India’s power cuts – Two articles from The Economist

Two articles about India from The Economist caught my eye whilst researching a quick post about Lebanese blackouts and I thought I would share them. Links of the original articles are in the references below. They were published in January 2012 but are still an interesting read


Blank traffic lights, mayhem on the roads, trains at a standstill, water-treatment plants lying inert, coal miners trapped underground. India has felt like the giant set of a disaster movie since Sunday night, when a series of power cuts began to strike the north of the country, including the capital, Delhi. Territory inhabited by at least 600m people has been hit. Back-up generators have kept airports and many offices open, but power supply from the grid is still sporadic, despite the efforts of the authorities.

Although the south of the country, including Mumbai, the commercial hub, is so far unaffected, the power cuts couldn’t have come at a worse time. India faces a slowing economy, a lame-duck government and a drought in parts of the country. The blackout seems to have been selected by a malign God to exhibit yet another glaring vulnerability: rotten infrastructure. The technical fault appears to lie in the national transmission grid that links together the local electricity networks. Officials have suggested it may have been “tripped” by a surge in demand for power. But in truth India’s power sector has been a disaster waiting to happen after years of neglect.

The entire supply chain is troubled. Not enough coal is being dug up by the state monopolist, Coal India. As a result, generating companies, which own power stations, face the prospect of buying expensive imported coal, with ruinous consequences for their finances. Many are in danger of going bust. As this week’s cuts have shown, the national transmission system that shifts power around the country needs modernisation and investment—some $110 billion according to a McKinsey study. And finally the “last mile” local distribution companies, usually state-owned and which deliver power to homes and businesses, are all but bankrupt. Their tariffs are held artificially low by politicians more keen to win votes than balance the books. They have also chronically underinvested.

Coal production in five main producers
Coal production in five main producers

Reform would probably entail breaking up Coal India, inviting in private-sector mining companies, privatising the local distribution firms and giving regulators more teeth. But since the early 1990s India’s politicians have ducked the challenge, and been unwilling to tackle vested interests or make difficult decisions. It would be nice to think that when the lights come back on this time they might act with more urgency. But unlike in the movies, disasters in India don’t necessarily have happy endings.

Power is essential for India’s long-term growth. But electricity is unlikely to flow fast enough

Stab a finger at the middle of a map of India and you will hit Nagpur. Some 20 miles (32 kilometres) north-west of the city is a sloping tunnel bored into the rock. Ride two miles down into the gloom, hanging from a wire, and after a torch-lit hike past underground streams and conveyor belts you arrive at a black wall. Sweating men are rigging it with tubes of explosives and wire detonators. Soon they will blast it apart, and down should tumble tonnes of India’s most important commodity: coal.In coal India has something as abundant as people. As more Indians enjoy the trappings of middle-class life and the country industrialises, demand for coal-fired electricity will continue to rise smartly, roughly in line with economic growth. India may not have much oil or gas to call its own but it has the world’s fifth-largest coal reserves. And it has successfully raised a mountain of the other raw material needed to turn carbon into sparks: capital.

Some $130 billion has been ploughed into the power industry in the past five years. Of that, $60 billion or so has come from the private sector—probably the largest-ever private-sector investment India has seen.Possessing coal and capital is no guarantee that India’s energy boiler will work properly, however. It also involves multiple states, government ministries, regulators, mandarins, politicians, tycoons, environmentalists, villagers, activists, crooks and bandits. There are the usual gripes of an emerging economy: blackouts (during peak hours the system delivers 10% less electricity than customers want) and an inadequate grid that does not reach some 300m people (although it has improved a lot in recent years).There is also a risk that India cannot deliver the long-term increase in electricity generation that its economy needs to fulfil its potential.

In India, though, no one expects perfect design. The economy sits somewhere between the old command-and-control approach and the new ways of markets and private capital. What is worrying is that India’s talent for improvisation—a collective ability to muddle through—has deserted it when it comes to providing electricity.The problem is partly one of design. Coal is dug up by a state-monopolist that has failed to boost output significantly in recent years, unlike China (see chart 1), and so cannot keep up with demand. Power is distributed to homes and firms by publicly owned grid companies that are often bankrupt, their tariffs kept too low by local politicians. Trapped in the middle are the firms that run power stations. In desperation they are importing pricier foreign coal, but the grid companies cannot afford the power it produces. With too little coal and wobbly customers, the private firms that have built new power stations are in financial trouble. Another wave of private investment looks unlikely.The problem has been clear for ages. A circuitous blame game is taking place. Ministries squabble but no one knocks heads together. If you trawl round the offices of industry bosses the livid letters they brandish trace their incandescent correspondence with each other. Power, so vital for growth, is India’s biggest bottleneck. The danger is that it becomes a metaphor for the whole economy: many fear that the muddle-through approach of the past two decades of boom has diminishing returns.

One dam thing after another

It wasn’t always all about coal. Jawaharlal Nehru, the country’s first prime minister after independence, was obsessed with hydroelectric dams, calling them the “temples of modern India”. It would have been good for India’s environment, and the world’s, had many more temples been raised. The fad for hydro trickled away and it now provides only 14% of India’s power compared with up to a half in the 1960s.That seems unlikely to change—India is too chaotic and free a place to manage the feats of national machismo that allowed China to build the Three Gorges dam. Although new projects are planned in places such as Kashmir and neighbouring Bhutan, harnessing Himalayan rivers to power all of India is for now a dream, not a policy.The subcontinent has plenty of sun and wind, and states including Gujarat and Tamil Nadu are keen to encourage investments in renewable energy. These are likely to be niche sources of power, thanks to problems getting land and their high cost.As for nuclear power, India’s attitude has long been hyperbolic on paper and ambivalent in practice, despite striking a civilian nuclear deal with America in 2005. Foreign companies are put off by the prospect of unlimited liability in the event of an accident. Nuclear plants face opposition from hostile state governments and protesters. Events in Japan have not helped. “By the time people forgot Chernobyl, along came Fukushima,” says one industry bigwig.

Fossil hunting

The result is that, as in China, fossil fuels will dominate the energy mix. Carbon emissions will rise in tandem, by about two-and-a-half times between 2010 and 2030 according to McKinsey, a consultancy. The growth of India’s power industry—assuming it is built and largely fired by fossil fuels—would contribute about a tenth of the total global rise in emissions over the period. Most Indians do not feel too guilty, arguing that dirtier rich countries, not poor ones, should show restraint. India’s emissions will remain far below those from America and China both in absolute terms and per head.India has some oil and gas, mainly offshore and in Rajasthan, although production has been faltering. It lags China in developing pipelines from energy-rich Central Asia. Coal, then, is key. India’s is not of a high quality—it contains too much ash—but there is lots of it. The British started swinging picks in earnest in the mid-19th century, to meet the demand of a burgeoning railway system, and undertook geological surveys in Bengal.

Today east India remains coal’s heartland and control of the sooty stuff lies with one of the most important companies that most people have never heard of: Coal India.It is a mighty odd beast. Its blood is of the public sector, with modest buildings, 375,000 staff, an empire of largely opencast mines and company towns, and even its own song. Its managers are proud scientists and engineers. And prices are fixed by the state, at far below international levels. Yet its brain has some capitalist cells.After privatisation in 2010, a tenth of its shares are listed (the rest are owned by the state) making it India’s third-most-valuable firm, worth $44 billion. It makes a huge return on equity of over 35%, has $11 billion of unused net cash and reinvests only a fifth of its gross cashflow. It even has a financial gnat on its hide in the form of TCI, a London-based activist hedge fund famed for its stagy belligerence.

From his office in Kolkata, outside which street vendors boil vats of soup on coal stoves, the firm’s outgoing chairman, N.C. Jha, says that Coal India is being made a scapegoat. The lag in production partly reflects one-off factors, such as bad weather, but is mainly the result of a deliberate clampdown by the central government on new permits for buying and clearing land, and an explosion of red tape. “Give me land, and I will give you coal,” says Mr Jha.What is beyond doubt, though, is that Coal India is not digging fast enough (see chart 3). Output has been flat for the past two years—a dire result. India’s ratio of production to reserves is middling by global standards and is well below China’s. Assuming production picks up and grows in line with the long-term average, a vast shortfall in production will still stunt growth in power generation.This complaint is reasonable. At Gondegaon, a vast opencast mine in the Nagpur field, engineers need more space to dump the earth and rock that is dug up with coal. A map shows the pit hemmed in by villages and scrub land. Acquiring the land, compensating the villagers and making sure they shift poses a challenge harder than geology, says the company.

“We do not have a magic wand in our hand to increase production”

says D.C. Garg, boss of the Coal India unit responsible for the area. In east India the firm faces another problem: most reserves are in remote areas where Maoist guerrillas operate.Yet for all the hurdles it faces, many say Coal India is part of the problem. A senior government official says it is riddled with trade unionism and gangs who steal coal—something the private sector would resolve by sending in “the toughest son of a bitch” they could find. The boss of one smallish state-owned electricity generator details how local Coal India employees collude with middlemen to steal his fuel. He says that its local chief is “hugely compromised” by corruption.And no one really knows what Coal India’s mission is, thanks to its hybrid status. Should it maximise profits and the dividend it pays to a cash-strapped government, despite the fact it is a near-monopoly and unregulated? Or is its job to deliver cheap fuel for the nation and accept lower returns by investing more on new mines?

India's coal hole
India’s coal hole

Let’s burn Australia instead

Private generating firms are not waiting to find out the answer to this identity crisis. Instead they have assumed that the state will not deliver enough and are prepared to import vast amounts of coal to fire their plants, either by acquiring it from wholesalers or by buying foreign coal mines. Some $7 billion has been spent in the past six years on pits in Australia, Indonesia and Africa. Gautam Adani, a Gujarat-based tycoon, is building a private network of mines abroad that feeds ports and power stations in India.Amish Shah of Credit Suisse reckons that by the year to March 2017 domestic coal production will meet only 73% of demand, leaving a gap of some 230m tonnes, almost five times the level of 2012. Include other industries that use coal, such as steel, and some analysts calculate that India’s total imports by 2017 could reach some 300m tonnes. That is on a par with the current exports of Australia, or those of Indonesia, South Africa and Canada combined.Even if India could improve its ports and already stretched railways, and adapt its power plants to burn alien coal, can it afford to import so much?

Coal prices have soared in recent years (the benchmark price is some 50% above its average in 2009), partly due to Chinese demand. Indonesia has imposed new rules that hamper foreign mine owners from exporting coal at below market rates. So, adjusted for quality, foreign coal is perhaps four times pricier than the local stuff. The cost of shopping abroad could be as much as $20 billion by 2017—or 1% of today’s GDP.That would swell India’s overall annual energy-import bill. Include coal used for purposes other than power, liquefied natural gas and oil and it could rise by $65 billion or so by 2017, compared with the year to March 2011, according to Sanjeev Prasad of Kotak, a broker. That would put a huge strain on the balance of payments. Even if India can afford to import all this coal, the next question is whether it can persuade its population to fork out for the electricity it produces.

Torture boards

Electricity meters are installed in unexpected places. Power in Dharavi, a giant Mumbai slum, is now largely tolled, with meters nestling next to curing factories piled with goat skins and people melting down used plastic cutlery. But the city, where power is distributed mainly by two private firms, is an exception: almost everywhere else state electricity boards operate the grid, usually badly. They typically lose about a third of the power they buy through theft or inefficient kit, and one executive reckons that up to another third is delivered legally to rural customers who pay subsidised prices or get it free. The result is that a small proportion of customers foot the bills.Although tariffs are notionally set by regulators, local politicians often hold sway and keep them low to win votes. The legislation that governs power is reasonable but unenforced. The electricity boards haemorrhage cash as a result. They lost $11 billion, excluding any subsidies, in the 12 months to March 2010—the last year for which reliable figures are available.The consequences are twofold. First, there is not enough money to upgrade the network: up to $200 billion of capital investment is required. And second, if the cost of the power rises because of the expense of imported coal, these outfits are neither strong enough to absorb the financial hit themselves nor capable of easily passing it through by raising prices to customers. That means it is their suppliers, the generating companies, that get squashed.

“I can see if someone is sleeping on the job”

boasts Arup Roy Choudhury, the chairman of NTPC, the country’s biggest electricity generator. In the floor above his office in Delhi a CCTV studio allows him to spy on his empire. He can zoom in on a giant construction site in Mouda, near those mines in Nagpur, where in March a new plant will fire up, fuelled by coal produced by Coal India. NTPC is likely to get the coal it needs partly because it is state-owned and big.Another power firm in the same state with a new plant coming on line in March expects to get only half the fuel originally promised by Coal India. Private-sector firms with plants coming on line often assume they will be last in the queue for domestic fuel. If they substitute imported coal for domestic coal they worry that they may not be allowed to pass on the costs and that if they are, the electricity boards won’t be able to pay.Generation should be a success story. After a false start in the 1990s, during which even Enron was briefly and disastrously tempted in, mainly local firms, including Tata Sons and Reliance Group, have piled in once more. Special rules were created to fast-track “ultra-mega power plants”, among the largest in the world, with their own captive coal supply and exemptions from some red tape. Total capital investment (including NTPC) has been perhaps $60 billion in the past five years. Yet now share prices have slumped and the central bank has been forced to reassure financial markets that a wave of defaults in the sector will not hurt the banks, which have about 7% of their loans to the power industry, mainly to generation firms.

The true cost to the country is not a few bad debts but a reduction in long-term investment plans as confidence wanes. Across the industry “projects are taking a hit, due to a lack of fuel among other things,” says J.P. Chalasani, the chief executive of Reliance Power, a generation firm. For the economy to expand at 8-9% it will need to add large amounts of generation, consistently. “We are nowhere near that unless immediate action is taken. At some point all this will hit our GDP growth.”In theory there are two solutions to the looming power problem. One is to privatise the electricity boards, end Coal India’s de facto monopoly or break it up, create new regulators and give teeth to existing ones, and then hope that market forces raise standards, tariffs and production. The other is to resort to command-and-control, with a single authority breaking heads.Either of these approaches might be better than today’s squabbling and passivity. Unfortunately, neither is likely. Privatisation is too politically sensitive, as is allowing private firms, let alone foreigners, to run riot over India’s coal beds. And the mesh of states, law courts, ministries and coalition politics means iron fists come out only in a crisis.

Installed Indian Generation Capacity
Installed Indian Generation Capacity

Watch while we juggle

That leaves an alternative approach of administrative fiat and improvisation. It hasn’t worked so far but there are some grounds for hope. A recent court ruling has prodded many electricity boards to raise tariffs. Crafty ways are being cooked up to allow private miners to do the digging while Coal India retains its notional title to the coal, and to grant permission for more “captive” mines where a private generator digs up its own fuel.

Banks seem to have been given the nod by the central bank to ease the terms of their loans to power firms without booking losses. Government officials talk of spreading the cost of imported coal across all firms, so it is not borne by a few, and dream of open access where a power station could bypass the state grid operators and plug into customers directly.It is a safe bet that India’s skills of improvisation will recover—helped by stern words from the prime minister. The lights will not go out anywhere for long enough to annoy voters unduly, and by historical standards there will be decent improvements in the reach and availability of electricity. Companies which need reliable power supplies, including India’s technology giants, will carry on building their own generators just to be sure. Those states that can guarantee power supply, such as Gujarat, will attract the majority of energy-intensive investment, such as car factories.If the test is avoiding a national catastrophe, India’s power sector will pass it. But if it is delivering the infrastructure that can allow the economy to grow at close to a double-digit pace and industrialise rapidly, India is failing.


  1. India’s power cuts: Powerless | The Economist.

I'd love to hear what your thoughts are...please feel free to leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.