Amidst an early onset of summer and a pick up in industrial demand for electricity, there are clear signs that India’s coal stocks for power generation are well below ideal levels. Coal stocks in 62 out of 180 coal fired thermal plants are at critical levels, with their stocks at less than 25 per cent of ideal or ‘normative’ stocks. The latter, for the February-June period, is defined as 17 days’ stock for pithead plants and 27 days’ stock for non-pithead plants situated 1,500 km away. Current coal stocks for power plants, at 33.7 million tonnes, are just half the desirable level of 67.5 million tonnes. Coal plants are ideally assumed to require 2.7 million tonnes daily at 85 per cent plant load factor. A shortage implies that most of the 200 GW of thermal installed capacity may continue to operate at a PLF of below 60 per cent.

This poses serious concerns, given the fact that demand outpaced supply even during December and February when consumption levels are off their peaks. The Power Ministry has said that energy demand has been growing at about 10 per cent per annum. Energy demand in April is expected to touch 142 billion units, whereas power output in January was 118 BU and provisionally pegged at 116 BU in February, a 0.4 per cent shortfall vis-a-vis the demand in the latter month. The bottlenecks in raising power output must be identified. The difficulty in evacuating coal from the pitheads to distant power plants must be addressed. Pithead plants, which account for just 10 per cent of all power plants, have 93 per cent of their normative stock levels, whereas the rest have about 42 per cent.

Coal India’soutput, which accounts for 80 per cent of India’s coal output, has increased 14.3 per cent in FY23 to 619.7 million tonnes (April-February), while supplies were up 5 per cent to 630 million tonnes. The Railways needs to provide over 400 rakes per day on a regular basis. If supplies to Gencos have been held up on account of dues, the issue should be looked into and sorted out. The distribution bottlenecks apart, CIL’s tepid output growth in recent years cannot be overlooked. It should step up summer output to cater to the power shortage that comes up in October and November – coinciding with the pick-up in economic activity and the drop in renewables generation.

Most thermal plants are operating at less than 60 per cent PLF; some of them do not need the coal for which they have entered into long-term contracts. Coal producers could work out a way to sell these supplies to coal-starved plants. While existing coal plants must be deployed to optimal levels, it is important to improve efficiencies in renewables generation even as economical battery storage technologies are being worked upon the world over. A growing economy cannot afford blips in electricity output.