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Interaction | October 2015

The low PLF was not just on account of coal shortage

Archana Bhatnagar, Associate Vice President-Development & Financial Services (Power Plants) Wartsila India Pvt Ltd, strongly believes that the low PLF was mainly due to excess base load capacity in the system, even when there are shortages during peak hours.

What is the single important worrying factor that is hurting the power sector?
It is heartening to note that coal production has been stepped up. On a superficial view it seems distribution segment is the only worry. However, It is still difficult to pinpoint a ´single important worry factor´, as we need to tackle challenges on all fronts, to realise the six-fold vision of the MoP viz 1) 24x7 power for all at 2) affordable prices, and to 3) ensure energy security, 4) RE addition of 100 GW of solar and 60 GW of wind to achieve, 5) reduction in carbon emission, and 6) Make in India.

Also, much remains to be achieved on the gas front. Gas pooling and subsidising may be was essential to begin with, but cannot be a long term solution. Gas as a fuel has specific applications in a country like ours, which has sizable coal reserves and these are balanced by renewables, grid stability, meeting peak power, etc. A robust electric system consists of suitable technology and fuel to ensure grid security while providing 24x7 power to all, at reasonable prices. There is a need to look at the holistic development of the sector taking into account all these issues.

The government hasn´t pointed out that 2014-15 also recorded the lowest plant load factor in over 15 years...
It is clear that the low PLF was not just on account of coal shortage, as it was made out to be. The low PLF is, paradoxically, an indicator of excess base load capacity in the system, even when there are shortages during peak hours. Due to the cyclical nature of demand, several coal plants operate at sub-optimal loads during the night and off-peak hours, resulting in low, average annual PLF. Not only does such cycling cause harm to the machinery, but adds inefficiencies to generation. This trend will worsen if we keep adding more coal plants, when there´s significant penetration of variable RE capacity.

Lowest PLF, even when the output has touched a trillion unit mark is a concern which needs to be examined and corrective action needs to be taken. Otherwise, the burden of under utilised capacity will have to be borne by those same consumers for whom various subsidy schemes are being worked out. A possible solution to this is that certain flexible technologies like storage hydro plants and gas-based reciprocating engine plants are also made part of the system. This will not only bring down the overall investment requirement for the same installed capacity, but also improve efficiency of the coal or base load stations by allowing it to operate at optimum PLF, while the variability is taken care by flexible plants.

Any suggestions you would like to propose to the government, especially to increase the PLF?
The capacity mix has to be optimised in such a manner, that coal plants are limited to meeting the base load demand, at a steady high load, which will result in a high PLF. The fluctuating or intermittent loads of peaking and RE-balancing can be taken care of by dedicated, flexible plants with unique characteristics of quick start and ramp-up. This way, both types of plants will be utilised at their best efficiencies. This will also improve the reliability of the system, lower the average generation cost, land requirement, CO2 emission and water consumption. Because of its inherent flexibility, gas-based reciprocating engine plants can cater to the peaking requirements, as well as balance needs.

These engines are much cheaper than coal plants, and even if they run on the so-called ´expensive LNG´, the overall cost of the system level comes down due to efficiency improvement of the entire generation mix, through optimisation of operation.

List out a few ¨structural reforms¨ that will change the generation sector?
Capacity planning based on need i.e., separate dedicated base - peak-balancing capacity, regulatory independence, and reduction in AT&C losses in a fixed time frame is required. It will also be worthwhile to allow TRANSCOs or system operators like RLDCs or SLDCs to set up dedicated balancing capacity to maintain the health of the grid.

Now, that the government has stepped into its second year, list out your agendas that will wake up this government from slumber?
To create awareness about the impact of such massive renewables in an extremely rigid Indian grid, the solution needs to be a mix of generation planning and transmission planning. Green corridor on a stand-alone basis cannot solve the problem. Flexibility in generation is an important factor which is yet to get the necessary recognition.

-RAHUL KAMAT

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