C&O president urges owning mines and generation

TAMIL NADU, INDIA - Coal traders in India need to diversify into power generation and mining to succeed in an increasingly competitive business, Ahmed Buhari, founder president of Dubai-based traders Coal & Oil (C&O), said.

C&O, which is seeking mines to buy, aims to gain an edge over competitors by building a coal-fired power plant in Tamil Nadu in southern India, Buhari said.

Its associate company Coastal Energen earlier this month finalized $800 million of financing, mostly from the State Bank of India, to build a 1,200 MW coal-fired plant at Tuticorin.

The project is for a merchant power plant. These have no single sales contract for the term of the project debt and have to sell power as a commodity as well as via offtake agreements.

"This is the first power plant in India to get financing for a merchant plant model," Buhari told Reuters in an interview.

"Raising that level of financing for a merchant plant was not an easy thing to do in these times when credit is tough.

But the banks were satisfied," he said.

"C&O will no longer be just a trader but an integrated and diverse energy supplier. That's our strategy. It's no longer enough to merely trade coal," Buhari said.

C&O, founded by Buhari in 1998, is one of the key players in coal supply to the subcontinent. The company sells over 6 million tonnes of imported coal a year and has supply agreements with major producers in Indonesia, South Africa and Australia. Privately-owned C&O's 2008 turnover was $500 million.

India's coal imports have grown rapidly from almost nothing five years ago to a projected 70 million tonnes in the next fiscal year. Imports will continue to rise fast over the next 10-15 years because domestic supply cannot meet demand.

A few large traders dominate imports but competition is intensifying.

"The game is now changing in India," he said. "The state electricity boards, independent power producers, the big listed consumers, are looking for solid, stable suppliers of coal. Diversifying into generation strengthens our company and draws upon our years of expertise in fuel supply," he said.

Risks facing coal suppliers and consumers are much higher now, he said.

Tuticorin was an obvious site for a coal-fired plant designed to use low-quality Indonesian coal, Buhari said.

"At C&O we're all from Tamil Nadu. We're sons of the soil."

The plant's proximity to Tuticorin port makes it easy to bring in coal from Indonesia. There is easy access to the grid and a good choice of available land, he said.

India's two major areas of power growth are the Western states such as Punjab, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat and in the South, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

Per capita power consumption in the south is low — below that of China, he said, but with great potential to grow.

"Tamil Nadu is also the automotive hub of India. It's the Detroit of the South. We have Hyundai, Ford, already there and many others are relocating to the south," he said.

The information technology industry, steel, textiles and others also see the advantages of relocating there. For example, Karnataka has large iron ore reserves, he said.

Industrial growth in the region requires more power. At least 30,000 MW of generation capacity needs to be added in South India over the next five years, he said.

Coastal Energen has offtake agreements already. Tata Power will take most of the power, 25 percent will go to the state government, some to neighboring states such as Kerala.

The plant can be expanded from 1,200 MW to 3,600-4,000 MW.

The company aims to sign "cap and collar" supply deals with Indonesian producers, he said. These set a minimum and maximum price, which offer some protection from price volatility.

Chinese boiler manufacturer Harbin Boiler Co Ltd will deliver the plant boilers within 22 months. Generation will start in three years.


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