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India grapples with power crisis caused by erratic supply of coal

115 of the 135 thermal power plants tracked by the agency had less than a week's coal stock.
115 of the 135 thermal power plants tracked by the agency had less than a week's coal stock.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI/BANGALORE - Several Indian states have warned of potential power cuts as plants run low on coal, even as the central government claims adequate stocks are available.

While Punjab and Rajasthan carried out limited power cuts at the weekend, power suppliers in states such as Kerala and Andhra Pradesh warned citizens about scheduled cuts last week.

On Oct 9, Tata Power Delhi Distribution asked consumers in India's capital to use power "judiciously", citing depleting coal stocks.

Data from the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) released on Monday showed that 115 of the 135 thermal power plants tracked by the agency had less than a week's coal stock; 17 plants did not have enough even for a day. Government guidelines recommend utilities to hold at least two weeks supply.

Indian Minister of Coal Pralhad Joshi, however, claimed that Coal India, which accounts for more than 80 per cent of the domestic coal production, has "22 days of coal stock" and added that the supply situation was improving.

Coal accounts for around 70 per cent of India's electricity generation and this crisis underlines just how central the commodity remains in India's energy mix despite an enthusiastic push for renewables.

This crisis has been caused by a number of factors, including a sharper-than-anticipated rise in energy demand as the Indian economy regains momentum following the second pandemic wave in April and May.

India's power consumption returned to pre-pandemic levels in July and an analysis by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), a Delhi-based think-tank, showed that demand for power surged by 16 per cent between June and August this year, compared with just around 3 per cent in 2018 and less than 0.5 per cent in 2020 in the same period.

"Power utilities were caught off guard by this abnormal spike in demand," said Mr Karthik Ganesan, director for research coordination at CEEW. Increased production of coal and its dispatch to producers also failed to compensate for the increase in demand, he added.

This demand increase coincided with rising global coal prices leading to falling imports in India and greater reliance on domestic coal.

Data from the CEA showed that coal imports for the months between April and August this year were down by 16 per cent compared with the same period last year.

Plants that are based on imported coal or rely heavily on them contribute about 10 per cent of the total coal-based power generation in a year. This year, that has been around 7 per cent, according to CEEW.

India is the world's second-largest importer of coal despite having the fourth-largest coal reserves.

Indian coal has 25 per cent to 45 per cent ash content when burned for thermal power, making it more inefficient than coal imported from Indonesia that has 10 per cent to 20 per cent ash.

This year's heavy and prolonged monsoon has also affected domestic coal production, besides impeding the dispatch of coal from mines.

"This crisis is basically a problem created out of domestic conditions and seasonal quirks being exacerbated by the post-second wave recovery," added Mr Ganesan, who, however, expected the crisis to abate in the next fortnight or so with cooler temperatures ahead of the winter season.

The crisis has come despite an increase in coal output in India.

Between April and September 2020, the production was 282 million tonnes and it has risen by 12 per cent to 315 million tonnes this year.

"The shortage of coal is unbelievable and untrue," said lawyer and environmental activist Sudiep Shrivastava. He said India faced a coal supply - not coal production - crunch.

A Reuters report last month indicated that Coal India had rung alarm bells as early as February, warning the CEA of an impending coal shortage as power generation firms tapped into their existing inventories and curbed purchases even while producing more coal-fired power.

A recent government release acknowledged that power plants had failed to build up coal stocks the way they usually did ahead of the monsoon. Mr Shrivastava suggested this was because they were "perhaps anticipating a third wave of Covid-19 and depressed power demand".

The government-run Coal India has also stopped supplies to certain electricity distribution companies until they pay their dues.

Mr Shrivastava claimed that governments "tend to create bogeys of coal shortage" to create a conducive regulatory environment".

This time, he said, "India is finding excuses" to approve more coal blocks, sell domestic coal to privately owned mines at cheaper rates, further weaken forest protection norms to meet energy needs, and allow private players to acquire coal-rich lands before they compensate indigenous communities.

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