Sucheta Dalal :Steep rise in coal imports required to power India
Sucheta Dalal

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Steep rise in coal imports required to power India  

February 24, 2010

India’s coal imports for power production are likely to rise to 48 million tonnes (mt) in the next fiscal, sharply higher than the expected imports of 28mt for FY09-10. Both private and public power utilities are likely to contribute to this high figure. Despite India being a coal-rich country, delay in mining activities at captive coal blocks, inferior quality of coal and hindrances in domestic coal transportation has increased power utilities’ dependence on imported coal. 


According to the HS Brahma, secretary, ministry of power, public and private power utilities will together import 48mt of coal in the next fiscal. The import volume has been planned to ensure regular fuel supply to Indian power plants. Australia, Indonesia and South Africa are the major countries catering to India’s coal demand.


As per a PTI report, the total coal requirement during the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-12) is expected to touch 700 million tonnes, and the demand from power companies is likely to be at 550 million tonnes. A major portion of this requirement is likely to be met through coal imports.


The constant increase in coal imports by Indian power utilities is ironical, given that India has the fourth-largest reserves of coal in the world. However, effective utilisation of these reserves has hit roadblocks like environmental clearances, rehabilitation issues and the Naxalite movement.


Power utilities are increasingly looking at coal imports as an easier option to ensure coal linkages for their plants. With a large of number of captive coal blocks stuck in various pre-implementation stages, companies are more comfortable with their dependence on coal imports.


Coal blocks allotted for captive use to various power utilities as early as 2008, are still in the environmental clearance stage. The coal block allotted to GMR Energy in Orissa is one of the many examples. It is still in the environmental clearance phase, but company officials claim the coal linkage for the project has been secured and the plant will go on steam as scheduled, despite the delay in mining activity.


Similarly, Adani Group’s power plant in Tiroda (Maharashtra) hit a roadblock after two of its coal blocks in Lohara were refused environmental clearance.


Pramod Menon, chief financial officer, JSW Energy Ltd, confirms the necessity of imported coal. “Domestic coal has its own challenge; if we want to ramp up capacity, there are issues. We have tried to enter the space very differently, with a mix of domestic coal and imported coal. We generally take three to five years for exploration after allocation of a coal block. A lot of capacity is coming in, but we have to wait and watch out for the challenges which these capacities will face in procuring domestic coal. The reason for this is that we are not seeing a huge amount of coal capacity actually coming on-stream,” he said.


Coal linkages through imports have become extremely important for power utilities to ensure timely commissioning of their planned power capacities. An excellent example of this is the Videocon group. It has been able to achieve financial closure for its Gujarat power project due to assured coal linkages through imports. However, a second power project of the same group in Chhattisgarh still awaits financial closure. The coal supply for this plant will depend on captive coal blocks which have not been allotted. The group is confident that the Gujarat plant will be completed on schedule, but it refused to provide a timeline for the Chhattisgarh project as the coal linkages have not yet been secured.


Operational power plants in the country are also under constant threat of irregular coal supply due to mining and transportation issues. According to the Central Electricity Authority data, around 22 thermal power stations (TPS) were in the critical list with less than seven days of coal supply. Of these, 13 TPS are in the super-critical list with less than four days of coal supply. The number of TPSs in the critical list has been constant for several months, with no improvement in the coal supply scenario. The main reasons cited for the coal shortage are delay in coal imports or reduced coal supplies from the captive coal blocks for these plants.


India’s major coal reserves lie in the ‘red’ belt or the Naxal-affected regions of the country. Power plants fuelled by coal blocks in these regions face issues like irregular supply. Coal India Ltd, India’s largest coal supplier, is also seriously looking at the coal import option. CIL officials had earlier admitted to transportation problems from coal mines in the Naxal-affected regions of Jharkhand, Orissa, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.


National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd (NTPC), which is India’s largest power producer, plans to import coal in large quantities from Australia, despite the fact that domestic coal blocks have been allotted to each of its projects. It has already imported 9mt of the targeted 12.5mt during the current financial year (2009-10). NTPC’s thermal power stations at Farakka and Khalagaon have been on the super-critical list for several months due to inadequate coal supply. — Amritha Pillay


-- Sucheta Dalal