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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

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