Sasan’s Shadow: An Ultra Mega Power Project’s Dark Side

PWR_100116_Sasan_Splash   For all its record-breaking achievements for speed, innovation, and efficiency, the 3,960-MW Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project should have been a POWER Top Plant. But the unique project has been plagued by serious setbacks—including loss of life—that show how perilous the plant construction journey can be.

A decade ago, India was suffering a power crisis so dire that only 56% of households in the country with a population of 1.1 billion had connections to the grid. (Today, it’s 81%; see this issue’s “THE BIG PICTURE: Still in the Dark” in the Global Monitor department.) Where electricity was available, power cuts were routine, and Indian industry, so used to failings of the national grid, was forced to build its own “captive” generating plants. In 2005, gripped by the prospect of a widening chasm between demand and supply (at the time, demand exceeded supply by 12.1%), India’s central government set ambitious targets to add 100 GW of new generating capacity over the next 10 years to fuel its surging economy.

One of its most formidable ventures to boost this virtual doubling of generating capacity was the introduction of ultra mega power projects (UMPPs). Backed by the Ministry of Power and the Central Electricity Authority, the program consisted of two stages. First, it tasked the state-owned Power Finance Corp. (PFC) with setting up subsidiaries known as “special purpose vehicles” (SPVs) to procure land, water, and environmental clearances as well as power purchase agreements and to allocate coal blocks to fuel a dozen planned 4-GW UMPPs scattered around the country. Secondly, the government invited private companies to bid competitively to acquire an SPV based on the lowest “levelized” tariff to be charged for electricity.

In February 2006, the PFC established Sasan Power Ltd. to develop, own, and maintain a UMPP in Singrauli, a district in the central state of Madhya Pradesh. Historically, the region had been covered in forests so dense and wild that it was used as an open-air prison by the maharajas of the neighboring Rewa region. Since construction of a large dam in the 1950s that formed a sizable artificial lake, the Govind Ballabh Pant Sagar Lake Reservoir, and the discovery of rich coal deposits spread over 2,200 square kilometers of nearby land, Singrauli has been transformed into an energy hub. Owing to its proximity to an abundance of coal and water, today the region has an operating power capacity of more than 10 GW—mostly from coal-fired plants, and projects of up to 15 GW are under construction.

Reliance Power (then known as Reliance Energy Ltd.), the power-generating arm of conglomerate Reliance Group, ultimately acquired Sasan Power in August 2007 at a levelized tariff of 1.196 rupees/kWh (about $0.026/kWh at the time). That year, Reliance also snapped up SPVs and related assets for another UMPP: the 4-GW Krishnapatnam project planned for Andhra Pradesh state. And in 2009, it won rights to set up the Tilaiya UMPP in Jharkhand state.

Tilaiya was canceled last year, owing to inordinate delays in land acquisition. As Reliance told POWER, the Krishnapatnam UMPP is also in regulatory limbo. The project was to depend on imported coal from Indonesia, but following rule changes, the price of that coal has shot up. “The company has moved Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC) for [a tariff revision], citing ‘force majeure.’ The matter is subjudice,” the company said, declining to comment further.

Sasan, on the other hand, was fully commissioned by April 2015—a stunning 12 months ahead of schedule.

A Project of National Significance

Putting Sasan online on schedule was a matter of “national importance,” Reliance said, as it would benefit 350 million people in seven Indian states and territories: Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Uttarakhand.

Project construction officially kicked off in 2009. Reliance’s construction arm, Reliance Infrastructure Ltd. (RINFRA), won the engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contract. RINFRA then appointed consultants such as Black & Veatch, HOK, Toshiba Power Systems, and Indian engineering firms Development Consultants Private Ltd. and STUP, among others, to design and develop the project.

The project’s major equipment was sourced from a number of entities (Table 1) from around the world.

PWR_100116_Sasan_Table1

Table 1. Sasan Ultra Mega Power Plant’s major equipment suppliers. Courtesy: Reliance Infrastructure

Today, the UMPP is a 3,960-MW supercritical coal-fired power plant consisting of six 660-MW units and two government-allocated coal mines located about 12.4 miles away from the power plant. The project and associated coal mines account for nearly 10,000 acres of land, of which nearly 7,000 acres is for the mining operation. That makes it one of the biggest integrated coal mine and power projects at a single location in the world.

Among the project’s most remarkable attributes is that it transports coal to the power plant from the coal mines via a 9-mile-long overland conveyor belt (Figure 1). Reliance noted that the single flight conveyor system “has a higher reliability, longer service life, [it is] compatible for rough terrain, and it requires lower human interface” than the alternatives.

PWR_100116_Sasan_Fig1

1. Coal belt. Coal from two mines leased from India’s government is transported to the 3,960-MW Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project via a 9-mile-long conveyor belt that crosses rough terrain and rivers. The overland conveyor includes head tail drives and two horizontal curves. Courtesy: Reliance Infrastructure

The plant also uniquely uses fiber-reinforced plastic (FRP) cooling towers, and it has one of the largest FRP towers in the world, according to its manufacturer, Hamon Shriram Cottrell, a joint venture between Belgium’s Hamon Group and India’s Shriram Industrial Holdings.

By the time the project was deemed complete, it had achieved several “firsts” for an Indian power plant:

■ It was the first time in the country that boiler light-up for steam blowing was done with coal firing instead of oil.

■ It clocked the country’s fastest hydro test to identify leaks of the boiler.

It achieved commissioning of five 660-MW units within 12 months—the fastest in the country. Four units were synchronized to the grid in a record eight months’ time.

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