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Freight corridor in India plays major role in easing coal supplies

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NEW DELHI : Lack of adequate infrastructure for evacuation and transportation of coal has been a perennial cause for the fuel shortages at thermal power plants during peak summer periods. Indian Railways could not often provide enough rakes for movement of the fuel. One reason for the coal stocks at Gencos being comfortable this time around despite rising power demand is the dedicated freight corridor coming on stream.

Even as the power consumption is scaling new peaks in the summer season, the demand for coal at the power plants have grown too. For instance, on May 23, when the power demand reached a new high of 236.59 gigawatts (GW), the thermal power plants in India were using 4.4% more coal as compared to last year.

“Despite the high coal demand, the number of power plants with critical coal stock has gone down significantly. Not just that. The power plants dependent on domestic coal have just about 16 days of coal stock with them, which is far below the stocking norms mandated by the Central Electricity Authority (CEA),” said an official at Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India Ltd (DFCCIL).

As per CEA rules, the pithead power plants need to have coal reserves of 12-17 days whereas the non-pithead plants need for 20-26 days based on their requirements of 85% plant load factor (PLF) with seasonal variation in consumption pattern. Non-pithead plants are power plants where the coal mine is more than 1,500 kms away, and hence, they are more dependent on the railways. At the moment, there are 166 non-pithead plants in the country as compared to just 18 pithead plants.

Officials at DFCCIL said that since the coal supply issues have been resolved to a large extent by the Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridors (EDFC), there’s no need for the power plants to keep the coal stocks for a longer period.

EDFC connects power plants in the northern states of UP, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, and Rajasthan with coal fields in the Eastern India. The traffic on EDFC also includes food grains, cement, fertilisers, finished steel and limestone.

DFCCIL claims that the number of power plants with critically low levels of coal stocks have also come down significantly because of the dedicated corridor. For example, there are 24 power plants with critical stock as on May 21, which is far lower than the comparative figure last year (51) and the year before that (107).

The shift of traffic from the Indian Railways’ network to DFC has also enabled the railways to add more passenger services, and boost its revenues. EDFC currently operates 65-70 trains per day as against its operating capacity of 120 trains. Each coal rake has 58 wagons, and there’s about 4,000 tonnes of coal per rake. The DFCCIL can ramp up its frequency as the demand for coal rises in the future.

Experts said that the shortage of coal and erratic supply have been affecting the power plants over the past few years. For instance, the gap between daily coal consumption and daily arrival of domestic coal ballooned to about 2.80 lakh tonnes per day in September 2023. This led to the ministry of power advising the central and state generation companies (Gencos) and IPPs (independent power producers) to import coal through a competitive procurement process for blending. 

“The EDFC, which has been fully commissioned this year, has decongested the coal transportation network and making the coal available to plants as and when they need,” said a railways sector expert.

Even though the EDFC doesn’t provide end-to-end connectivity between the power plants and coal mines, DFCCIL official said that due to the higher speed of coal rakes in the corridor (about 50 kmph), the overall transportation time has gone down. “While the Indian Railways still provide the feeder route for coal transport, there’s an estimated 30% reduction in overall,” said the official.

Higher speeds at EDFC has brought down the transportation time to below 20 hours from 35 hours earlier. This has, in turn, reduced the inventory cost for the power plants.

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