EXPLAINED: Why is there a looming power shortage in India

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EXPLAINED: Why is there a looming power shortage in India
Power cuts, heat strokes and unprecedented fires — everything that’s going wrong with the ongoing heatwave Raghu Nayyar/Unsplash
  • India is currently undergoing the worst electricity shortage in more than six years.
  • The science behind these ongoing power cuts is simple — increased demand and decreased supply.
  • The rising mercury could lead to serious health complications, deaths, water shortage and more.
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India is currently undergoing the worst electricity shortage in more than six years just as a brutal unprecedented heat wave sweeps the entire nation. The mercury is past the 45 degree celsius-mark in several cities — including parts of Rajasthan, Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha — and it's only the end of April.

Even Mumbai, which lies on the western coast of India, has been reporting consistently high temperatures over the last 10 days. The scariest bit is that it’s not even the peak of summer yet. Usually mid-May is the hottest month of the summer season in the northern states of India.

It’s hard to say what the upcoming months may bring in, but the current situation is not getting any easier to deal with all thanks to the existing coal shortage in the country. The shortage has led to long power cuts ranging from 2-8 hours across many parts of India from Jammu and Kashmir in the north to Andhra Pradesh down south.

Why are there power cuts in India?



The science behind these ongoing power cuts is simple — increased demand and decreased supply. People are using more electricity to run their electricity appliances now that it's too hot outside and the government is unable to meet these demands due to extreme shortage of coal, generating about 70% of India's electricity demand.

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The power minister of Punjab, Harbhajan Singh, mentioned that the demand for electricity has shot up by 40% compared to last year, largely driven by rising temperature. Not only Punjab but many other states are also facing this issue, he emphasised.

Simultaneously, of the total 173 thermal power plants in India, 85 plants fired by domestic coal have less than 25% stock and 11 plants running on imported coal have hit critical levels. The data was shared by the Central Electricity Authority ( CEA) data on April 19, 2022.

The power cuts were kind of expected too.

A report by Japanese financial services firm Nomura, released last week on April 19, highlighted that the coal inventories held by the Indian power plants remain tight at nine days’ worth of stock as of mid-April and it could result in power outages. The report did predict increased power cuts, diversion of coal from non-power sectors (like aluminum, cement, steel) and increase in the cost of electricity if the situation does not improve.

It may get worse as electricity demand is expected to rise another 10% by next month, the power ministry said earlier this week.

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India had witnessed a similar crisis in October 2021 when the country’s stockpiles fell to the lowest point in years. At that time, India only had coal inventories worth five days. However, the situation wasn’t this grim since the demand for electricity was consistent and the temperature too.

This shortage is triggered by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which disrupted trade flows and crippled supply amid additional demand from Europe. Imported coal has largely remained out of bounds for price-sensitive markets like India as a result, a report by S&P Global Commodity Insights noted.

A Moneycontrol report also blamed the delayed payments and mounting debts in the power sector as a reason for the ongoing crisis in the power industry. The report noted the power generation companies have been selling without getting their dues on time, leading to hefty outstanding dues.

How bad are the ongoing power cuts in India?



The government of Delhi on Thursday also issued a statement highlighting that the power supply to metro services and hospitals in the national capital are likely to be affected. Meanwhile, the Rajasthan government has also scheduled power cuts for factories to cope with the surging demand. The Indian government on Friday decided to temporarily cancel some passenger trains to allow for faster movement of coal carriages.

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Power cuts are not the only concern at the moment. The rising mercury could lead to serious health complications, deaths, water shortage and more. Parts of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and Gurugram have started reporting water shortages already.

According to news agency AFP, more than 6,000 people in India have died due to heatwaves in the last decade. The waves put blue-collar workers — including rickshaw drivers, street vendors, construction workers, delivery people — at greater risk since they are usually working out in the sun. To ensure the situation doesn’t get any worse, the government of Gujarat has instructed hospitals to set up special wards for heat stroke and other heat-related diseases.

Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Wednesday issued warnings against increasing fire incidents in jungles, important buildings and hospitals in the past days. Over 500 forest fires have been reported in Himachal Pradesh, damaging 3,575 hectares, in April alone. Then a major fire also broke out in a state-run hospital in Chennai, a chemical factory in Uttar Pradesh and a dumping ground in Ghazipur.

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