India is on the brink of an energy crisis, as coal reserves hit critical lows

October 9, 2021, 2:10 AM UTC

India, the world’s fourth-largest energy consumer, is facing a crippling power crisis.

On Thursday, India’s Central Electricity Authority (CEA) warned that coal reserves at over half of the country’s power plants could burn out in three days or less as a post-pandemic surge in manufacturing spiked demand for power and caught power producers off guard.

“Nobody thought that the industrial demand would pick up so quickly, so power stations did not bother to replenish their coal inventory,” says Nitin Bansal, associate director at India Ratings and Research. “But now stocks are depleting day by day.”

On Wednesday, the Federation of Indian Mineral Industries warned India’s Ministry of Coal that the coal shortage had created “an immensely precarious situation for coal consumers, mainly for the aluminium and steel industry” and said the situation could cause factories to close.

Meanwhile, in the southern state of Kerala, officials have asked households to avoid using electrical appliances after sunset, in order to conserve power while Reuters reports “unscheduled outages” have flickered across cities in north India, too. Bansal says power outages in other Indian states are likely to follow over the next three months as India’s industrial demand strengthens, threatening to curtail the country’s economic recovery.

According to the CEA, coal stocks at 110 of the plants haver hit critical levels. To keep the lights on and factories running, operators of India’s 135 coal-fired plant operators are racing to replenish feedstock and save India from a bruising power crunch. But the twin issues of stagnant local production and surging costs of coal imports means India’s coal shortage could last through the winter.

Stagnant pits

State-owned Coal India Limited has a virtual monopoly on coal mines in India, which produce roughly 75% of the coal burned in India’s coal-fired power stations. But in the five months to August this year, as demand for energy increased 16%, production at Coal India Limited stagnated. The company’s mines produced the same volume of coal between April and August as they extracted the year before, when India was in the depths of a COVID slump.

“Usually, there is a dip in coal supplies every year during the monsoon season,” says Karthik Ganesan, an analyst with the New Delhi-based thinktank Council on Energy, Environment and Water. “But this year the situation spiraled as a result of the prolonged monsoon season.”

The monsoon season slows coal production because heavy rains make it difficult for miners to extract the rock from underground shafts and open pits. Monsoon rains usually start at the end of May or in early June and last till September but, this year, the showers continued until early October.

Even so, Ganesan says, the coal shortage could have been anticipated before it snowballed into a national emergency. Ordinarily coal producers fill production shortfalls by increasing coal imports, but global prices of coal have surged worldwide. On October 1, high-quality Australian thermal coal prices surged to a record $203.20, a four-fold increase from August last year.

“The problem is not only the high global price of coal, but you can’t suddenly import overnight because you have a need. You need to place orders in advance,” says B.K. Bhatia, additional secretary-general of the Federation of Indian Mineral Industries, a trade body that represents private miners and metal firms.

Rising costs

One reason for the increased cost of imported coal: India’s neighbor, China.

Like India, Chinese demand for power has surged as its economy recovers from COVID-19. But Chinese regulations designed to reduce pollution have curtailed coal production in the country, forcing power producers to import more—pushing global prices upwards.

“Thermal coal prices have rallied in past months due to the supply crunch, making it all the more uneconomical for many coal power plants to operate and produce coal power,” says Sabrin Chowdhury, senior commodities analyst at Fitch Solutions.

Beijing has tried to mitigate China’s own electricity outages by releasing batches of coal reserves and ordering domestic coal producers to increase output. But, Chowdhury says, the shortage in China will likely last throughout the winter as demand for heating increases.

For India, that means competition for imports will continue until next year. In an interview with Indian Express this week, India’s Power Minister Raj Kumar Singh warned that the power shortage could continue for another six months.

“The question that needs to be asked is, how do we avert this seasonal swing and ensure that coal is made available to plants in a timely manner,” says Ganesan.

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