London, March 8India’s power generators and coal mines are being stretched to the limit to meet surging demand for power stemming from a fast-growing economy and rapid electrification.

Total electricity consumption increased by 13.5 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) (+12 per cent) in January 2023 compared with January 2022, according to Grid-India’s National Load Despatch Centre.

Peak consumption, a better measure of pressure on the transmission system, reached 211 gigawatts, up by almost 10 per cent from the corresponding month a year earlier.

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Coal units increased generation by almost 16 billion kWh (+18 per cent) compared with a year earlier, in part to offset reduced output from expensive gas-fired units.

Temperatures around New Delhi were below the long-term average for 26 out of 31 days in January, before climbing above normal in an early heatwave in February.

The extraordinary surge in demand is structural rather than weather-driven: total consumption increased by more than 6 per cent in 2022 and has risen at a compound annual rate of more than 4 per cent for the last decade.

India’s business activity is growing rapidly, with purchasing managers’ surveys showing very broad-based increases in activity in manufacturing (55.4) and services (57.2) in January, continuing into February.

But domestic mines and the rail network are struggling to keep pace with the strong demand from power producers for fuel.

Mine production and coal trains despatched to power plants both increased last year by 12 per cent, which was impressive but still below generators’ requirements.

India’s railways loaded an average of 271 coal trains per day bound for power producers in February, well below the plan for 313 trains, and no higher than in February 2022.

The rail system is becoming a binding constraint on the ability to move more coal to generators and ensure they have sufficient fuel.

Generators’ stocks are currently equivalent to 12 days of consumption, an improvement on this time last year (9 days) but below the corresponding levels in 2021 (15 days), 2020 (28 days) and 2019 (18 days).

Stretching it

To stretch supplies further, the government has directed generators to import more coal to blend with domestic production (“India to boost coal imports to cope with harsh weather, freight snags", Reuters, January 17, 2023).

The government has also ordered privately owned generators that rely on expensive imported coal to maximise output to relieve power shortages (“India to use emergency law to maximise coal power output”, Reuters, January 30).

The massive deployment of renewable generation has helped prevent far worse shortages but the total is still too small to relieve the pressure on the coal system.

Coal-fired generators supplied 76 per cent of all electricity to the transmission network in February despite the rapid deployment of wind turbines and solar panels.

Renewable capacity increased by 15 per cent in January 2023 compared with a year earlier, and there were even more impressive increases in actual generation from wind (50 per cent) and solar (+37 per cent).

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Coal-fired generation becomes even more stretched in the pre-monsoon season (March-May) and post-monsoon (September-October) when temperatures are higher but wind, solar and hydro output are not at their summer monsoon peak.

In the medium term, the government anticipates renewables deployment will stabilise and then reduce the need for coal. But that goal is still some years away.

In the meantime, increasing domestic production and imports, and critically relieving bottlenecks at ports and on the rail network, is essential for avoiding widespread electricity shortages.