NEW DELHI — With coal shortages affecting power supply across the country, Delhi Power Minister Satyendar Jain has warned of a power blackout in the national capital. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi about coal shortages in power plants. On Sunday, Union Power Minister R K Singh claimed that there was no power crisis in the national capital.
Out of India’s 135 coal plants, 108 were facing critically low stocks, with 28 of them down to just one day worth of supply, India’s Power Ministry said on 6 October.
In this conversation, Chandra Bhushan, the former deputy director of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), and founder-CEO of International Forum for Environment, Sustainability & Technology (iFOREST), explains the reasons behind the coal shortage, why it is a consequence of “poor planning” by the Government of India (GOI), currently run by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), and its potential fallout on the environment and economy.
What is behind the coal shortage?
The shortage of coal is a man-made crisis. Generally, coal mines are asked to have a significant store of coal before the monsoon season because, during the monsoon, mining is affected. September was very wet in eastern India. Even in October, there was a lot of rain in Jharkhand which has affected mining operations. Coal mines today do not have an adequate stock of coal. And because our power demand is increasing during the festive season — Dussehra and then Diwali — this is the peak electricity consumption season in India. Everything is running as the country comes out of the Covid-19 pandemic — industries, shops. This is also a partially humid season so house electricity consumption is also not that low. So, demand is rising, coal stock is low, and therefore power plants have a very low stock of coal. Some of the power plants will close down because this is what the situation is.
The shortage of coal is a man-made crisis.
Why has there been low production of coal?
There was a reduction in coal production because the demand was not there. In February-March when the second wave came, a state-level shutdown happened. Thermal power plants were not taking coal. Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Chhattisgarh were closed for a long time. States were making their own decisions regarding the shutdown. There was less demand so coal mines reduced production capacity.
Why are we not prepared?
It is a combination of reasons. But the major issue is poor planning. The Ministry of Coal did not plan very well. The mines were not informed about the kind of surge in demand that was likely to happen after Covid. They did not anticipate this surge in demand. And the monsoon has extended by about 19 days. It has retreated 19 days later than normal. There was a lot of rainfall. It is a combination of poor anticipation, poor planning, and some natural factors.
The major issue is poor planning.
The surge in demand is due to offices and industries opening up?
There is a general increase in demand. The economy has picked up significantly. Offices, industries, and malls have opened up. Exports have grown. Across the country, from manufacturing to services to agriculture, everything has opened up. Therefore, there is a surge in demand compared to even a few months back and 2020 when the economy shuts down. For example, Delhi’s power demand this year has crossed the 2019 demand of about 7,400 MW.
This is happening in other parts of the world.
It is not a situation that is unique to this country. China is facing a huge coal crunch right now. Imported coal prices have shot up. China is doing electricity cuts. Offices and industries have shut down.
What about other countries?
There is a gas crisis happening in Europe because of Russia. The gas prices have hit the sky in Europe. The UK is talking about electricity cuts. Countries did not anticipate the surge in demand after Covid. This is what is leading to the problem.
This was some time in the making. Why is it suddenly in the news?
It is in the news because the Chief Minister (Arvind Kejriwal) has written to the Prime Minister (Narendra Modi). In our country, the public is not made aware of many things until it hits the crisis point. The government should have been looking at what is happening across the world and be prepared for it.
The government should have been looking at what is happening across the world and be prepared for it.
How could the GOI prepare for it?
When you are coming out of a pandemic, and knowing that the monsoon is variable, and it affects coal production, how can you not anticipate a surge in demand and a slump in supply? The planning process now has to be much more robust and flexible. It is not just about coal. We are now living in a much more uncertain world. And therefore, the planning has to be for much more uncertainty. The old style of planning of giving quotas to coal mines to produce and just sticking to that is not going to work. The planning has to be flexible and for a much more uncertain world than what government departments are used to.
The planning process now has to be much more robust and flexible. We are now living in a much more uncertain world.
Is this more on the Ministry of Power or the Ministry of Coal?
Both ministries will have to coordinate.
What is GOI doing to fix it now?
I’m hearing that they are telling captive coal mines to ramp up production. They are asking the Railways to be on standby to dispatch coal. Electricity cuts are already happening. If they really work hard, they can minimize the shortage.
How can we view a coal shortage, our dependence on coal, in the context of climate change?
There is a climate crisis, but the debate on the climate crisis at the moment is sensational and not rooted in fact. We have to reduce emissions and reach net zero over a period of three decades. We don’t have to stop coal tomorrow. In the process of reaching net-zero, there will be years when you will have a surge in coal and natural gas like it is today. India has only 147 GW of renewable energy. We have 230 GW of fossil fuel electricity (of which 205 GW comes from coal). So, renewable energy is not going to supply all our electricity. Also, because of the monsoon season, solar is not producing enough. Any correlation between the climate crisis and the current fuel shortage will be more of a sensational linkage than rooted in reality.
How will this play out in different states?
I think certain states are going to be more affected than others. We have something called coal linkage. More than 90% of coal in a power plant comes from mines that they are linked with. For example, a power plant in Haryana might have one mine in Jharkhand, which is supposed to supply coal. Now, if that mine is not operational or does not have stock, then the power plant in Haryana is in trouble. That Haryana power plant either has the option of buying coal in the market or importing coal. The cost of important coal has hit the sky. Prices are at record levels. There are limited options for what these plants can do. It will depend from power plant to power plant.
Is the change in the monsoon season linked to climate change?
There is an extensive monsoon season which is linked to climate disruptions and climate change.
How will the coal shortage affect power prices?
Power prices in the open market are already very high. Electricity boards will have to pay a high price for electricity and supply electricity to people. It will lead to losses because they are not able to recover what they sell to people. So, either they buy expensive power and supply to consumers which is going to hit their bottom line. If they do not want to hit their bottom line, there will be electricity cuts. I live in UP, Noida, and I can already see power cuts getting longer and more frequent.
What will happen in rural India?
More than urban India, it will be rural India that is badly hit. They will cut the most electricity in rural India and quickly. Urban areas which have paying customers might suffer less. Rural India will be the first place where electricity cuts happen.
Rural India will be the first place where electricity cuts happen.
What drives that decision?
Recovery of electricity bills. Even in urban areas, localities, where the recovery is less, have more frequent electricity cuts than areas where people are paying. You can see that in Delhi. Rich areas in Delhi have a much higher quality of power supply than poor areas.
Would this affect agriculture?
I’m not sure because the Kharif season has gone, and in the Rabi season, electricity demand is not that high. But rural households and businesses will get affected.
What is the worst-case scenario?
The worst-case scenario is that the gap between demand and supply will widen and people will not get the electricity that they need. Industries will have to cut back. Households and businesses will have to curtail their consumption.
The economy could be hit.
If you are not able to supply electricity, it will affect the economy. But in Delhi and NCR, if the electricity supply is hit, it will increase air pollution. Then, DG sets (diesel generator sets) are back. If electricity cuts increase in the winter season, then the air pollution levels will also go up.
In Delhi and NCR, if the electricity supply is hit, it will increase air pollution.
What can people do to help?
The government has not given any message to the public in terms of what they need to do. But when the situation becomes really bad, I think people can reduce electricity consumption, shutting down unnecessary lighting, fans, and ACs. Offices can shut down a few hours earlier. Voluntary electricity saving will also play an important role.
Isn’t that what people should do in any case.
Yes, but if it is about making sure the shortages do not hit the economy, then people need to be very mindful.