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The government is considering running special trains to ferry coal to power plants facing depleted fuel stocks, two officials aware of the strategies being explored said.

The proposal is on the lines of the Oxygen Express trains run by Indian Railways to deliver medical oxygen during the pandemic’s deadly second wave. Around 39 million tonnes (mt) of coal is available at state-run Coal India Ltd’s (CIL’s) mines.

“There is enough stock available at CIL mines that can ease the situation at the power plants. Trains on the lines of the Oxygen Express trains can be run to move coal. This is one of the several options that has been explored," said one of the two officials, requesting anonymity.

India has the world’s fourth-largest reserves and is the second largest producer of coal. While CIL’s annual production target is 670 mt for the current fiscal, the coal offtake is expected to be 740 mt. This assumes importance because coal-fuelled capacity accounts for 52.41% or 202.80 gigawatts (GW) of India’s installed power generation capacity of 386.88GW.

“So far, there has been no problem with rake availability from Indian Railways to transport coal. If need be, then running special Coal Express trains can be considered," said the second official, who also did not want to be named.

The Prime Minister’s Office has drawn up a comprehensive plan to ensure uninterrupted fuel supplies to power plants. The plan involves state-run CIL delivering an additional 200,000 tonnes of coal daily, using 60 railway rakes to ramp up coal supplies to 2.1 mt per day, Mint reported on 13 October. Indian Railways will provide the rakes.

In response to a query, a CIL spokesperson said the company is “focusing on ramping up evacuation logistics to meet higher offtake. Coal India is working in tandem with the Railways to step up supplies to the power sector by augmenting the required number of rakes and increasing their availability where needed."

CIL has also asked its subsidiaries to suspend the electronic auction of coal. However, special spot e-auction for power sector will continue. CIL’s allocation under spot e-auction and special spot e-auction accounted for 46 mt of coal in FY21. CIL had earlier lifted the embargo on coal exports under its e-auction sales policy, thereby allowing traders to export coal.

Queries emailed to the spokespeople for the ministries of power, coal and railways remained unanswered until press time.

“This is only a temporary prioritization, in the interest of the nation, to tide over the low coal stock situation at the stressed power plants and scale up supplies to them. It does not mean stoppage of e-auction format," CIL said in a statement on Friday.

“The company is increasing its production and off-take steadily. For the past four days supplies to power sector are consistently at 1.61 mt per day. Once the situation stabilizes, expectedly within a short time, and stock at coal fired plants attains comfort level, other sectors will be brought back to regular supply norm," the CIL statement added.

Analysts expect the situation to improve this month, with the daily fuel offtake from CIL’s coal mines expected to be further ramped up after Durga Puja when more workers are available at the coalfields.

Fuel supplies to power plants have improved, with total supplies reaching 2 mt earlier this week. According to state-run Power System Operation Corp. Ltd (Posoco), which oversees India’s critical electricity load management functions, the coal-based capacity under outage due to coal shortage has come down to 5GW on 14 October. Also, the government is trying to facilitate operationalizing 17.06GW of imported coal-fuelled power generation capacity along with blending of imported coal by plants using domestic coal.

With coal supplies being augmented for power generation plants, its impact is now being felt by other consumer industries—such as aluminium that says it is struggling with inadequate fossil fuel to fire smelters for producing the non-ferrous metal. Coal accounts for 40% of aluminium production costs. “Indian aluminium plants are grappling with critically low levels of coal stock, with no recourse or alternative means to meet power needs and keep the plants operational," lobby group Aluminium Association of India said in a statement on Friday. “Aluminium production is a 24X7, 365 days continuous process industry; there is no provision to switch off and switch on," it added.

According to the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), as of 13 October, India’s 119 coal-fuelled power projects, totalling 129.86GW, had four days of stocks. Besides, 16 plants located near coal mines totalling 35.2GW capacity have five days of fuel stocks.

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