Dark summer nights: India faces high risk of power cuts after years of coal, hydro power neglect

India’s power availability in “non-solar hours” this April is expected to be 1.7 per cent lower than peak demand. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI – India faces a high risk of night-time power cuts this summer and in the coming years, as delays in adding new coal-fired and hydropower capacity could limit the country’s ability to address surging electricity demand when solar energy is not available.

A rapid addition of solar farms has helped India avert daytime supply gaps, but a shortage of coal-fired and hydropower capacity risks exposing millions to widespread outages at night, government data and internal documents reviewed by Reuters show.

India’s power availability in “non-solar hours” this April is expected to be 1.7 per cent lower than peak demand – a measure of the maximum electricity requirement over any given time, an internal note by the federal grid regulator reviewed by Reuters showed.

Night-time peak demand this April is expected to hit 217 gigawatts (GW), up 6.4 per cent from the highest night-time levels recorded in April 2022.

“The situation is a little stressed,” Grid Controller of India (Grid-India) said in the note dated Feb 3.

While Indians looking to beat the heat this summer will want steady power for their air-conditioners, night-time outage risks threaten industries that operate round the clock, including auto, electronics, steel bar and fertiliser manufacturing plants.

“If there is a power cut even for one minute, paper pulp gets blocked and messes up the delicate process and causes hundreds of thousands of rupees in losses,” said Mr P.G. Mukundan Nair, the former chief of an Indian paper industry body who has worked in paper manufacturing for nearly three decades.

“Even the smallest interruption in power supply will create havoc.”

The electricity deficits this summer could be worse than expected, as Grid-India’s shortage forecasts were made weeks before the country’s weather office predicted heatwaves between March and May.

India’s Federal Power Secretary Alok Kumar downplayed concerns, saying the government had taken “all steps” to avoid power cuts.

“We are making capacity available to all states at competitive rates,” Mr Kumar told Reuters.

After the Grid-India report, the government brought forward maintenance at some coal-fired power plants and secured extra gas-fired capacity to try to avert outages, another senior government official said.

As much as 189.2GW of coal-fired capacity is expected to be available this April, according to Grid-India’s February note. That would be up more than 11 per cent from 2022, according to Reuters calculations based on Grid-India data.

Together, coal, nuclear and gas capacity are expected to meet about 83 per cent of peak demand at night.

Hydropower will be crucial not only to meet much of the remaining supply but also as a flexible generator, as coal-fired plants cannot be ramped up and down quickly to address variability in demand.

However, Grid-India has forecast that peak hydro availability in April will be 18 per cent below what it was a year earlier, when output was boosted by favourable weather conditions.

Imported coal-based power plants would be required to increase output to up to 55 per cent of total potential from 21 per cent in February, while domestic coal-fired units will have to increase output to 75 per cent of potential from 69 per cent in February, said Mr Hetal Gandhi, director of research at Crisil Market Intelligence and Analytics.

“The burden of increased supply will definitely be borne by coal and gas,” Mr Gandhi said, adding that achieving it would be a “tall order”.

The night-time outage risks are in sharp contrast to the supply in the daylight hours, which has been bolstered by nearly fourfold growth in solar capacity over the past five years, in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Paris climate agreement pledge to curb carbon emissions.

As at last April, solar energy boosted renewables’ contribution to as much as 18 per cent of India’s power generation in the middle of the day.

The strain comes after sundown, as coal-fired capacity has grown only 9 per cent over the last five years.

As at April 2022, jostling for power at around midnight was intense, with buyers making bids for five times more power than sellers offered, a Reuters analysis of data from the Indian Energy Exchange, the country’s most liquid electricity trading platform, showed.

The widening demand-supply fault lines highlight the need to expedite coal capacity additions to avert outages in the next few years.

Construction of as many as 26 coal-fired units with a capacity of 16.8GW has been delayed by more than a year, data from the Central Electricity Authority shows, with some plants facing delays of more than 10 years.

Projects under construction are being stalled by local protests over environmental concerns, legal challenges over compensation for land acquisition, and availability of labour and equipment, according to officials at power plants.

Hydropower and nuclear power capacity additions face tougher obstacles, as they are hobbled by lack of foreign investment and opposition from critics over safety and environmental issues, boding ill for power supply down the track. REUTERS

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