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India: Some states face coal shortage and power outages

Seerat Chabba
October 12, 2021

Coal accounts for most of India's electricity generation. But late last month, more than 80% of the country's coal-fired plants had stocks that would not last more than a week.

India| Pragati Power Station Delhi
Coal account for around 70% of India's electricityImage: Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto/picture alliance

India is facing an impending energy crisis as several states saw coal-fired power plants shut down due to a coal shortage. Major cities such as the capital New Delhi experienced electricity cuts that ran for hours over the weekend.

Days after Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal warned of a power crisis in the capital as coal supplies fell short, the power ministry on Tuesday said it has issued directions to the country's largest electricity producer NTPC Ltd. and Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) to supply the maximum power available to Delhi to curb any potential shortage.

"All power plants that supply electricity to Delhi are supposed to keep a 30-day reserve stock. But at present, they have only one day's stock left," Delhi Power Minister Satyendar Jain told local media.

Late last month, more than 80% of the country's coal-fired plants were at a critical stage, meaning their stocks would last less than a week, according to data from the Central Electricity Authority of India.

The power crisis has already triggered electricity cuts across some of the nation's eastern and northern states.

States panic over shortages

Coal accounts for around 70% of India’s electricity generation. Several states are already facing the pinch as demand overwhelms supply.

In the western state of Maharashtra, which houses India's commercial hub of Mumbai, authorities have appealed to citizens to use electricity sparingly during peak hours as 13 thermal power plants shut down.

Smog in Kolkatta
Despite attempts to move to more sustainable sources of power, coal remains India's primary source of energyImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/I. Aditya

Three power plants in Punjab halted production, forcing residents to face scheduled power cuts of up to six hours at a time. 

The state of Rajasthan also saw rolling outages — as long as two hours in urban areas, and four hours in rural areas — authorities told news network NDTV. Other states impacted include Kerala, Gujarat, Jharkhand and Bihar. 

Government downplays severity 

Even as states raise the alarm, the government has downplayed the severity of the crisis. The coal ministry said in a statement: "Any fear of disruption in power supply is entirely misplaced."

Authorities added that there is "ample coal available in the country to meet the demand of power plants."

Home Minister Amit Shah on Monday met the ministers in charge of the coal and power ministries, Pralhad Joshi and RK Singh. According to local media, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's office is set to review the coal supply situation in the country on Tuesday.

Until then, the power ministry has urged states to utilize unallocated power from central generating stations to compensate for the shortfall. About 15% of power generation capacity is kept aside at all times to be allocated to states in need. 

Despite record coal production this year, the crisis may be linked to exceptionally heavy rains, which affected the movement of coal from mines to power generation units.

In the face of rising coal prices in the international market, power plants that use imported coal have also either reduced their output or completely halted production.