturers in the country have a production capacity under 50 MW. The extension was announced in view of COVID-19 crisis. The domestic solar lobby asked the government to exempt the BIS certification for as long as their International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) certificates are valid.

The government said once the IEC certificates expire, manufacturers are expected to register under the BIS mandatorily. Domestic manufacturers complain that acquiring BIS certificates slows down the pace of adopting new technology. Mercom reported that BIS has not issued registration certificates for imported modules since July 2020.

India’s rooftop solar installations grew despite COVID-19, thanks to state schemes

Solar rooftop capacity grew despite COVID-19 restrictions, but new large-scale solar PV volumes shrank well short of estimated 7-8 GW.  India added around 2.32 GW of solar capacity in the first nine months of this year. The projection was made before COVID-19 restrictions surfaced. According to a JMK Research study that cited official data, the new generation capacity included 1,437 MW of ground-mounted projects and 883 MW of rooftop solar.  

However, rooftop installations appear to have maintained momentum despite coronavirus lockdowns, with Gujarat accounting for 43% of new systems, PV-Magazine reported. 

According to official data, Rajasthan led the way for large-scale PV this year, with 360 MW of new capacity, closely followed by Tamil Nadu (341 MW). In the rooftop solar sector, Gujarat topped with 380 MW of new systems thanks to effective state schemes, particularly the Surya Urja Rooftop Yojana program, which targets rooftop generation for 8 lakh residential consumers by March 2022. The scheme offers a 40% state subsidy for systems with a generation capacity of up to 3 KW.

Study: India should adopt indexed solar tariffs to ease discom dues, hasten coal exit

To ease the mounting payment dues of discoms and hasten early closure of end-of-life coal plants, the government should adopt an indexed renewable energy tariff structure that would save discoms up to ₹21,880 crore (US$3 billion) over the next five years, according to a joint report by IEEFA and CEEW. 

The report proposed a lower first-year tariff of ₹2/kWh, which would rise at a predetermined index rate (below the inflation rate) for the first 15 years, and then remain flat at the year-15 rate for the balance 10-year power purchase agreement (PPA) life. According to the authors, front-ending renewable energy tariffs at parity with the prevailing variable charge for coal-fired power would help discoms to hasten the switch from polluting coal to RE.

The report states that a thermal tariff of Rs4/KWh, discoms pay Rs2/KWh of fixed capacity charge for the contracted capacity in the PPA–even if no power is drawn from the plant. The remaining ₹2/KWh is the variable charge (landed fuel cost + production costs), which is paid for every unit of power drawn from the plant. The report noted that the need for indexed tariff over flat solar tariffs to displace coal would taper off by 2025-26 as flat solar tariffs would decline below ₹2.00/kWh levels.

Australia pushes mega $36 billion renewable energy, hydrogen project 

Australia will fast-track the Asian Renewable Energy Hub (AREH), a $36 billion project that aims to initially build 15 GW of power capacity and eventually expand to 26 GW. The country will grant it the tag of “major project status” which at full capacity, could generate up to 100 terawatt hours a year. 

Australia generated 265 terawatt hours last year. The site is 6,500 square kilometres, more than double the size of Luxembourg, in the arid Pilbara region. Australia expected the project to export at scale and also provide for industries in the region. 

The project has switched from a plan to produce wind and solar power and transmit it to Asia, to a plan to use clean power to split water and produce hydrogen and then ammonia for export, Reuters reported.

China’s Envision Energy commissions 40 MW wind farm in France  

Chinese turbine maker Envision Energy announced wind energy projects in France. The company commissioned a 40-MW wind farm, located in the French region of Burgundy-Franche-Comte, and announced another project in France. The group developed Entre Tille et Venelle through its French subsidiary Velocita Energies. With 16 units of EN131-2.5MW turbines installed, the project represents the first deployment of Envision’s hardware in France.

Envision Energy has designed and adapted the turbines specifically for the Burgundy-Franche-Comte region and spaced them more than 900 metres (2,953 ft) from any home, which is nearly twice the 500-metre regulatory distance. The project will generate 107 GWh of power per year, or enough to meet annual electricity needs of 50,000 people.

Electric Vehicles

Throwing open possibilities: Foxconn's customisable MIH platform could lower EV prices by offering a simple framework on which to build newer software and hardware configurations | Photo: Auto Evolution

Foxconn developing “the Android of electric vehicles”

Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group is reportedly developing a new software and hardware platform for electric vehicles that will be customisable to meet different automakers’ unique designs. Dubbed the “MIH” platform by the popular manufacturer of iPhones, it is being touted as the “Android of electric vehicles” in reference to Google’s Android operating system — which dominates smartphone interfaces and offers significant scope for customisation

The platform, if widely adopted, could help lower EV manufacturers’ product development costs as a flexible hardware and software platform could be tweaked to incorporate successive iterations, instead of having to develop vehicles from the ground up. Foxconn says the MIH platform was conceived not just for profit, but also to accelerate the global electric mobility transition. 

GM resurrects Hummer in all-electric, 350 mile-range avatar

General Motors (GM) has resurrected the gas-guzzling Hummer SUV with an all-electric drivetrain, and each of the vehicle’s four models will come equipped with battery packs capable of driving 350 miles or more on a single charge. The Hummer was discontinued in 2010 as its enormously heavy body and large engine gave it one of the worst fuel efficiencies of all SUVs on sale at the time. 

The electric iteration will have zero on-road emissions, will be able to be charged to full capacity in less than 40 minutes and will enter production in late 2021 with GM’s Ultium battery technology. The automaker has claimed that its Ultium EV batteries will last for more than a million miles under real-world driving conditions. 

More than 50% of children in the UK want parents to buy electric cars or hybrids

Around 67.8% of the 1,250 children between the ages of seven and 12 responded to a survey by Peugeot by saying that they believed “electric and hybrid vehicles were better for the planet”, and over half of the parents surveyed said their children have urged them to opt for these vehicles for their next purchase. The survey also revealed that 72% of the parents in the UK consulted with their children when deciding about major new purchases, such as a car, which could be a positive sign for the country’s e-mobility targets.

Fossil Fuels

Doesn't work: Glencore CEO Ivan Glasenberg says allowing disinvested coal mines to be picked up Chinese buyers to only burn more coal would be pointless when it comes to curtailing emissions | Photo: Bloomberg

Glencore chief says there is “no point” in divesting from coal mines

Ivan Glasenberg, the CEO of Anglo-Swiss mining giant Glencore, has dismissed the industry trend of divesting from coal mines, saying that the actions were pointless as it would do nothing to curb coal’s Scope 3 emissions (emissions from a miner’s customers burning a fuel). The CEO has claimed that the divestments would merely allow Chinese firms to buy the mines and burn the fuel under less stringent emission standards, which would be counterproductive to the intention behind the divestments.

He has instead offered that the mines be run down and repurposed to extract nickel, cobalt and copper, which are increasingly more valuable to the electric vehicle industry. Glencore is currently reviewing its plans for thermal coal and is committed to reducing its Scope 3 emissions by 30% by 2035. 

IFC indirectly finances new coal plant despite new directive 

The International Financial Corporation (IFC) is reported to have indirectly financed the 2,000 MW Java coal plant in Banten, Indonesia, despite its recently released directive that prohibits its equity stake in financiers that support new coal capacities. The directive is part of the IFC’s Green Equity Approach (GEA), but its partner bank in the south Asian country, Hana Indonesia, has financed the $3.5 billion plant despite a Greenpeace report suggesting that it would cause 4,700 premature deaths over 30 years and release 250 million tonnes of CO2 over 25 years. 

Interestingly, Hana Indonesia is 70% owned by Hana Korea, which is one of the several South Korean banks financing new coal projects outside of the country, even as it tries to phase out coal power from within its borders and bring in more renewable energy. IFC, meanwhile, has said that it was in talks with Hana Indonesia “to better understand its recent lending activities”, and will most likely revise the GEA in 2021 to eliminate any loopholes that allow for new coal financing. 

India: Coal minister proposes Coal India units set prices independently to drive competition

Indian coal minister Pralhad Joshi has proposed that the seven units of Coal India Ltd. (CIL) set their prices of the fuel independently to drive competition amongst themselves and improve the efficiency of operations. The minister’s decision is aimed at discovering the least cost of coal through a competitive mechanism — at the moment each unit sets its prices in consultation with a number of stakeholders — but CIL’s board is yet to be consulted and an agreement may not be guaranteed. 

CIL is currently targeting an increase in annual output to one billion tonnes of coal every year by 2024, but demand for the fuel has been flagging amidst poor power requirements during the lockdown and the mounting financial losses for coal power generators. The country’s recent auction of 38 coal mines also drew a tepid response despite the Centre’s best efforts. 

French government halts Engie’s US LNG deal over environmental concerns

The government of France has halted a deal between Engie, its multifaceted energy utility, and NextDecade Co. of the US over a LNG import contract over the environmental concerns surrounding fracking and shale gas. The $7 billion dollar deal is part of the US’s strategy to promote natural gas as the preferred fuel for the world market, but lax emission standards at its fracking sites have raised concerns for the French government, which under President Emanuelle Macron is pursuing minimal to zero carbon emissions from all new power projects.

However, the deal may yet go through if the US elects Joe Biden as its next president. Biden has been vocal about instituting strict emission standards for the natural gas industry — which could find favour with the French government. 

ONGC wins seven new oil and gas blocks under OLAP’s latest round of bidding

India’s largest oil and gas explorer, Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), has won seven out of the 12 blocks put up for bidding under the Centre’s latest iteration of the Open Acreage Licensing Policy (OLAP). The bidding was for blocks spread out over 19,800 sq km and was conducted under new rules approved for the policy, which now allow drillers the license for maximum exploration. Previously, the bids were awarded based on which bidder offered the maximum share of its extracts to the Centre — which suggests that the new rules are in place to maximise India’s hydrocarbon output.