Power cuts across states amid coal supply crunch
To address the issue, the Union government cancelled 21 pairs of passenger trains (totalling 753 trips) till well into next month to make way for freight trains.
Parts of India faced blackouts ranging up to 10 hours on Thursday and Friday, and the crisis threatened to worsen with 100 out of the 165 operational coal plants in the country running at “critical level” of stocks, according to latest government data. The crisis is the culmination of variety of factors and lays bare the precarious logistics and the strained finances of India’s power sector, where many companies have run out of money to pay for replenishments or buy from the grid, or simply did not place orders on time.
The problem has been precipitated by an unrelenting surge in power demand due to a heatwave and the post-pandemic economic recovery, and is compounded by a lack of freight train wagons to carry the coal from mines to plants. And the situation has been exacerbated by maintenance work at many plants, reducing the capacity on offer.
The Union government attempted to address the distribution bottleneck by cancelling 21 pairs of passenger trains (totalling 753 trips) till well into next month to make way for freight trains.
“The primary reason this time is logistical or transportation issues. That is why the railways had to take additional measures by diverting passenger trains for coal supply,” said a power ministry official, who asked not to be named.
But, this person added, logistics is not the only reason, and there indeed is some shortage. “If we compare the coal stocks to the crisis we faced in October-November last year, the situation is better because coal production has increased by 27% this April compared to the same period last year. But, this time, the power demand has picked up sooner than usual due to the heatwave and supplies have not caught up,” this person said.
Several states such as Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh are opting for 8-10 hours of unscheduled power cuts, mostly in smaller towns and rural areas, officials in these states admitted. Many of them have blamed the shortage of rakes.
A railway ministry official, who asked not to be named, defended the number of train rakes being made available. “Power ministry asked for 421 rake from railways this year. Railways had given them around 411. But the issue is that loading and unloading is done by power plants, which is taking 10-15 days due to which rakes are not getting free,” said this person, asking not to be named. But there are reports that the demand is actually around 450 and only around 380 are being provided.
Data from Power System Operation Corporation (Posoco) showed that the peak power shortage on April 28, the last day for which information is available, rose more than 23 times to 10,778 megawatt (MW), compared to 450MW on the same day last year. On Friday, India’s power demand hit a new record of 207,000 MW. In terms of units, the shortage across the country in April has increased to 70 million units (MU) from just 14 MU in March.
The latest daily coal stock report by the Central Electricity Authority showed that as on April 28, 108 of the 173 coal-based power plants were at critical stock levels. The plants cite lack of available train rakes, inadequate payment, low quantity of supply from coal units, and delays in coal loading as reason for their dwindling reserves.
Critical coal stock level is defined as the state when reserves are less than 25% of the volumes normally kept.
The power ministry official said that power companies in several states are seemingly resorting to load-shedding for cost-cutting. “All generation and distribution companies can buy spot power (short-term) from the power exchange (the grid) to meet demand in such exigencies. But, in several cases, power utilities, state-run and private, are not buying on-the-spot electricity from the exchange due to high costs and are rather resorting to load shedding (scheduled power cuts)”.
“Companies are also profiteering by selling spot power, bypassing the exchange through direct negotiations which is not right,” the person added.
On Thursday, power secretary Alok Kumar said there was still up to 5,000 MW power available in the Central pool, but no state has placed any request so far.
Heat wave conditions have resulted in temperatures touching 47 degrees Celsius in some parts of the country and April is set to be one of the hottest April since 1951, Till April 27, the average maximum temperature for the month was the 12th highest.
With the temperatures rising across India, the peak power demand has risen by up to 50% in some states such as Punjab. As compared to last year, the overall electricity demand is India has risen by around 10%. In Rajasthan, where the power demand has increased by 32% as compared to same period last year, power distribution companies are resorting to power cuts of six to nine hours.
State government officials admitted that some rural areas were witnessing longer outages due to local technical faults.
Experts agreed with the assessment that while there is a significant distribution bottleneck, the resulting shortage is not as bad as those seen in the past – and that the crisis is triggered largely due to the surge in demand.
“As the summer approaches, the demand for power increases as economic activity expands, and air conditioning and irrigation needs in summer reach their peak. However, coal inventories at power plants are tight, at 9 days of stock on average, which is higher than the low levels of 4 days reached in October 2021 but less than half of the 17 days normally held at this time (mid-April). Out of 173 thermal plants, around 100 hold less than 25 % of normal coal inventory,” said Ravi Singh, vice president and head of research, ShareIndia.
RK Singh, the union power minister told reporters on Thursday that electricity shortages are primarily happening because states have not paid their dues to Coal India and are unable to lift allocated coal on time.
(With inputs from Rajeev Jayaswal)