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India’s coal crisis produced twin glaring conclusions: Coal is expensive & unreliable

A key takeaway from India’s coal crisis is the urgent need for the country to accelerate its transition to a secure, reliable and low-emissions electricity system
India’s coal crisis produced twin glaring conclusions: Coal is expensive & unreliable
India’s coal crisis produced twin glaring conclusions: Coal is expensive & unreliable
  • The coal shortage led to a surge in prices at the power exchange, which hit a ceiling of Rs 20/kWh during most of the time intervals on high coal shortage days
  • The economics of low-cost renewables are threatening the viability of proposed new coal-fired power plants

New Delhi: A key takeaway from India’s coal crisis is the urgent need for the country to accelerate its transition to a secure, reliable and low-emissions electricity system. India faced huge coal shortages from mid-August to October 2021. Monsoons impact Coal India Ltd. (CIL) production every year, but this year was different – India witnessed an extended monsoon season, which exacerbated the coal shortage crisis. Further, transportation logistics led to lower offtake of coal.

India’s coal crisis

Analysis of the coal stock position reveals that there was enough coal at CIL’s end. However the company has been regulating the despatch of supplies to coal power producers with outstanding dues on account of discom payment delays. This meant that the supply curtailment was worse in states where coal power producers have large outstanding dues.

The situation deteriorated as more plants reported their supplies were reaching critical levels. The government sprang into action, ramping up domestic coal production and offtake to reduce the energy shortages and avert blackouts.

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The coal shortage led to a surge in prices at the power exchange, which hit a ceiling of Rs 20/kWh during most of the time intervals on high coal shortage days. The average market clearing price increased from Rs 3/kWh in June-July to Rs 5/kWh in August-September, then Rs 8/kWh in October. Prices have now started to stabilise, hovering around Rs 3-3.5/kWh.

The price of imported coal has never been higher. Imported Indonesian coal rose from US$60/tonne in March 2021 to US$200/tonne in September/October for 5,000 Kcal/kg GAR (Gross As Received) coal.

The crisis has shown that coal is an expensive source of electricity generation and, further, it is inflationary. It has also revealed that coal is an unreliable source of generation because it depends heavily on a long supply chain.

Viability of coal-fired power plants 

Renewable energy prices have gone down over the years and wind and solar are highly deflationary. With zero indexation contracts extending for 25-year terms, year one solar energy tariffs consistently below Rs 2.5/kWh are now the low-cost source of electricity supply in India. The economics of low-cost renewables are threatening the viability of proposed new coal-fired power plants.

More importantly, there is little or no capital available to finance such plants. It is necessary now to direct R&D and finance to emerging technologies such as battery storage and green hydrogen, to better integrate renewable energy into the system.

At COP26, India pledged to increase the share of electricity generation from renewable sources to 50 percent by 2030 and to reach net-zero emissions by 2070. In order to achieve these ambitious goals, India must ensure a policy environment that is conducive to accelerating the offtake of renewable energy. With cost economics favouring renewable energy, it’s clear that sustainable energy choices can and should lead on the path to economic growth.

Vibhuti Garg is an Energy Economist and Lead India at Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).

Disclaimer: This is an Op-ed article. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own. PSU Watch does not endorse nor support views, opinions or conclusions drawn in this post and we are not responsible or liable for any content within the article or for any damage or loss caused by and in connection to it.

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