Policy can be perverse. This much we know. What we should be amazed about is how policy can be counterproductive, retrograde and deadly, but still remain undisclosed and undiscussed. But what am I ranting about, you would ask? Allow me to take you through my journey over the last few months, all to unravel a key cause of air pollution.
Some months ago, sitting in a meeting of solar energy entrepreneurs, I heard them say that concentrated solar power (CSP) plants were not viable. But why? After all, solar prices have crashed and government is keen to subsidise and incentivise this growth of clean energy. Yes, solar prices have crashed, but so have prices of oil, and today, cheap furnace oil (FO) use is growing. FO is a bottom of the barrel product—it is the last grade of oil that refineries produce; it is high in sulphur and so is highly polluting. This issue rankled me as Delhi slipped into its worst pollution episode. We choked, suffocated and could not breathe. Could FO be one of the causes of pollution?
So, I asked: is FO being used in Delhi or in its vicinity? What is the quality of FO? Who uses it and for what? Suddenly, it seemed that the answers dried up. It was literally a black hole. What was clear was that way back in 1996, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (the city’s pollution control agency) had notified a list of “acceptable fuels”. This did not include FO, but it did say that fuel with low sulphur—in those defined as 18,000 parts per million (ppm) of sulphur (today diesel has 50 ppm of sulphur)—could be used.