In today's Finshots we talk about power cuts and the coal conundrum

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The Story

This story began with a simple question — Why do we have power cuts in Bengaluru?

It’s annoying, no? You lose power when you least expect it — for hours on end.

So we went digging, trying to find an answer to this elusive question. And we stumbled on something interesting — the fact that this isn’t unique to just Bengaluru or Karnataka, but many states across India — including Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Jharkhand, and Haryana.

These states can’t generate enough electricity and they seemingly can’t buy enough of it either. In effect, there’s a power crisis brewing, precipitated by a shortage of coal.
Now, we’ve already discussed the coal issue last year.

In it, we wrote — “the average coal stock held by Indian coal-fired plants seem to have dwindled to a three year low. Nearly 100 of the 135 plants had less than seven days' worth of buffer coal stock as of Sept 13, when guidelines mandate plants to hold at least two weeks' supply. What’s more — Six plants had already run out of coal.”

Bottom line — “Without coal, you’ll see rationing of power. And rationing of power often translates to power cuts."

However back then, the shortage was precipitated by a combination of lockdowns and heavy rains that disrupted coal mining operations. This time around, the story is different. Demand for electricity has been going through the roof of late (after the pandemic) and it hit a 38-year high during the first two weeks of April.

Also, summer has arrived early. This means higher electricity consumption since Indians generally use more power during these months. FYI — It’s the cooling demand that does the damage.

And with the increased demand, Coal India — an entity that produces most of India’s coal, has been struggling to meet their quotas. It’s pushing them to the brink.
And they’re annoyed.

In fact, the coal ministry has been accusing the Railways department of aggravating matters. They contest that the railways haven’t allocated enough rakes to transport coal to thermal power stations across the country. And that this is what is really compounding the current crisis.

If you’re wondering what a rake is — Well, it’s the interlinked coaches that make up a train. You store coal inside it and you move them around, wherever you want to.
However, if you don’t have enough rakes, you can’t supply the coal on time. Without coal, there’s a problem.

But the railways already provide 405 rakes a day for transporting coal. And they’ve also committed to bolstering this number some more. If you ask them, what’s the holdup, they’ll tell you that this isn't just limited to rakes. Instead, they’ll argue that this is a matter of delays - that precipitate at the power stations because the people there take forever to unload coal.

Sometimes it’s a labour issue. Other times it’s because the coal is supplied alongside stones, boulders and other such things. It’s just harder to get this stuff out. And the unloading systems are often outdated too. The state ideally should have invested in updating these systems wherever possible, but they don’t have the money to do so. State utility (electricity) companies are already cash-strapped as is and they are unlikely to invest big money to fix this issue.

So you can see how simply adding more rakes may not necessarily solve this problem.
And that brings us to the final bit — Is this what’s causing those pesky power cuts in Bengaluru.

Ummm. No!

Actually, it has nothing to do with coal. In fact, Karnataka is one of the few states that has worked really hard to ween off of its dependency on coal. Today, the state generates nearly 50% of its electricity from renewable energy sources alone. And it also sells excess energy to states that run a deficit.

Instead, the power cuts can mostly be attributed to planned maintenance. The city’s favourite BESCOM (or the Bangalore Electricity Supply Company) has been hard at work — trying to convert overhead electric lines to underground cables. This, they hope will reduce distribution losses and save lives. Yes, like actual lives. Because, by removing those dangling cables, they also hope to prevent accidents — that are sometimes all too common in places like Bengaluru.

So yeah, the coal story was a nice diversion. But they have very little to do with the power cuts in Bengaluru.

Until next time…

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