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Diesel,the alternative source of power: Cheap and handy,yet hazardous

Diesel generators are being used more and more frequently amid shortage of power.

Written by Archna Shukla | New Delhi | Published: June 29, 2012 12:47:02 am

The operators of commercial spaces such as malls,shops and other such establishments in Uttar Pradesh have won their supposed fight for customers’ right to shop and spend leisure time in a comfortable environment. Having asked such establishments to down their shutters after 7pm in the wake of an acute power shortage,the UP government has revoked that order and allowed these establishments to run using alternative power generation sources.

Of the alternative sources of power generation in the country,the most commonly used happens to be diesel generators. DG sets,as they are usually known,have become a common phenomenon across the country,particularly across the urban centres of development such as housing societies boasting 24×7 power backup,large well-heeled independent households,malls,multiplexes,big and small shops and even nursing homes in and around residential areas. Among the largest users of DG sets,however,are the mobile phone towers spread across the urban as well as rural landscape. “India is increasingly getting dieselised,” says Anumita Roychowdhury,an executive director at the Centre for Science and Environment,a Delhi-based,non-profit advocacy group.

Data from the petroleum ministry reveals that after vehicles and the farming community,the largest amount of diesel is being guzzled by DG sets installed by establishments such as those mentioned above. At 7 per cent,DG sets’ share in the diesel consumption pie may seem small in comparison with other segments such as transport (63 per cent) and farming (17 per cent) but it is a newer phenomenon and one that is growing fast.

The DG sets market is largely unorganised,but it is estimated that sales of such sets are growing at more than 25 per cent per year. Estimates suggest that more than 2 lakh DG sets are sold annually for non-industrial power generation purposes alone. There are primarily two reasons for diesel gensets’ growing popularity in urban centres. One is the acute shortage of power resulting into outages lasting 4-10 hours a day. Secondly,being a subsidised fuel,diesel turns out to be a relatively cheap medium for power generation.

“Diesel is subsidised by the government for the benefit of the farming community and for cheaper transportation of essential goods but it is more than obvious that this subsidy is being abused,” says Sumit Sharma,a fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). A Greenpeace report,for instance,says that telecom operators and tower companies currently spend around Rs 12,600 crore annually on diesel generators to run their network operations and because of the subsidy of around 21% on diesel price,it translates into a loss of around Rs 2,600 crore to the government.

The use of diesel in gensets has a serious health implication,too. A WHO report released recently certified diesel fumes as a carcinogen. “The toxicity of diesel fumes has been confirmed beyond doubt after this report. It has been established now that diesel fumes cause cancer,especially lung cancer,” says CSE’s Roychowdhury. There have been no large-scale studies on how much the fumes generated by DG sets contribute to air pollution but a recent Bangalore-based study by TERI has found such sets to be the largest source of toxic gases after the transport segment. “The study reveals that in Bangalore,diesel gensets have been the biggest source of nitrogen dioxide emissions after vehicles,” says Sharma.

According to CSE,the European Union has set a benchmark of 10-15 parts per million of sulphur in diesel emission,whereas in India this ranges from 300 to 350 parts per million. “The transport sector remains the largest source of diesel fumes but at least we have well-defined emission norms for vehicles. In case of diesel gensets,even that is an issue,” says Roychowdhury. “Besides,gensets in housing societies,malls and in and around residential areas are in the close breathing range of the population.”

Experts say that a lack of well-defined manufacturing and installation standards on DG sets,emission norms,their constant monitoring and inspection makes the scenario even more challenging. “The WHO report is a wake-up call for the country especially as it concerns the basic health of people whose economic growth we seem to be celebrating,” says Roychowdhury.

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