The impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on the power sector is expected to be far-reaching. Electricity demand has already seen a drop due to the shutdown of industrial and commercial establishments. This, in turn, is expected to have an impact on the liquidity profile of the financially weak discoms. The loss in revenue collection will lead to payment delays to power gencos and transmission companies. Industry experts analyse the current and potential impact of the coronavirus on the sector and the measures needed to minimise it…
What has been the impact of Covid-19 on the power sector? What has been the trend in power demand?
In the past few days, the industrial demand for has seen a correction because of the preventive lockdown due to Covid-19. Two of the largest consumers of power, the industrial sector and railways, are operating at limited output. The demand for power has reduced by 20-25 per cent even though it has been offset to some extent by increased domestic consumption as a result of work-from-home and demand from the healthcare sector. The exchange power market has seen some changes as well. The day-ahead market on the exchange platform has surplus power availability as the sell side is almost three times the total buy. As a result, the prices in the exchange market are the lowest they have been in the past two years. The price discovered at the Indian Energy Exchange platform is at an all-time low with the average price of about Rs 2.46 per unit in March 2020. Distribution utilities can make use of this opportunity by replacing their high variable cost power with buying electricity from the spot market and supplying 24×7 power to all consumers. The other key aspect is the liquidity crunch facing distribution utilities, thus impacting their revenues. To support the utilities, the government has announced some measures while a few are under way. These include special financial packages and provision of direct payments to generators through Power Finance Corporation Limited and REC Limited. On the coal front, there has been a steady supply of coal with thermal generators. Hence, a swift spring back to a strong and stable economy post the effective containment of the virus should not be an issue.
The power demand has dropped by 20-25 per cent due to the lockdown on account of Covid-19, from 158,672 MW on March 14, 2020 to 123,196 MW on April 6, 2020, and from 148,780 MW to 119,374 MW at 1900 hours, as per the daily power supply report of POSOCO. As per CEA statistics, the percentage consumption of commercial establishments such as shops and offices is conventionally 8-9 per cent, while it is 41-42 per cent for the industrial sector and 24-25 per cent for the domestic sector. Electric traction contributes to about 1.5 per cent, which would have become zero. So, the biggest contributors to load reduction are on the commercial and industrial side. The power demand in the future would depend on how much the lockdown is relaxed and at what stage.
Due to the nationwide lockdown, industrial and commercial activities have come to a standstill. This has resulted in a sharp decline of around 40 GW in power demand from 160 GW (pre-lockdown) to approximately 120 GW. The lifting of the lockdown is subject to the effective containment of the pandemic. We may see a phased restoration of commercial and industrial demand in the next couple of months. The impact of the impending labour crisis on production and industrial demand is yet to be ascertained.
Industrial, commercial and traction demand has been hit hard during the lockdown period. Meanwhile, domestic demand has increased. The total electricity demand was significantly affected (negative 26 per cent) in the first week of the lockdown. The uncertainty is likely to continue during the lockdown period. The medium- and long-term demand growth is likely to be tepid till the economy regains pre-Covid-19 activity levels. It will be a long road to recovery. While there will be spurts when the lockdown ends and the situation comes back under control, the overall effects on demand will play out for some time. Demand was generally weak in the second half of 2019-20 and the gap that has now emerged will be difficult to fill. Hence, the estimated supply requirements will also be affected and will hit the new project pipeline.
Dr Pramod Deo
It is difficult to say how the power demand will change in the next couple of months as it will depend on how the Covid-19 situation evolves. Commercial and industrial consumers account for a major portion of discom revenues and revenue collection from these consumers has dropped considerably. Since commercial and industrial customers subsidise agriculture and lifeline domestic consumers, their contribution to discom revenues is crucial for the financial health of utilities. Further, in the lockdown situation, billing can only be done on an average basis as meter reading has been deferred by the discoms. The larger problem is that discoms will be unable to pay to the transcos and gencos. Already some states have started invoking force majeure clause of power purchase agreements (PPAs) to defer payments to gencos. The Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC) has released a suomoto order for deferring payments for projects under Section 62 of the Electricity Act, 2003. However, this order does account for the accumulated accrued interest to be paid by the discoms later. For gencos and transcos whose tariff was determined under Section 63 of the act (on a competitive bidding basis), discoms may claim relief from its obligations as per the force majeure provisions given in the respective PPAs.
It is expected that payment issues will result in a prolonged stalemate or litigation between the discoms and independent power producers (IPPs). Recently, the electricity demand has dipped significantly, but as the demand picks up, the gencos will need to make payments to Indian Railways and Coal India Limited (CIL). The current moratoriums on payments cannot be continued for a long time. Finally, the distribution reforms that were being proposed by the central government such as stringent lending norms and target-based incentives/disincentives will take a back seat now. The sector reforms have been pushed by a year or two at least. We can only hope that the situation stabilises as early as possible.
T.N. Arun Kumar
The lockdown has resulted in the suspension of industrial and commercial activities including passenger rail transportation accounting for the bulk of power demand in the country. As per initial estimates, electricity consumption declined by 20-25 per cent in the second week of March 2020. The closure of factories and commercial establishments has reduced discom procurement, leading to a slump in the power demand.
The economic slowdown along with the immediate impact of the lockdown during Covid-19 have had a sobering impact on demand, which has gone down by 30-35 per cent. The demand mix constituted domestic consumers (25 per cent), industrial consumers (41 per cent), commercial consumers (9 per cent), agriculture consumers (18 per cent) and others (7 per cent) after adjusting for 25 per cent proportionate transmission and distribution losses. With industrial and commercial consumption significantly lower, the overall demand came down by 30-35 per cent. The peak demand is hovering around 110-115 GW, down from 170-175 GW. Interesting to note was the #9 p.m., 9M lights off campaign on April 5, 2020, which gave an insight into the real domestic demand and how losses are getting apportioned. While experts estimated 12-14 GW of lighting demand to go down, the actual demand went down by close to 32 GW.
Dr S.L. Rao
Demand has already dropped since many manufacturing units have halted production. Commercial establishments are all in shutdown mode, thereby impacting the electricity demand negatively. In my perspective, things are not going to get normal before 12 months. The Reserve Bank of India has significantly reduced interest rates, it has become easier to get funds from banks, and even credit card holders have been given more time to clear their dues. All these steps show that there is an expectation of declining demand. But the amount of money that is being pumped into the system, Rs 1.7 trillion, as has been announced by the finance minister, and taking into account the supply disruption, I think we are going to get into a situation of rising inflation very soon. There will be a lot of money in the system, and a declining supply of goods and services.
Dr Rahul Tongia
Thus far there have been two significant happenings in the Indian electricity sector during Covid-19. First, the demand has declined during the lockdown, as expected, by about 25 per cent. Second, there was a 9 p.m., 9 minutes lights out show of solidarity on April 5, 2020, when the demand fell, in a short time, by about 25 per cent (some 31 GW). The grid was able to cope. To recover (it may be premature to say get back to “normal”), there are a few questions policymakers have to ask – how much of this is a temporary issue, and do we only need to plan for the short/medium term? What are the long-term issues? What are major issues that highlight structural problems and perhaps irreversibility?
Since demand has dropped, the historical worry of insufficient supply is not a major issue. Luckily, coal power plants had a high stockpile of coal. There was a major grid event on April 5, 2020 at 9 p.m., when the prime minister asked for a lights-out-candles-on show. While the lighting load is only 8-10 per cent of the total load, the actual fall in load was about 25 per cent (31 GW), which implies residents also switched off more than
lights, perhaps due to the fear of grid stability problems. The grid handled this event well because of two reasons. One was advance warning and preparedness of the load despatchcentres, and the other was the role hydropower played, with its fast ramping capabilities.
India is probably better prepared than other countries against disruptions due to a baseline mentality of extensive backup power, be it hospitals, offices, or cell towers. Going forward, will some people rethink renewable energy plus battery for critical loads since these supply options are time-limited, unlike diesel that can more easily be designed for days of backup?
Since March 22, Delhi’s peak power demand has reduced by up to 40 per cent, in comparison with the corresponding peak power demand last year. Power demand has reduced elsewhere in the country as well. The situation is expected to remain the same till the lockdown continues. The demand is expected to rise with an increase in temperature, leading to an increase in the peak load in Delhi, especially the night peak. However, the overall demand is expected to be muted compared to the earlier pre-Covid projections.
How will the current scenario impact discoms (demand, finances, etc.)?
Several distribution utilities are in a financially difficult situation and it is anticipated that the outstanding dues of distribution utilities may reach up to Rs 920 billion for the financial year ended March 31, 2020. The industrial tariff cross-subsidises agricultural and domestic tariffs. With limited industrial supply, revenues of distribution utilities have dwindled and their outstanding dues to generation companies, transmission companies, renewable energy generators and coal companies are mounting. Take the recent example of Tamil Nadu, which anticipates a Rs 12 billion revenue loss since the lockdown. If we extrapolate across 29 states in terms of energy consumed, the all-India loss could easily be in excess of Rs 120 billion for just one month. With the overall demand for power likely to be suppressed till the lockdown continues, several distribution utilities are benefiting by shutting down high-cost generation and are procuring power through the exchange platform, which would help them reduce the power procurement cost.
Discoms’ revenue has reduced because of the shutdown, mainly due to subsidising consumers, which in most states would be commercial and industrial consumers. Also, the discoms would have to continue to pay the fixed charge for power procurement, which roughly contributes to 30-40 per cent of the total cost of power per unit, even if they do not utilise the asset fully. On the other hand, discoms have a smaller percentage of fixed cost recovery in the tariff. Operational performance would not be affected since being an essential service the essential staff has to come for duty. There would be fewer faults in the distribution system feeding industrial and commercial consumers.
The lower demand will adversely impact the revenues and cash collections for discoms in the near term, especially given the consumption decline from the subsidising commercial and industrial consumers and likely delays in cash collections. The monthly deficit for discoms is estimated to be Rs 130 billion on an all-India level. At an operational level, the overall manpower availability has been severely impacted, in turn delaying EPC and maintenance schedules. There is an assumption that manpower-intensive projects might get delayed beyond three to six months. Regular operations such as meter reading and doorstep bill delivery have also been impacted. Although provisional billing measures are being taken, this may have a cascading effect when normal services are resumed in the form of bill corrections/abatements, etc.
Discom finances will be affected by the reduction in demand from more remunerative customers (commercial and industrial). It will also impact discom’s ability to cross-subsidise other customers. In general, there will be a limitation on tariff increases due to consequential economic impacts. This will hinder the recovery of discom finances, which are already in a precarious situation. There will be an additional working capital hit due to delays in collection of subsidies and government dues. There could be a cascading impact on payments to generators and debt service by utilities/ plants if the lockdown continues for a longer period.
T.N. Arun Kumar
From the demand perspective, the energy sales of discoms are certainly going to reduce as the major high-paying consumers would be under the lockdown, offsetting the improved power demand from domestic consumers. Financially, the pandemic-related restrictions will lead to an immediate reduction in cash collection from the various consumer categories. Also, lower revenues and collections from much profitable commercial and industrial establishments given their reduced demand would adversely impact the overall revenues of discoms. The lower revenue from these subsidising segments is likely to increase discoms’ subsidy requirement. Further, various state governments are announcing deferrals of power bills and waiver of fixed charges for various consumer categories to minimise the impact of lockdown-related restrictions. States like Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat have waived fixed charges for select consumer categories. A few other states (Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana) have allowed the deferment of electricity bills from one to two months without payment of late payment surcharge. It, however, remains to be seen through what ways and means the discoms will be compensated as this is going to put an additional strain on discom cash flows.
In the short run, it will have a big negative impact on discom finances given the digital maturity levels, existing tariff structures and rates, fixed nature of network costs and power purchase contracts. Utility revenues will significantly drop due to the reduced consumption of industrial and commercial consumers. This will make discom losses higher. Recovery through fixed charges will not compensate for the fixed costs that a discom bears on account of PPAs and network costs. Discom digital maturity and IT penetration is at a nascent stage. So the response time in many of the internal support functions has been impacted. Though the availability and reliability of our network and supply has not seen any adverse impact, a continued lockdown will test the network infrastructure in the second quarter of this financial year.
Dr S.L. Rao
Since the electricity demand is declining, there will be surplus electricity with gencos. The capacity utilisation factor of gencos will decline and there will a pressure on discoms/SERCs to reduce tariffs in order to drive electricity consumption. Due to low tariffs, discom revenues will be impacted and financially stressed discoms will be further strained. This will also lead to piling up of discoms’ dues to generators.
Dr Rahul Tongia
If we consider the average billing rate (ABR) in 2017-18, the residential ABR was only Rs 4.30 per kWh, the commercial ABR was Rs 8.69 per kWh and industrial ABR was Rs 7.54 per kWh. There is another aspect of direct implications. The lockdown has meant that many consumer payments are suspended. On the opposite side of the manual-heavy payments from consumers are payments to generators by discoms. These have also slowed down, but they come under government-sanctioned delays. Liquidity is often the first victim of any crisis, but the question remains how much of a solvency hit do we expect. While delays would appear to be a normal and ostensibly temporary response, the fact that generators were already reeling under delayed payments from discoms means the situation is far more precarious. It is not just a discom-generator issue, but it extends to the banking and financial sector as well. If everyone was asking for support before Covid-19 crisis (what some may call bailouts), then the essential services nature of electricity means this sector will certainly see relaxation of payment timelines and even direct fiscal support.
Further, steps were being taken for tightening operating/financial norms, such as through letters of credit for advance payment (or escrow equivalent) for generators. It is possible that there may be a pause in such efforts. The power sector was already grappling with the transition towards renewable energy, along with other structural changes including more markets and a smarter grid. There are two specific realities of this change that Covid simply highlights. One, most of the grid is moving towards fixed costs. Renewable energy has virtually zero variable costs, and even new coal capacity is capital cost heavy as we move to more efficient (and cleaner) generation. Saving energy does not directly mean saving money. Two, the plant load factor (PLF) will have to have a wider spread. No longer can we assume a simple normative PLF of a coal plant, let alone apply it universally.
The issue is not just what will the change be (a downward shift of 5 per cent in PLF), which plants will change the most, and who bears the risk for “getting it wrong”. The current system is designed to pass through supply or demand risks (through fuel supply agreements, PPAs, regulated tariffs), but only when such instruments were available. Not everyone gets access to these equally. The private sector, particularly, is at a disproportional risk.
This situation has several aspects. These are as follows:
- Reduction in peak demand and input energy.
- Backing down/Reserve shutdown of thermal stations, leading to the availability of record coal stock at power generating stations.
- Very competitive prices on power exchange.
- Reliable supply being ensured while maintaining social distancing and following all government guidelines on the current situation.
- Lower power consumption resulting in lower billing may ultimately impact collections.
- Provisional bills due to lack of physical meter reading.
- Commercial and industrial consumers affected due to the lockdown.
- Force majeure notices by discoms and other players in the electricity supply chain.
What are the measures needed to minimise its impact on the power sector?
With demand having slowed down, the power sector would be in excess availability of supply and several state generators and IPPs are operating at low PLFs. There are other plants that are not operational. The generation through these plants can easily be stepped up if the state governments and discoms commit to supply 24×7 power to all consumers including residential, healthcare, public utilities, agriculture and other consumer categories. To address the situation of lack of financial liquidity, discoms may be provided special line of credit and working capital limits to allow them to continue operations. Further, discoms must be encouraged to leverage the available power on the markets at low cost, thereby enabling the reduction of power procurement cost.
Heavy industries and energy-intensive industries such as cement, iron, steel, aluminium and chemical spend 30-40 per cent of their production cost on electricity alone. Significant cost savings can be generated by industrial consumers by sourcing electricity from competitive sources under open access. This is the need of the hour as industries would financially struggle to revive owing to declining consumption. Several tariff-related barriers such as high CSS make open access commercially unviable in many states.
The SERCs typically pass on the fixed cost burden of stranded capacity as an additional surcharge to open access consumers. Due to Covid-19, the demand for power has slowed down, and thus large generation capacities are expected to get stranded. In response to this, discoms might increase the additional surcharge. It is important to note that generation capacity getting stranded is not due to open access consumers moving from discoms but due to demand reduction, which is a force majeure event. In this force majeure event, SERCs should not pass on the fixed cost burden of the stranded capacity as additional surcharge to open access consumers. The state governments should issue the necessary directives to the SERCs in this regard. Further, SERCs can eliminate the need for additional surcharge through better management of surplus power or trading of power. The revenue of generators with long-term PPAs will be ensured with capacity charges if they show plant availability. To support such generators, the government must ensure adequate availability of domestic coal at concessional prices to these generators. Notwithstanding the above, high coal prices will also lead to an increase in the price of electricity.
The Government of India has advised the CERC to reduce the late payment surcharge for distribution companies till June 2020. Meter readers are not going out to take meter readings (except where there are AMR meters), due to which bills cannot be generated by distribution companies. To address this, bills could be generated on an average basis. Further, some distribution companies do not have the facility of online payment and they should enable it. Besides, some consumers do not make online payments, although there are many ways for making online payments. If consumers do not pay, there will be challenges. But this is not specifically related to the Covid-19 situation.
The Ministry of Power (MoP) has issued instructions providing a moratorium period to discoms for making payments to central gencos and transcos. The state governments have also been requested to frame similar guidelines for discom payments to state gencos. Renewable energy sources enjoy a continued must-run status and have been kept out of the ambit of the three-month moratorium. CIL has also reduced coal auction prices, which will help state and central gencos.
Some of the short-term and medium-term challenges due to the current situation pertain to cash flows as most consumer payments are expected to be delayed. This may in turn impact AT&C losses. Also, compliance with standards of performance would be difficult as manpower and material is scarce. There could also be delays in critical EPC/maintenance projects. This would increase the pre-operative expenses and the overall project cost, which in turn would have an impact on the expected returns. Further, the looming agrarian crisis may lead to further bottlenecks in collection.
To address these challenges, relief should be provided to industrial and agricultural consumers to help them in clearing their discom dues. The respective state regulatory commissions may relax discoms’ standard of performance for a period of three months. The state governments may expedite their subsidy payments to discoms on an actual or provisional basis to ease the cash flow crunch. Discoms will also have to prioritise new service connections, compliance with standards and collection as the number of unresolved cases is expected to be very high once normal work resumes. The impact of Covid-19 needs to be covered under the force majeure clause for EPC and other time-bound contracts to give some relief to the private sector.
Policymakers need to have a well-thought-out strategy to understand and deal with the impact at various levels. At the first level, assessment of the economic impact of Covid-19 on the Indian power sector and the consequential impact on critical sectors needs to be undertaken. This will involve the use of the input-output (IO) modelling framework for assessing the impact of disruption in the power sector on other sectors such as health and transportation. The IO model is a quantitative economic model that represents the interdependencies between different sectors of a national economy or different regional economies. Further, the assessment of key interventions for enabling an effective response, recovery and resilience in the power sector needs to be undertaken with deep stakeholder consultation and review of the global experience in dealing with such situations.
In the immediate term, contractual obligations should be relaxed as necessary not only for the period of lockdown, but also considering the large-scale disruption that has taken place. Some kind of empowered institutional mechanism will be required to deal with the complex situation rather than a straitjacketed set of rules, which clearly would not work. We are in an unprecedented and an enormously complex set of circumstances.
T.N. Arun Kumar
While power generating companies with a cost-plus tariff structure will be able to pass on the increased working capital to the discoms, the discoms in turn will
have to seek relief from the regulator for allowing additional costs. Merchant power plants with reduced offtake and lower realisations will have to possibly bear the entire brunt. Even as the weaker discoms were facing stretched liquidity, the lockdown-related restrictions would further constrain their finances, power purchase and debt repayment deferrals notwithstanding. A concerted and holistic effort by the respective governments is required to cushion the impact on the power sector. The governments will have to loosen their purse strings for providing stimulus to different industry segments including power. In this context, the relaxation of the fiscal responsibility and budget management targets seems much probable. The move will enable the governments to support their discoms, besides increasing allocation towards healthcare and other relief measures.
There is need for a comprehensive scenario building exercise involving all stakeholders in the value chain. Given the regulatory framework of the country, most of the actions will be post facto and come with a time lag. In the immediate term, some of the actions taken up at various levels include governments paying timely dues towards their consumption across departments and offices and release of subsidies; regulators proactively acting to balance utility and customer interests; financial institutions providing for moratoriums and reliefs as applicable; generators running their efficient plants; and customers paying their dues on time. Digital interventions ensuring people can work from home along with appropriate risk and controls to run various processes smoothly have been embedded across utilities over the period.
Dr S.L. Rao
The issues cannot be addressed in the short term. The states need to be more flexible as far as distribution tariffs are concerned and bring them down to improve electricity demand. However, electricity is not the only factor leading to demand slowdown. The demand is low because both industrial and consumer demand is affected due to the lockdown. The central government is spending significant sums through packages and this might help improve demand to some extent and prevent electricity demand from dropping too sharply.
Dr Rahul Tongia
One important question that comes up repeatedly is clarity on force majeure and changes in “rule of law”. Would insurance policies be an appropriate instrument for Covid-19 and other “black swans”? Only up to a point. Insurance is analogous to many payment security mechanisms, something meant to cut down the risks of specific defaults, that is, the variance. If everything fails similarly, insurance will also fail (or reinsurance, etc.). At some point, it requires policy interventions. This also emphasises the challenges of continuing our existing cross-subsidy mechanisms for retail tariffs. Usage will shift over time. Commercial and industrial consumers may not leave suddenly due to Covid, but they may want to leave by turning to self-generation (including via renewables), or simply finding new suppliers.
The grid handled the 9 p.m., 9 minutes event admirably. But this took effort and planning. It also hints that we can handle more grid swings with higher renewable energy if we can plan and coordinate. We may also need to resort to curtailment, or manage IP set feeders (agricultural load) more directly. The adoption of demand-side measures, a smarter grid and storage must be accelerated, not just for Covid reasons, or the transition, but for “all of the above”. Time of day remains critical for India’s grid to address balancing needs (with or without Covid), and going forward when renewable energy grows. It is also required for economic benefits.
It is not clear whether energy use will restore simply because the economic impact of Covid-19 may linger well after the lockdown is over, or even when we declare that the threat of Covid is over. Electricity is unique requiring supply-demand balancing in real time, whereas fuels like oil can also be stockpiled. As we plan for a post-Covid world, we should not aim to simply recover by coming back to where we were. We should use this opportunity for embracing many of the changes we were slow to implement for various reasons. If there were worries about efficiency and markets being pain points on social agendas, new models where we first focus on the social need (such as subsidised or even free supply 24×7), we may find that new operating and market design models can be even superior to today’s “muddling along” that involves lots of averaging, cross-subsidies and inefficient signalling.
There are several notifications and guidelines issued by the MoP and the CERC in this regard. Similarly, there are directions to SERCs, which have resulted in temporary modifications/relaxation in existing business regulations by the CERC and the Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission (DERC). DERC has also come out with an order, dated April 7, 2020. There have also been advisories from the Delhi government that have labelled distribution as an essential service, facilitating easy movement of discom personnel.
BSES is always geared up to ensure quality and reliable power supply to its consumers. We are closely watching the evolving situation in the national capital and taking all appropriate measures to ensure reliable power supply to our consumers without compromising the safety of our employees. As a priority, we are providing special attention to hospitals and quarantine centres. We have also made contingency provisions of boarding and lodging for field-level employees at our various substation buildings.
In support of government measures to contain the spread of Covid-19, some of our services have been curtailed. We would not be registering requests for new connections till further orders. All existing appointments have been postponed till further notice. We are also using the latest digital and online technologies to reach out to our consumers.
Consumers can connect to BSES through our digital platforms like the BSES website, mobile app, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, SMS and call centres. All physical distribution of bills and meter reading is being stopped till further notice. Consumers will be given provisional bills on the basis of criteria laid down by DERC. E-bills are being generated and sent to consumers through e-channels like SMS, WhatsApp, emails and consumers are being called up by customer care executives to ensure bill delivery. We have started work from home for a large section of our employees and a roaster system for others without affecting the quality of our power supply. We have also started doing thermal checking at our offices. Moreover, our employees have adequate access to sanitisers and masks. All our vehicles and offices are being regularly sanitised. We are in touch with the authorities to allow the free movement of our employees and workers. The stock of key spares is in place. Based on loading data analytics of feeders, O&M spares are being planned in a focused manner for the potential feeders. PPE is being provided for the field staff. BSES doctors are also in touch with other hospitals for contingency arrangements should a need arise. The provision of accommodation and food facilities for key operational staff and sufficient liquidity for the staff is being ensured. The efforts to ensure reliable power supply and the safety of each of our employees are being closely monitored by the senior management of the organisation. Efforts are being made to address every concern on a war footing.