Column: India at risk of widespread blackouts this summer

LONDON, April 14 (Reuters) – India will face a persistent power shortage over the next four months as rapidly growing demand for air conditioners and refrigeration loads overwhelm available generation on the grid.

The Indian grid reported a record load of 200,570 megawatts (MW) on July 7, 2021, at the height of last summer, according to the National Load Dispatch Center of the Power System Operation Corporation (POSOCO).

Since mid-March, the grid has regularly reported peak loads above 195,000 MW, including a peak of 199,584 MW on April 8, less than 0.5% below the record.

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During the evening peak, when there is no solar generation available and supplies are even tighter, loads have hit record highs in recent weeks.

Exceptionally high loads arrived much earlier this year, well before the peak summer heat, implying that the network is in trouble.

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A symptom of the struggle to keep up with demand, grid frequency has faltered since mid-March, consistently falling below target, with longer and more severe excursions below the safe operating range.

Chronic underfrequency is a sign that the network cannot meet full customer demand and makes planned load shedding or unplanned outages much more likely.

India has a frequency target of 50.00 cycles per second (Hertz), with network monitors responsible for keeping it stable between 49.90Hz and 50.05Hz to keep the network in a safe and reliable state.

Grid controls start disconnecting some loads automatically if the frequency slows down to 49.2 Hz with additional load shedding at 49.0 Hz, 48.8 Hz and 48.6 Hz (“Review of the Indian electric grid code”, 2020 ).

Additionally, relays in the northern and western regions of the network are armed to automatically disconnect the load if the frequency drops too quickly and falls below 49.9 Hz, while relays in the south are armed to begin load shedding at 49.5Hz.

But frequency has been so often below target for so long in recent weeks that it has occasionally appeared the system has been forced to operate at a much lower informal target due to inadequate production.

Since mid-March, the frequency has only averaged 49.95 Hz and has been below the lower operating threshold of 49.90 Hz more than 23% of the time.

On April 7, the average frequency fell to 49.84 Hz and was below the lower threshold for 63% of the day, according to POSOCO data.

LOW COAL STOCKS

Power generators’ coal inventories remain very low, limiting their ability to operate coal-fired units at full capacity to meet demand.

Producers connected to the network hold coal stocks equivalent to less than 9 days of consumption compared to 12 days at the end of April 2021 and 18 days in 2019.

Stocks haven’t really recovered since falling to a critical low of just 4 days in late September 2021, when fuel shortages led to widespread power outages.

Rapidly growing electricity demand has allowed fuel consumption to remain high during the traditional winter stockpiling period, while high coal prices have also discouraged resupply.

India’s Ministry of Railways announced on April 12 that coal from domestic mines and import terminals will be given priority on the rail network until the end of June in an attempt to boost inventories.

But the very low level of coal stocks in power plants at the start of the peak annual demand period indicates that power shortages are more or less inevitable in the coming months.

AIR CONDITIONERS

Unlike the widespread outages in October last year, the current problem is the result of high demand as well as supply issues.

India’s grid is under increasing pressure due to rapidly growing load of commercial and residential air conditioners, refrigeration and other loads, increasing electricity consumption at all levels of coal storage.

Temperatures in northern India have been unusually high for the time of year since mid-March, leading to a rapid increase in electricity demand.

Peak daily loads during the seven days centered on April 8 were more than 9% higher than the same period a year earlier.

In an effort to curb the growing demand for electricity, the government’s Office of Energy Efficiency has imposed a default setting of 24°C for air conditioners sold in India since 2020.

Users can override the default, but the government relies on inertia to establish 24°C as the standard comfort temperature.

Average daily temperatures topped 24°C in New Delhi as early as March 13 and demand for electricity has increased since then.

The early onset of warm weather means there have been 182 cooling degree days so far this year, compared to a long-term seasonal average of 99.

But temperatures are expected to continue to rise to peak in late June or early July, pushing electricity demand even higher over the next 2-4 months.

Since the network is already struggling, it is unlikely to be able to serve higher loads between May and August, making load shedding and other blackouts more or less inevitable during any period of unusually hot weather.

Associated columns:

– India’s coal and power shortages ease (Reuters, November 12) read more

– Plagued by coal shortages, India’s power grid struggles to meet demand (Reuters, Oct. 12) read more

John Kemp is a market analyst at Reuters. Opinions expressed are his own.

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Editing by David Evans

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