Coal tracker shows a losing battle

A US-based company Coalswarm last month released a new online tool that shows where new coal plants are being planned, built, in various stages of approvals or cancelled, and according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, it shows coal-fired power plants are losing the battle against other energy sources.

Haydn Black

The IEEFA, which is an anti-coal group, says Coalswarm’s global proposed Coal Plant Tracker application shows that a remarkable number of coal-fired power cancellations is apparent in India, the level of Chinese construction is less than might be expected, and in the US dots marking abandoned coal-plant plans far outnumber those that either made it into operation or are still on the drawing board.

The tracker is built on research contained in a Coalswarm/Sierra Club report —Boom and bust: tracking the global coal plant pipeline — published in March, that presents a comprehensive overview of the state of coal power plants around the world.

Collectively, east Asia, south Asia and southeast Asia accounted for more than 80% of new coal plant construction in 2014 and the region is projected to continue to dominate the market for the next several years despite the prominence of new nuclear, gas and renewable technologies.

“The takeaway, though, is that the coal industry has not had a great track record in pushing to build new power plants over the past several years,” IEEFA fellow Cathy Kunkel said.

“Since 2010, two plants have been shelved or cancelled worldwide for every plant completed,” she said.

This coal-plant bust followed a period of rapid expansion in the 2000s, and the report notes that, globally, that the pace of net coal capacity additions – new capacity minus retired capacity – worldwide remained around 20 gigawatts to 25GW per year for over two decades, then abruptly tripled during the period 2005 to 2012 before receding in 2013.

“The picture is particularly telling for China and India, the two countries that are the ones most mentioned when coal enthusiasts talk up the future of coal,” she said.

“In fact, coal consumption in China actually decreased in 2013 – driven by greater energy efficiency and the rise of renewables, coupled with an economic shift away from the most energy-intensive industries.

“Average coal plant utilisation in China is down from 60% in 2011 to 54% in 2014, a 35-year low.

“Meantime, an additional 117,000 megawatts of coal-fired capacity are under construction, even though this build-out carries a serious risk that some of these new plants will become stranded assets.”

In India, projects shelved or cancelled since 2012 outnumber project completions by six to one, and new construction initiations are at a near-standstill, the report said.

It sees national coal supply reliability as a major hurdle for the construction of new coal-fired power plants, causing investors to be wary of investing in new coal projects in India, although the Indian market is the one being targeted by new coal projects such as Adani Mining’s massive Galilee Basin coal project in Queensland.

Coal India, the state-owned enterprise, provides 80% of domestic coal and has failed to meet even its own production targets in recent years, leading to shortages for existing power plants—and shortages of electricity, leading to power blackouts in many Indian states, IEEFA said.

“The report also notes the important role grassroots opposition has played in blocking new coal projects in India, even going so far as to put a number on it: 55% of organised efforts to stop proposed new coal power plants have been successful.”

The IEEFA said that, despite the lack of build out, those plants likely to go forward would collectively use up nearly all of the available carbon budget for avoiding the internationally recognised 2C warming threshold.