In theory, economics is pretty simple stuff. If Farmer A is selling apples 4 for a dollar and Farmer B is selling them 5 for a dollar, who you gonna call when you need apples? Farmer B, of course. You’d be crazy to pay more for apples than you need to, especially if you hope to resell them and become the Jeff Bezos of the apple world.
Now imagine you are a native of India and want to supply electricity to the teeming masses. You can either build coal-fired generating stations that cost more to operate or build renewable energy resources like solar and wind farms that cost less to operate. Once again, you’d be crazy to select the more expensive option, but that is just what India plans to do? Why? Because coal is like a religion and common sense rarely applies to theological discussions.
The Institute For Energy Economics And Financial Analysis says India is hell bent on building a fleet of new coal-fired generating stations — 33 gigawatts (GW) currently under construction and another 29 GW in pre-construction. All of them will wind up being stranded assets, says Kashish Shah, a research analyst at IEEFA. “Coal-fired power simply cannot compete with the ongoing cost reductions of renewables. Solar tariffs in India are now below even the fuel costs of running most existing coal-fired power plants.
“In the last 12 months no new coal-fired power plants have been announced, and there has been no movement in the 29 GW of pre-construction capacity. This reflects the lack of financing available for new coal fired power projects, and also the flattening of electricity demand growth, which has impacted coal the most.”
Despite such headwinds, the Central Electricity Authority still projects India will reach 267 GW of coal-fired capacity by 2030. That will require adding 58 GW of net new capacity additions, or about 6.4 GW annually.
IEEFA says it is “highly improbable” that the CEA’s projections will materialize, given the ongoing financial and operational stress in the thermal power sector, which means India’s coal capacity plans should be urgently revised.
“Any projections for India’s future generation mix should take into account that new coal-fired power plants are likely to become stranded assets,” says Shah. “The new capacity would only be economically viable if it replaced end-of-life, polluting power plants with outdated combustion technology and locations remote to coal mines.
“Even then, there would need to be sufficient coal plant flexibility to deliver power into periods of peak demand, and the time-of-day pricing would need to be high enough to justify the low over the day utilisation rates.”
Shah adds that without material growth in electricity demand, installing additional inflexible high-emissions baseload capacity will increase the financial distress of state-owned distribution companies by adding to their burden of paying fixed-capacity charges to thermal power plants that are used only sparingly.
The International Energy Agency’s road map for reaching net zero emissions by 2050 recommends no new investment in fossil fuel supply projects, and no further final investment decisions for new unabated coal plants. IEEFA notes there is little appetite from private investors to risk new capital in a sector that continues to carry US$40–60 billion of non-performing or stranded assets.
Only India’s state-owned Power Finance Corporation and Rural Electrification Corporation continue to tout new coal-fired power capacity, but that may have more to do with politics than economics. Nearly half of the 33 GW of capacity now under construction in India is sponsored by those state-owned companies. IEEFA suggests they should “walk away” from those “under construction” projects now to avoid the risk of them sitting idle after they are completed.
“Governments, investors and utilities across the globe are rapidly transitioning to cheaper domestic zero emissions renewable energy,” says Shah. “India should be taking advantage of the falling cost of renewables plus rising viability of battery storage, which can provide clean grid-firming, to meet incremental power demand.
“Accelerating renewable energy capacity commissioning is critical to lower India’s overall energy costs and support faster electrification of transportation and other industries. Ultra-low cost renewables would also enable development of a green hydrogen economy to strengthen India’s long-term objective of energy security.” Seems like basic economics to us.
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