India’s heatwave causes power outages and highlights coal dependence

An unusually early and brutal heatwave is scorching parts of India, with severe power shortages affecting millions of people as electricity demand hits record highs.

Coal supplies to many thermal power plants are dangerously low, leading to daily power outages in several states. The shortages are prompting scrutiny of India’s long-standing reliance on coal, which generates 70% of the country’s electricity.

The situation highlights India’s pressing need to diversify its energy sources, as demand for electricity is expected to rise more than anywhere else in the world over the next 20 years as the densely populated country develops. , according to the International Energy Agency.

The shortages hit as extremely high temperatures swept through parts of the country, prompting authorities to close schools, spark fires at massive landfills and shrivel up crops as a cool spring turned into relentless heat.

India recorded its hottest March since 1901, and average April temperatures in the country’s northern and central pockets were the highest in 122 years, India’s Meteorological Department said. Temperatures topped 45C in 10 cities last week, although cloudy skies and rain could soon bring some relief.

Climate change is making extreme temperatures hotter and more frequent, with heat waves likely to hit India about once every four years instead of every five decades in the past, said Friederike Otto, a climatologist at the ‘Imperial College London. India must urgently prepare for a record increase in electricity consumption.

The current power cuts are hurting economic activity, which had rebounded from pandemic shutdowns, and could disrupt essential services such as hospitals, experts warn. Many states including Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan are experiencing outages of up to seven hours.

Coal shortage

On Friday, the Ministry of Railways canceled more than 750 passenger train services to allow more freight trains to transport coal from mines to power stations.

Of India’s 165 coal-fired power stations, 94 are facing critically low coal supplies while eight are not operational on Sunday, according to data from the Central Electricity Authority. This means that stocks have fallen below 25% of normal levels.

Government rules require power plants to keep 24 days of coal stocks, but many do not consistently, said Vibhuti Garg, an energy economist at the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. .

Much of India had a cool spring this year before temperatures rose rapidly and dramatically.

“Then all of a sudden demand started to increase and inventory started to come down much, much faster than expected,” Garg said. “And it’s becoming a kind of panic situation that they’re going to start running out of coal very soon.”

A man and boy walk through a nearly dry bed of the Yamuna River following hot weather in New Delhi, India on Monday. (Manish Swarup/Associated Press)

But the power outages are less the result of a shortage of coal than of inadequate forecasts of demand and plans to transport it on time, experts said.

“We don’t have enough resources to make proper forecasts. The surge in demand shouldn’t have been a surprise,” Garg said.

“There is enough coal, but a lack of anticipation and planning” has caused problems, said Sunil Dahiya, an analyst at the Center for Energy and Clean Air Research. “It could have been avoided.”

Part of the shortfall could also have been made up with imported coal, Garg said. But global prices have soared since Russia invaded Ukraine, hitting US$400 a tonne in March, putting it out of reach for cash-strapped power companies.

In this file photo from October 23, 2019, workers eat lunch at a coal loading site in the village of Godhar in Jharia, a remote corner in the eastern state of Jharkhand, India. An energy crisis threatens India as coal stocks run dangerously low, making it difficult for Asia’s third-largest economy to recover from the pandemic. (Aijaz Rahi/Associated Press)

Analysts expect demand to fall in the coming weeks, especially if the heat subsides, but it is expected to pick up again in July and August, due to higher humidity and the planting season. in some Indian states. This is also the start of the monsoon, when heavy rains can flood coal mines and disrupt both mining and supply.

A similar energy crisis occurred last October following unusually heavy rains that flooded several mines.

Freeing freight trains to transport coal is likely to ease the situation and bring some relief, but it is not a long-term solution, experts said.

With climate change exacerbating heat waves, energy shortages will become more routine and demand will only increase. But the answer is not to open new mines or add more coal to India’s energy mix, as this will increase greenhouse gases which, in turn, will trap more heat, said the experts.

“We need to aggressively focus on boosting renewable energy and making it more reliable. Otherwise, the same problems will continue to occur, as we are overly dependent on this one fuel source,” Dahiya said.