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Power plants in pause mode, lenders press panic button

Katya B Naidu & Abhijit Lele  |  Mumbai 

On July 21, Sajjan Jindal-promoted JSW Energy said it had put its Ratnagiri expansion plans on hold due to costly imported coal. High cost of imported coal had already dented its profit. The company believes it would be wiser to defer the plan until there is some clarity on the issue of imported coal.

JSW is not the only company which has put its project on a pause mode. Reliance Power’s imported coal-based ultra mega power project (UMPP) at Krishnapatnam in Andhra Pradesh is yet to make any drawdowns from the Rs 13,125-crore loan which was tied up last year.

The company, like JSW, is looking for some solution to the imported coal issue, and has not responded to queries regarding the same.

In fact, many power projects have fallen victim to fuel troubles from domestic sources since Coal India, the monopoly producer, is unable to meet demands from the power sector. Captive coal blocks too had their own share of problems with the environment ministry putting sanctions on hold. Mixed with traditional land acquisition problems, loans to the power sector have become a recipe for disaster for many bankers.

M V Nair, the chairman of public sector Union Bank of India, indicated strain and slippages in funds lent to the infrastructure sector. While he said there was no big trouble yet, he did admit that many projects, including some power plants, have overshot execution milestones due to problems in fuel linkages and clearances. “This could turn some of them into non-performing assets,” he said.

The viability of imported coal-based projects, like the Krishnapatnam UMPP, has especially changed drastically after the Indonesian government decided to benchmark exported coal to international prices, making coal costlier. A Reliance Power spokesperson did not respond to an e-mail query on the steps being taken by the company to address lenders’ concerns.

Another imported coal-based UMPP in Mundra, Gujarat, has been able to tide over the lender concerns. Tata Power’s 800-Mw capacity is to be commissioned next month. “There may be changes in regulations but not in contracts in the next few months. These (increase in the price of Indonesian coal) are matters under discussion for more clarity in the coming months,” Tata Power MD Anil Sardana had told Business Standard earlier.

In case of other projects, while loans that had been drawn are yet to cross the red line, some more loans, sanctioned but not drawn, are hanging in the air. “In fact, a lot of power companies have not made any withdrawal from the loans sanctioned to them since last year. As much as 50 per cent of the loans sanctioned are still lying around without any drawdowns. Some of these might even expire very soon,” estimated a private sector banker.

Central Bank of India, another public sector lender, has an exposure of Rs 26,000 crore to the infrastructure sector and half of it is in power projects. “We are conducting a thorough review of our power sector exposure and we are halfway through. A clear picture about risks will emerge in 10 days,” said V R Iyer, executive director of the bank.

Many bankers lament that this has clogged money for banks which have already hit sectoral lending limits. Sources say some of the bigger banks like State Bank of India have even started charging a fee in addition to the commitment fee, to maintain the credit lines.

Debasish Mishra, senior director, Deloitte Touche Tomatsu, said a drawout of loans in many power projects is not according to schedule because a number of projects are running behind schedule.

“Because of several implementation risks with power projects and banks nearing their sector exposure limits, it’s getting tougher for new projects to have financial closure,” he said. Agrees Iyer, “We are becoming very choosy in extending new loans plus our scrutiny has become very stringent,” she said.

Banks which have already tightened their grip on the sector are putting in place more stringent lending measures for the capital-intensive industry. One of these is to seek promoter guarantees for financing projects. Until now, the project finance debt, which is lent to a special purpose vehicle, does not have any recourse to the parent company. But this might change, they say, as more bankers will rely on the parent companies’ guarantee.

To tackle problems related to fuel, banks are now asking companies to tie up for fuel a year before the commercial operation. Earlier, the popular practice was to allow them time till six months before commissioning. A top official from IDBI admitted that they have become jittery about lending to new projects.

The bank which syndicates a number of infrastructure loans, in addition to being a major lender to the sector, is also worried about loans in which drawdowns have happened. “We are keeping a close eye on them for future developments,” he said.

First Published: Wed, August 03 2011. 00:18 IST