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Global coal power puzzle

Global Energy Monitor’s latest Global Coal Plant Tracker has put another nail in the coffin for the coal-carrying fleet with its finding that the world’s fleet of coal-fired power stations reduced for the first time on record in the first half of this year.

More capacity retired in the first half of 2020 than opened and now stands at 2,047GW, down 2.9GW. The decline is attributed to “slowed commissioning” due to the Covid-19 pandemic and record retirements in the European Union in response to stronger pollution regulations.

Dr Christine Shearer, programme director for coal at Global Energy Monitor, says: “This year has witnessed the first six-month period on record when more coal-fired capacity was retired than commissioned.”

But while much of the world – and most notably Europe – is dramatically cutting back on coal power capacity, China is bucking the trend. Figures from the Global Coal Plant Tracker (GCPT) reveal that new coal plant development in the first half of the 2020 was predominantly concentrated in China, which has increased its coal proposals and permits during a time when both have stalled in much of the rest of the world. From 1 January to 30 June 2020, Chinese provinces granted permits for 19.7GW of new coal capacity, the highest rate since the central government began restricting permitting in 2016.

All this demonstrates that the coal ‘megaprojects’ of the past are losing popularity as alternative power sources come into their own

“These shifts mean China is for the first time now home to half the world’s operating coal fleet,” says Dr Shearer.

China is also home to half of the capacity in the pipeline (48%), up from a 34% share of the global coal pipeline in mid-2018.

Global Energy Monitor makes the point that much of China’s permitting activity has taken place since March, “raising concerns that provinces are regarding coal plants as a form of post-Covid economic stimulus to counter the financial slowdown”.

Development declines
Elsewhere, plans for new coal development have slowed significantly this year. Just seven other countries saw proposals and construction starts: India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Turkey, Russia and Brazil.

India has made in-roads in reducing its share of global coal power development, which dropped from 17% of the world pipeline in mid-2018 to 12% in mid-2020. But as Rahul Tongia, a Fellow at Brookings India, Cross-Brookings Initiative on Energy and Climate, points out: While much of the world is talking of phasing out coal, India’s short-term focus is on peaking coal as soon as possible.”

Coal currently accounts for just under half of India’s commercial primary energy and will take time to phase out, he adds.

In southeast Asia – regarded as one of the biggest growth markets for coal – only 1GW of coal power was newly proposed and 0.8GW started construction in the first half of this year.

“The decline in southeast Asia comes as two of the region’s largest financial backers of new coal plants – Japan and South Korea – face continued public pressure to end their support of the technology,” says Dr Shearer.

Bangladesh has indicated that it may restrict future coal plant additions to just the three coal power plants that are under construction, while Pakistan cancelled plans for its 0.7GW Port Qasim power station.

All this demonstrates that the coal ‘megaprojects’ of the past are losing popularity as alternative power sources come into their own.

But while much of the world – and most notably Europe – is dramatically cutting back on coal power capacity, China is bucking the trend

UN plea
The United Nations’ secretary general António Guterres has repeatedly made his messaging clear on coal-fired plants, calling for a global moratorium on new coal plants being built after 2020.

“There is no such thing as clean coal, and coal should have no place in any rational recovery plan. It is deeply concerning that new coal power plants are still being planned and financed, even though renewables offer three times more jobs, and are now cheaper than coal in most countries,” he said in a recent speech.

However, figures from the GCPT reveal that 189.8GW of coal power capacity is still under construction globally and another 331.9GW is in planning.

Joint research from the Rocky Mountain Institute, Carbon Tracker Initiative, and Sierra Club found that new renewable energy is already cheaper than continuing to operate coal plants in much of the world.

Analysis in its How to Retire Early: Making Accelerated Coal Phase-Out Feasible and Just report it found that new renewable energy is not only cheaper than new coal plants virtually everywhere, but that it is already cheaper to build new renewable energy capacity including battery storage than to continue operating 39% of the world’s existing coal capacity. The authors conclude that replacing the entire global coal fleet with clean energy can be done at a net savings to society as early as 2022.

With pressure on countries to decarbonise coupled with the need to revitalise economies to kick-start recoveries from the Covid-19 pandemic, coal phase-out is expected to step up a gear. But it re mains to be seen if China follows the global path, or whether it continues to lean on a coal-powered future.
Source: Baltic Exchange

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