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No coal shortage? Palpable signs of fast brewing crisis in India's power sector

By Shankar Sharma*
The national media during the last few weeks have carried very many news items on the coal supply crises and the consequent impact on the power sector in the country. Whereas the concerned authorities are trying to take a brave stand that there is no shortage of coal, the media reports from various states obviously indicate otherwise and also as a good indicator of serious issues for the power sector, and hence for the entire country.
It will be unwise to say that the views expressed in the news articles are portraying a false and unsubstantiated picture of power sector concerns in India? One news report says:
“Amid power outages in several states -- including Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh -- caused by critically low coal stocks at majority of thermal power plants, electricity demand in the country is set to rise further. Total electricity crunch in India hit around 105 million units (MU) on April 27, with power supply shortage peaking at about 7,681 MW.
“A spike in the international coal prices has led to a number of thermal power plants, which use imported coal, stopping supply, and thereby putting increasing pressure on domestic coal-fired plants. India has about 16.7 GW of imported coal-based thermal power generation capacity, of which around 6.7 GW is currently not operational, according to government data.
“The unavailability of sufficient railway rakes to transport domestic coal to thermal power plants has added to the issue, leading to 86 of 150 thermal plants, powered by domestic coal, having critically low levels of stock. ‘Thermal power plants across the country are grappling with coal shortages, indicatin
g a looming power crisis in the country’, the All India Power Engineers Federation said in a statement.”
Despite bold claims by authorities in some states, and even by the Union coal ministry that there is no coal shortage, there are palpable signs of fast brewing crises in the power sector. A news report has said: "Power Minister R K Singh tells states to step up coal imports for 3 years". 
After all, so many news reports cannot be based on entirely false readings of the power sector scenario. The concerns over the disruptions of energy supply from Russia due to the ongoing military operations in Ukraine are reported to have led to many kinds of crises across the globe.
Additionally, the unexpected power demand increases due to growing atmospheric temperature has also given rise to supply crises in many countries including China and India. It is unreasonable to expect India to be fully insulated from such global concerns.
Maharashtra Energy Minister Nitin Raut had earlier said that load shedding in the state was a result of an increase in electricity demand relaxation of the Covid-19 curbs, and blamed the Centre for poor management of coal supply.
It is dangerous for the true welfare of the country to dismiss so many media reports from across the country, as scare mongering or false. India's unsubstantiated/ irrational policies on energy related issues (there has been no diligently prepared national energy policy as yet), and/ or the lack of any cohesion in its energy related policies/ practices all these years despite a critical need for a diligently prepared national energy policy in the context of global climate emergency, will only worsen such concerns.
Unexpected power demand increases due to growing atmospheric temperature has given rise to supply crises
When we also objectively consider what policy initiatives are needed keeping in objective consideration our people's basic needs, constraints with regard to our natural resources, fast escalating threats of climate change, poor economics of the power sector as a whole, clear indicators from various sections of the civil society to apply urgent course corrections etc. it will not be an exaggeration to state that it is impossible to notice any coherence/ rationale in the power sector/energy sector policies in the country.
Without a diligently prepared national energy policy along with effective public consultations, these and many other concerns to our people will become acute, thereby pushing the nation to multiple crises in the medium/long term.
With such a propensity amongst our decision makers to continue with the business as usual (BAU) scenario and to continue with gross indifference towards the views of the civil society, it is impossible to imagine how the nation will progress towards sustainable development for all sections of our society.
Can we hope at least now, with the fast escalating power sector crises, that the NITI Aayog will seriously undertake all the necessary initiatives to urgently prepare and implement a credible national energy policy, keeping in view the long term welfare of our people and the growing threats of Climate Change?
The definitive indication of massive economic loss to the country, as much as 4% of its GDP due to Climate Change as per some projections, has made it imperative for our policy makers to review our recent past policies with all the seriousness they deserve as a top priority.

Temporary solutions

A recent article has highlighted a few problems for the ongoing power sector issues as in April 2022. But there is a lot more to it than a few temporary solutions as seem to be indicated in the article.  
It is techno-economically impossible to completely shock-proof a complicated and geographically vast power network, such as the one in India, which is only getting more and more complex with the passage of each year due to irrational policies at the national level.
Continuing with failed old policies, such as persisting with conventional technology power sources, such as coal and nuclear power plants, and ignoring the humongous potential available to our country in distributed kinds of renewable energy sources such as roof-top solar power, wind power, biomass and energy storage systems, while ignoring the true relevance of highest possible efficiencies, demand side management and energy conservation will only aggravate various concerns in the power sector, including the power disruptions.
In recent years even an advanced economy such as the US has seen an increasing number of annual outages.  It is reported that whereas between 1965 and 2000 there was on average one major blackout every two years, between 2001 and 2011 this figure was one major blackout every six months.  There have been examples of blackouts in other countries also.  Chronic deficit and/or poor management of the power demand/ supply situation in India can only aggravate the problem.  
Some of the major blackouts in recent history are:
(i)   Auckland, New Zealand (20.2.1998) affecting 70,000 people for four weeks;
(ii)  Brazil (11.03.1999) affecting 70% of the territory
(iii)  India (02.01.2001) affecting 220,000,000 people for 12 hours
(iv)  US (north-east) + Canada (central) (14.08.2003) affecting 50,000,000 people for four days
(v)   Italy (28.09.2003) affecting 56,000,000 people for 18 hours
(vi)  Spain (29.11.2004); 5 blackouts within 10 days affecting 2,000,000
(vii) South West Europe (parts of Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Spain and Portugal,
04.11.2006) affecting 15,000,000 for 2 hours
A high-level understanding of the modern integrated power grid should indicate that because of the increased complexity and the enormous power capacity being handled in such integrated networks, a fault in one part can spread out to other parts quickly, thereby affecting most parts, and leading to power outages for a number of hours, and even over few days as happened in the case of New Zealand in February 1998 and in the US and Canada in Aug. 2003. 
Under certain weather conditions such as freezing cold (as in Texas in 2021) and very hot conditions such prolonged power outages can also mean huge loss of life and property.  In the case of nuclear reactors such prolonged outages can also lead to poisoning of reactors and/or catastrophic radiation leakages, as happened in Fukushima (2011). 
In this larger context, and the fact that there are enormous societal costs associated with our continued obsession to invest in conventional technology based vast integrated grids, there is an imperative to diligently review the very need for such large size/ capacity integrated grid networks for a fast-emerging scenario wherein there is a credible scope for a very large number of small size renewable energy sources, such as rooftop SPV systems, connected to distribution networks. 
Question is whether our policy makers are inclined to consider initiatives to make future power demand/ supply scenario people centric
In view of the fact that distributed kinds of renewable energy sources will become a major part of the power system in the near future keeping in view the requirements due to threats of Climate Change, and that large size conventional technology power sources such as coal, gas and nuclear  power plants (and may be true with even the large size renewable energy plants such as solar power parks) may almost be completely eliminated in the next 3-4  decades, the very need for so much complexity because of so many power transmission lines at 66, 110, 220, 400, 765 kV, HVDC lines, and the associated T&D infrastructure should be subjected to diligent review at the national level.
In this regard, some of the measures which may become inevitable in the long term, and which may also turn out to be very beneficial to minimise the power disruptions, while enabling a most attractive techno-economic power demand/supply scenario for India are:
  • Reduced reliance on grid quality power, and do strengthen the relevance of micro / smart grids powered by distributed renewable energy sources (RES), energy storage battery systems, and suitably designed protection and communication systems.
  • Increased reliance on distributed kinds of renewable energy sources (REs): solar, wind, biomass, and energy storage facilities, which will not need high voltage lines or complex integrated grids.
  • Focus on the concept of a federation of micro/smart grids at the regional /national level connected to each other through distribution level voltage lines or only through a very few high voltage transmission lines.  
  • Shifting of all smaller loads onto distributed REs which are further supported through suitable energy storage facilities.
  • Focus on strengthening the local distribution system necessitating much higher efficiency, reliability & accountability; creating smart grids.
  • Effective feed-in- tariff for distributed power sources such as roof top solar power or community-based biomass plants etc. will lead to massively reduced investment by the state.
But the critical question is whether our policy makers, politicians and bureaucrats are inclined/ mandated to diligently consider such critical initiatives to make our future power demand/ supply scenario highly rational, people centric, environmentally friendly, and least vulnerable to massive power blackouts. 
Such a scenario will be feasible only through sustained pressure by civil society on our authorities to urgently start acting rationally, because the concerned authorities in India have not demonstrated the ability/ obligations to consider the overall welfare of our society as linked to the power sector, in the fast changing environmental, economic, technological and social circumstances. 
---
*Power & climate policy analyst based in Karnataka. Author's recent paper: How to minimise power blackouts

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