Skip to main content

Whither climate goal? Increasing reliance on coal 'likely to worsen' India's power crisis

By Shankar Sharma* 

Recent news articles, How to shock-proof India’s power sector and Power minister points finger at states for worsening electricity crisis, have highlighted a few current problems for the ongoing power sector issues as in April 2022.
However, there is a lot more to it than a few temporary solutions as indicated in the articles. It should also be emphasised that it is techno-economically impossible to completely shock-proof a highly complex and geographically wide-spread 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 some irrational policies/ practices in the sector.
A business-as-usual (BAU) scenario, wherein more and more of conventional technology power plants, including coal power plants, will be added in the near future, will also necessitate the increased complexity in the integrated national grid, and as a result the instances of power shortage/ disruptions can only escalate for various inherent reasons.
When we also objectively consider the current power sector crises, including that of widely reported coal supply constraints, associated power cut reports from across the country, and the ever increasing financial woes of power companies, these should indicate very chronic and multiple concerns in the power sector of the country, which have been going on since many years. It is deplorable that the successive governments have not considered it necessary to address them effectively and urgently.
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, along with an ever growing complexity of the national grid, as we are experiencing currently, can only aggravate the associated problems.
Whereas, it will be too simplistic a view to associate all the current and ongoing power sector woes to the policies and practices of individual states alone, and/or to coal supply shortages, and multiple international crises, what is urgently needed is to take a holistic and critical review of all the associated factors of true relevance to our own communities in India, and arrive at a rational, sustainable and techno-economically robust model of demand/ supply for electricity/energy in the country, especially in the context of the looming threats of Climate Change.
When we also take into cognisance the socio-economic impacts of suddenly cancelling hundreds of passenger trains to make way for hundreds of additional coal rakes, as reported widely in the national media as in two web links below, even the most optimistic observer of the Indian power sector may start getting worried about our future.
The kind of power disruption concerns due to inadequate supply of coal to power plants has been there for many years now, and can only get worse with more and more coal power plants coming up in different parts of the country, most of them being far away from the coal fields. The associated infrastructure related issues for transportation of coal and water to these power plants cannot be much better than what they are now, for the simple reason that these infrastructures are already stretched to limits, and hence it will be unrealistic to expect better days for our coal power plants. Even without taking into consideration the ever growing urgency to minimise our fossil fuel burning in order to contain global warming, it is already clear that it is not in the true interest of our people to continue to rely on coal power due to various technical and social reasons alone.
If we also objectively consider various urgent needs associated with Climate Change, the enormity of the folly in continuing with a BAU scenario should become evident. If more states without their own coal reserve, such as Karnataka, are allowed/ encouraged to set up more coal power plants, the coal supply scenario to such power plants can never be satisfactory, and the supply scenario to even the older power plants cannot be anything better than what it is now. Hence, the continued obsession of our policy makers to over-rely on coal power will only exacerbate the multiple concerns for society with respect to the power sector.
In the larger context of many such national level issues, it is impossible to see any true relevance to the welfare of all sections of our society in most of the associated policies/ practices in the electricity/ energy sector, when we also objectively take into account our own experiences since independence and the inescapable need to contain the calamitous impacts of Climate Change.
It should be totally unacceptable that our country's welfare needs are being projected as intricately linked to the continued over-reliance on conventional technology power sources, such as fossil fuels, nuclear and dam based hydro, against all wisdoms associated with global climate emergency. It should not be difficult even for a non-professional to easily link various woes of our electricity/ energy sector to such unsubstantiated /irrational policies/ practices.
Obsession of policy makers to over-rely on coal power will exacerbate the multiple concerns for society with respect to the power sector
In these troubling times, it has become imperative to take a holistic view of the entire electricity/ energy sector from the true welfare perspective of our communities. Salient features of Indian Power Sector which are contributing to chronic power shortages, or frequent blackouts, or overall inefficiency can be listed as:
  • Over-reliance on conventional technology (coal, nuclear and dam based hydro) power sources concentrated in few areas; they require massive and complex infrastructure for transportation of fuel and/or transmission of electricity over long distances;
  • Complete absence of a holistic approach / long term perspective of how many of such transmission lines/ schemes may become redundant in the near future due to massive increase in the capacity of renewable energy sources, especially of distributed kinds;
  • Gross inefficiency at all levels of the power sector; true costs to the society of various power plant technologies are never determined, and hence, not recovered fully;
  • A diligent consideration of environmental, social, economic, technological and logistical aspects of additional power plants/ infrastructure is totally absent, despite periodical reports from civil society groups on the grave threats of such a poor approach to a hugely populous and resource constrained country;
  • Transmission lines are being built even through forests and wildlife sanctuaries; they are being even for small habitats in forests which can be satisfactorily fed by solar/ biomass technologies deployed locally;
  • Many states and regions are known to have excess transmission capacity (as a recent report of CAG shows for Karnataka);
  • Substantial number of power plants are found to be operating below their capacity/ efficiently; about 30- 40 GW of thermal power plants are found to be financially NPAs; has resulted in enormous financial burden on the society;
  • Discernible absence of concern on overall welfare needs of our people in the associated policy/ planning decisions; focused only on producing/ consuming more and more electricity instead of the consideration of overall need/ welfare of the country;
  • Mostly new merchant power plants for profit motive are being planned/ built without due diligence, and against the society's concerns; many of them are soon turning to be financially NPAs;
  • True costs and benefits to society of conventional power plants and the associated infrastructure never determined; enormous benefits of distributed kinds of renewable electricity sources and the associated infrastructure not adequately appreciated;
  • Rehabilitation & Resettlement of the displaced people and environmental compliance has been abysmally poor; insensitivity to civil society’s needs/ views; complete absence of effective public consultation leading to serious issues to our communities.
In the context of these chronic problems, it should become evidently clear that a BAU scenario with over-reliance on coal, nuclear and dam based power plants will not be in the true interest of our people, and the same will also go against the critical needs of the Climate Change perspective.
A sustainable, techno-economically attractive, and people friendly model for demand/ supply of electricity for our country, both in the near-term and long-term, should be based on few strategic approaches:
  • Reduced focus for providing integrated grid quality power to every category of consumers, and to 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 many high voltage lines or complex integrated grids;
  • Focus on the concept of a federation of micro/ smart grids at the district/ state/ regional /national level connected to each other through distribution level voltage lines or very few high voltage transmission lines, and supported by suitably designed protection and communication systems;
  • Shifting of all smaller and non-critical loads on to distributed REs supported by micro/ smart grids, which are further supported through suitable energy storage facilities;
  • Vastly increased focus on strengthening the local distribution systems, necessitating much higher efficiency, reliability & accountability; creation of smart and operationally efficient/ accountable local grids, and managed by locals largely through locally available resources;
  • 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, and enable much more public participation as prosumers;
  • Deploy effective decision making tools such as 'costs-benefits analysis' and 'options analysis' to determine the best technological option to meet every additional power demand more than 1 - 2 MW.
Can the people of our country hope, at least in 2022, that all the enabling policies and practices at the national level are developed and implemented soon, through tools such as a diligently prepared National Energy Policy, so as to satisfactorily address all the above discussed concerns for our people?
Without such concerted efforts, and without effectively involving various stakeholder groups, the electricity/ energy sector will continue to face more acute problems, thereby thrusting a scary future on our communities.
*Power & Climate Policy Analyst. This article is based on the author’s representation to RK Singh, Union Minister for Power and Renewable Energy



Economist-editor's allegations on Narmada defamatory, baseless: Medha Patkar

Counterview Desk  In a reply directly addressed to well-known economist, journalist and columnist Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar’s two articles in the Times of India (republished here and here ), calling them defamatory and wondering whether they were borne out of “ignorance or a conspiracy through political alliance”, Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Pakar has said that the Narmada Sardar Saravar Project and the people's movement by adivasis, farmers, labourers, fish workers, potters and all the generations’ old communities from the river valley have suddenly come to be focused on, since the Gujarat elections are in the doorstep. She believes that while the “defamatory accusations with baseless conceptions such as ‘urban naxals’ are to be laughed at as the electoral strategic moves, one gets shocked to read the articles by a known old columnist like Swaminathan Ankalesaria Aiyar, published in a reputed daily like the Times of India." According to her, Aiyar’s two articl

Hindutva groups threat to peace, freedom: US diaspora groups tell FBI, other govt depts

By Our Representative  The Islamophobic and neo-Nazi ideology of Hindutva is a clear and present danger to peace and freedoms in the United States, a coalition of civil rights organizations told key officials of the U.S. Attorney General’s Office, the US Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at a recent event in Edison, New Jersey. At the event titled United Against Hate, activists from American Muslims for Democracy (AMD), Hindus for Human Rights (HfHR) and Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC) made detailed presentations on this ideology of Hindu supremacism that is committing mass persecution of India’s Muslims and Christians and is rearing its ugly head in New Jersey as well as across the US. Attending the event were David S Leonardis, Special Investigator from the New Jersey Department of Law & Public Safety; Michael E Campion, Chief of the Civil Rights Division for the US Attorney General's Office; and Jonathan R Norbut of the U.S. Dep

Facing tough times, Rajasthan's Raika herders hold first-ever camel cheese festival

By Rosamma Thomas*  During the pandemic, the annual Pushkar camel fair in Rajasthan did not occur for fear of contagion; in 2022, it was called off again as lumpy skin disease affected cattle. At Sadri in Pali district, however, festivity continues – a two-day Camel Cheese Festival was held on November 23 and 24, 2022. Visitors spent time with the camel herds and their Raika, drank camel-milk tea with the herders and then returned to lunch at the Kumbhalgarh Camel Dairy, from where the Kumbhalgarh Fort is visible, to taste camel cheese. The Raika herders have been facing a tough time – camels are no longer used as much for transport or agriculture in Rajasthan. The animals have limited utility, but their milk is prized. Camel Charisma, the dairy at Kumbhalgarh, sends camel milk across the country to people who use it in therapy – for autistic children, improved blood sugar levels, or even to treat cancer. It is believed that the health benefits of the camel milk is because the animals

As polls approach, electorate 'failing to realise': Gujarat model is in a shambles

By DN Rath*  Gujarat assembly elections, scheduled to be held on 1 and 5 December 2022, is viewed by many as dress rehearsal for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. When the suffering people have been pointing towards redressal of some local issues like absence of cleanliness, sewage problem, shortage of water supply, troubles created by stray cattle, insufficiency of streetlights, etc., it is evident that they are not fully aware that assembly elections are being fought on ideological standpoints and policy decisions. Nor is there the realisation that the state is in a shambles and the much-trumpeted ‘Gujarat model’ of development has proved to be a hoax. Like other states, the people of Gujarat are also back-broken by steep rise in prices to the tune of 400% in last 20 years. It is not that the government cannot control the spurt in prices if it so wants. Apart from the fact that price rise is an inevitability in a capitalist economy, artificial shortage triggered by massive hoarding, b

Shedding Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan? New Modi-Shah love for Tamil Nadu 'ignores' Periyar

By Sandeep Pandey*   The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) or the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) have long argued for ‘Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan’, which into recent years has translated into a crisper English expression: ‘One Nation-One Religion-One Language’. Given this backdrop, it is curious that the BJP government has organised the Kashi Tamil Sangamam in Varanasi, the Prime Minister’s constituency. Why did the BJP and RSS feel the need for such an event? All Narendra Modi events are highly publicised and have multiple political objectives. It is never an innocuous religious/cultural event as it may appear from the face of it. Afterall, RSS calls itself a cultural organisation, but has never ceased to surprise us with its political designs. Tamil Nadu has a long history of opposing imposition of Hindi by Union governments. Periyar EV Ramasamy had opposed the idea of compulsory teaching in Hindi as far back as in 1937. The 1960s witnessed violent protests against Hindi in which a number

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

GM mustard not swadeshi, it's a patent of MNC Bayer, GoI 'misleading' SC: Modi told

Counterview Desk  In a representation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as many as 42 farmers’ organisations though their representatives , backed by senior scientists and experts, have said that the Government of India (GoI) should stop misleading the Supreme Court “with untrue and incorrect” statements on GM mustard. Insisting that India does not need unsafe GM mustard, in their representation, they urged the Supreme Court to order immediate uprooting of GM mustard crop in various locations. The representation comes even as a penal of experts, coming down heavily on the GoI for refusing to see how in less than a week’s time the pollen from GM mustard will “start contaminating” non-GM mustard fields with transgenes, including male sterility and herbicide tolerant traits. Alleging that the GoI is actively misleading the Supreme Court with untrue and incorrect statements on GM mustard, Kavitha Kuruganti of the Coalition for a GM-Free India said, “We can list at least five areas where Gov

BJP poll gimmick? Bilkis Bano rape case 'pardon' vs Rajiv assassins' release

By Sandeep Pandey*  Supreme Court has released six convicts in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. This was bound to happen as earlier AG Perarivalan was released in the same case, setting a precedent. Even though four of them are Sri Lankans but a popular Tamil sentiment favoured the release of these convicts which is why Tamil political parties supported this and resolutions were passed by different governments in Tamil Nadu to his effect.  Rajiv Gandhi paid the price of sending Indian Peace Keeping Force to Sri Lanka where it got entangled with Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and eventually the whole operation ended up is a fiasco.  However, most importantly Sonia and Priyanka Gandhi and probably Rahul too do not have any objections to the release of these convicts. In fact, Sonia Gandhi played an important role in getting the death sentence of the only lady among the convicts Nalini commuted to life term through the Tamil Nadu Governor. Priyanka visited Nalini in Vellore Jail and

Never-ending saga of sin tax: What if murder is taxed at Rs 1 crore, rape at Rs 5 crore?

By Moses Raj GS, Sangeetha Thomas*  What should have ended by June 30, 2022 as a 5 year experiment has resurfaced. The government has extended the levy of GST compensation cess by another 4 years till March 31, 2026. This cess, dubbed as the sin tax imposed on sin(ful) goods, is double the highest slab on indirect taxes. But only a few pay for it and the majority benefit, unendingly. The year 2017 is a landmark year for indirect taxes. With the grand idea of ‘One Nation, One Tax’ as a fiscal slogan subsuming all State based taxes such as octroi /entry tax, Value Added Tax (VAT), sales tax, taxes on lottery, betting and gambling, luxury tax, purchase tax, entertainment tax, property tax, professional tax and central sales tax into a single framework of Goods and Services Tax (GST) changed the contours of revenue collection. Complicating it further, India, with each State having its own size and revenue problems, has the most complex and highly centralised indirect tax structure in the w

Demand to withdraw 'anti-environment, anti-adivasi' forest conservation rules 2022

By Gopinath Majhi*  The Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD), Odisha, a coalition of adivasis and forest dwellers’ organisations, has sent a memorandum to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) raising serious concerns over Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2022, notified by the Centre on June 29.  Contending that recent amendments and a host of executive orders/guidelines issued by the ministry undermine and dilute the FRA and threaten the rights of adivasis and forest dwellers, CSD demands that the 2022 FC Rules should be rescinded forthwith. Demanding withdrawal of such anti-people and anti-environment rules CSD Odisha organised a protest Dharana in front of State Assembly today on 25th November 2022 and submitted memorandums to the Hon’ble Governor of Odisha, Chief Secretary and Commissioner-cum-Secretary, ST & SC Development Department for conveying our concerns against the FC Rules 2022 to the Central Government for its withdrawal. The memorandums w