A power struggle of a different kind is on in India.
The prevailing situation on the electricity front is the bleakest I have seen in many years. Power cuts and load-shedding threaten to paralyse the nation, disturb normal life and derail its ambitious growth plans.
News reports today cite coal shortage as the reason for the reduced power generation. This explanation provides as much justification or consolation as that of a captain of a flight blaming the delayed take-off on the ‘late arrival of the incoming aircraft’.
Coal supplies to plants in Maharashtra and Southern States have been impacted by the ongoing Telengana agitation, while plants in Central and Northern India have been affected by the floods in coal mines in Orissa and Jharkhand. The stock of coal in some of the plants is at a precarious low level and a shutdown looks imminent.
Among the stories reported today are a) jewelers in Pune losing out on Diwali business due to 4-hour power cuts during prime time, b) photocopying centres claiming a 30% dip in business c) shops and restaurants refusing to stock ice-cream as they don’t want to be stuck with an inventory of molten ice-cream d) jail wardens expressing concern that they are unable to keep the inmates ‘employed’ and worse, to keep the electric fences activated and e) laundry owners struggling to offer dry-cleaning services. These may not be life-threatening issues, but there will soon be stories of hospitals struggling to carry out surgeries, vaccines losing their potency due to failure of refrigeration, riots breaking out… Back-up systems like diesel generators can only provide so much… back-up.
(As an aside and to provide comic relief, there’s a story that “Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dalit icon Dr BR Ambedkar, feels that the load shedding is artificial and is being done to force people to allow the 10,000 MW Jaitapur nuclear power plant to come up”. He says the Govt did the same thing when there was resistance to the Dabhol plant, and they are doing it again. A conspiracy theory that is on a meta-scale.)
An inescapable fact is that we are heavily dependent on coal. About 60% of our power need is met by coal-based plants. This dependence will continue for many more years, as 70% of planned addition in the XII Plan is based on coal again. Till recently, we were highly reliant on domestic coal, but we have had to, increasingly, step up our imports. Coal production in the country has, due to various reasons, just not been able to cope with the demand. So, even without the Telengana blockade or the floods in Orissa, we had a serious problem on our hands.
Plants being promoted by private developers, including most of the Ultra Mega Power plants (UMPP) will have to tie up coal supplies from abroad. This looked simple a couple of years back, but dark clouds have appeared now. China with its voracious appetite for energy also tries to tap the same sources- Indonesia, Australia, South Africa, etc- for its requirement and, not surprisingly, the price of coal in the global market has been increasing, mimicking the trend of oil price. Many Indian developers tried to secure coal supplies by buying and owning coal mines in Indonesia, but face increased resistance in the form of export barriers and tariffs. Those who had signed long-term power-purchase agreements with Indian discoms, based on fixed prices, are trying to wriggle out of the deal or re-negotiate.
Can we import more coal in the short-term to overcome the crisis? Sadly, no. Indian plants that were designed to operate on low-quality domestic coal (with high ash content) cannot burn imported coal that is fed separately. It can only be blended with Indian coal- up to a limit of 15-20%. Somewhat like the inability of a person brought up on unhygienic street-food to suddenly digest rich food from a 5-star hotel.
So, there are no easy short-term solutions to solve the current crisis. But, the situation is grim enough for a declaration of a ‘state of emergency’ in the power sector. However legitimate the demands are for a separate state, the protesters cannot be allowed to block movement of a vital fuel and threaten the energy security of the nation. Similarly, if the normal state apparatus is unable to ensure movement of coal from flood-hit areas, logistical support must be provided on a ‘war-footing’.
Can we do something different over the long-term, to get over our dependence on coal?
Yes, for starters,we can install more nuclear plants, if we can get those squatting protesters out of the way. More on that controversial subject in my next post.