India's coal-run thermal power plants may be economically unviable in future, claims analyst

New Delhi: India's ultra thermal plants, designed to run on foreign coal, may no longer afford to do so economically in the future, says a top financial analyst with a leading US-based institute.

This can be seen in the case of India's two largest thermal power projects in Gujarat's port town of Mundra — Adani Power's 4.6 GW and Tata Power's 4 GW plants. Both are no longer competitive owing to nearly doubled price rise of coal from Indonesia since their planning and incapability to hike tariffs, says Tim Buckley, Director of Energy Finance Studies Australasia with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).

Representational image. Getty images

Representational image. Getty images

Adani's Mundra plant has previously been disclosed to be operating with 100 percent imported coal from Indonesia while Adani Power has been operating at a net loss, and has been doing so for the last seven years, Buckley told IANS in an email interview.

The Mundra plant is by far Adani Power's largest and is the intended destination for the majority of its thermal coal imports from the Carmichael proposal in Australia under Adani's "pit to plug" strategy.

After an adverse Supreme Court ruling disallowing any tariff revision to compensate for higher cost of imported coal, Adani Power discontinued 1,250 MW of power supply from Mundra due to unviability of running these units on imported coal.

"These plants will curtail production rather than lose money with every unit of production. It is a likely conclusion that a $1-2 billion write down of Adani Power's $5bn plant is on the cards. As it stands, this plant is a clear stranded asset," said Buckley.

Adani Power has approached state-run Gujarat Urja Vikas Nigam (GUVNL) to bail out its Mundra plant. According to reports, one option for GUVNL is to take a majority stake in the plant post a write-down of equity.

Likewise, Tata Power has written to the central government proposing to sell 51 percent equity of its ailing asset for a nominal fee of Rupee one, citing challenges faced by the company since Indonesian coal prices doubled.

According to Buckley, a written-down plant can be reconfigured to be viable, particularly if cheap ($20/tonne) domestic coal can be procured in proximity to the plant without exorbitant rail freight costs.

However, a key requirement is that blending in low energy and high ash Indian coal requires high quality existing Australian thermal coal which is high energy and low ash.

But coal from Carmichael would be low energy and high ash and far from ideal for blending with cheap domestic Indian coal, he said.

Commenting on energy minister Piyush Goyal's recent assertions that India would need to keep importing coal, including from the proposed Carmichael mine, Buckley said: "The strategic aim to cease non-coast power plant usage of imported thermal coal within the next two to three years means domestic operators will need to reconfigure their plants so that they can use domestic coal."

In May, the Indian government stated that it was considering auctioning Coal India's domestic coal for supply and blending at import coal-based power plants where possible.

As India works through and resolves domestic supply shortages, the need for imported thermal coal will continue to progressively decline.

India targets for all public sector undertakings to be using 100 percent domestic coal by this fiscal, following NTPC's move to virtually cease coal imports in 2016-17.

"As proof of the gradual success of this program to protect India's current account deficit and currency, Indian coal imports peaked in 2014-15, and have progressively declined since then. May 2017 saw a six per cent year-on-year decline for the month," said Buckley, who is in Mumbai and New Delhi this week.

For India, tapping renewable energy sources is a great opportunity, he said.

"The move away from thermal fuel imports improves the balance of payments, helps improve the currency and hence reduces imported inflation generally," Buckley added.

An IEEFA report titled "NTPC as a Force in India's Electricity Transition" showcases how the Indian government is shifting rapidly towards a low-carbon economy — a step towards achieving the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement aim of cutting greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.

India's draft "Ten Year Electricity Plan" calls for a staggering 275 GW of renewable energy by 2027, in addition to 72 GW of hydro and 15 GW of nuclear energy.

Updated Date: Jun 26, 2017 12:49 PM

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