When damp coal left us in darkness

Many states across regions, including Delhi, suddenly plunged into darkness recently. Electricity went off for eight to nine hours daily. In the hinterland, which anyway has to make do with only a few hours of supply in a day, the situation took a turn for the worse.

The long blackouts were sparked by disruptions in coal supplies to power plants. Low coal stocks were nothing new for these plants. But for the first time in years, coal stocks hit rock bottom in so many plants at the same time.

Even the heavy-duty units of India’s biggest generator, state-run NTPC, were not spared. Some of its plants had coal for just two days. The situation was even more serious at the smaller power plants.

As a result, all of them began pulling the plug on parts of their plants to conserve stock and avoid complete shutdown and long-term damage to equipment. Restarting these plants would have taken time and cost money.

With so many generators switched off, countrywide power shortage more than doubled to some 34,000 MW on October 11 from roughly 15,000 MW on September 1. Generation at NTPC’s power houses alone was down by nearly 10%, or 4,000 MW.

The impact on overall supply can be gauged from the fact that the utility accounts for 34,000 MW of the country’s 1,81,558 MW generation capacity, including captive units and a third of the 1,18,409MW thermal capacity.

Ideally, coal-fired power plants are supposed to stock fuel for 25 days. But only about 15% meet this condition. The rest run on stocks for a few days or a week at best. The low buffer makes them vulnerable to the smallest disruption in coal supply.

While delayed delivery owing to lack of rail wagons, and localized disruptions in mining or loading operations are usual, several other factors combined to trigger the latest crisis.

Heavy tail-end monsoon rains proved to be the biggest bane. “There was excessive rainfall in August and September this year. It was around two times more than in the same period of last year. Six of the seven Coal India subsidiaries were affected. Lots of opencast mines were flooded. As a result, there was a shortfall of 17 million tonnes in these two months,” company chairman NC Jha said.

Even before the rains, the month long Telangana agitation reduced coal production and dispatch from Singareni Collieries to 34%. Consignments from elsewhere for power plants in other states had to be diverted to bridge the supply gap from Andhra plants.

Frequent bandhs in areas cradling mines of Central Coalfields were not helping matters either. As if this were not enough, Coal India employees struck work to push for higher bonus.

When supplies resumed, power plants complained of getting damp coal, which was affecting generation. All in all, coal supplies to power plants fell some 20% during this period.

Sinking bottom lines of most distribution utilities limited their capacity to buy “peaking power” to make up for shortfall. Electricity bought under long-term contracts cost `2-5 per unit. But peaking power from merchant plants — generators which do not have long-term supply agreements and are free to sell at market rates — cost `8 a unit on an average.

This shot up to `11 per unit.

The silver lining for the distribution companies was that the Dussehra holidays and the ensuing weekend with temperate climate through the past week helped keep demand within manageable limits. With a few hours of power cuts still persisting, people are bracing for longer cuts during Diwali — when power demand spikes.

Indeed, there are signs of improvement. NTPC executives said they were getting about 95% of their daily requirement of 4 lakh tonnes of coal.

“Only about 1,200 MW capacity is out at present — 200 MW in Singrauli and 1,000 MW in Kahalgaon. We are supplying our scheduled quantity to the national grid,” an executive said.

Coal minister Sriprakash Jaiswal too has cracked the whip on his officials and brass of coal companies. The results are showing. NTPC’s Badarpur plant received 13 wagons of coal against its requirement of seven; Unchahar 11 against a requirement of eight and Dadri 13 against a requirement of 10 rakes.

“Coal dispatch has increased to 166 rakes daily and is likely to rise to 180 in the next few days. Of this, 145 will be for power plants... Coal companies, in co-ordination with the Railways, are prioritizing movement of coal to power plants in UP, Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan that have critically low stocks,” a coal ministry official said. It seems then, brighter days are here again. Until the next crisis, that is.

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