A Shrinking Coal Plant Pipeline: Mid-2016 Results from the Global Coal Plant Tracker

Christine Shearer, Aiqun Yu, and Ted Nace

The amount of coal power capacity under development worldwide saw a dramatic drop in the first half of 2016, mainly due to shifting policies in Asia, according to a survey by CoalSwarm’s Global Coal Plant Tracker.

Overall, the “coal plant pipeline”—the total amount of coal-fired generating capacity in pre-construction planning—dropped from 1,090 gigawatts (GW) at the beginning of 2016 to 932 GW in July. The total reduction, 158 GW, or 14% of the previous total, is nearly equal to the entire coal-fired generating capacity of the European Union (162 GW).

The largest drop in the pre-construction pipeline was recorded in China (114 GW), followed by India (40 GW). Both countries recently announced major policy moves away from coal.

In April, China announced sweeping restrictions aimed at proposed coal-fired power plants in 13 provinces. In June, India’s Ministry of Power issued an assessment stating that no further power plants would be needed in the next three years, and “any thermal power plant that has yet to begin construction should back off.”

In Southeast Asia, several countries have taken steps toward reducing or delaying new coal power capacity. In March, Vietnam revised its Power Development Plan VII, canceling or postponing 23 GW of planned coal plants. Indonesia’s RUPTL 2016-2025, covering all power development in the coming decade, showed a rescheduling of over 7 GW of proposed coal power capacity to later years. In July, Philippines Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Gina Lopez announced new plans to prioritize renewable energy over coal in the permitting process.

Despite the global reduction in the coal power pipeline, the level of capacity still in planning and construction worldwide is enough to alone exceed the global carbon budget for limiting warming to 1.5°C. Further, a new report from the IEA shows 6.5 million deaths a year from air pollution, with coal a main factor.

Regional Totals

Among world regions, East Asia continues to have the highest amount of capacity under development in all status categories* except permitted proposals, followed by South Asia:

Altogether there are 932 GW of pre-construction coal proposals (announced, pre-permit, and permitted) and an additional 350 GW under construction.

While slowing in East and South Asia, coal proposals ticked up in Africa and Eurasia. Egypt in particular has been aggressively pursuing new coal plants as an alternative to natural gas. Proposals also increased in Mongolia, mainly for mega coal projects to export power to China.

China and India continue to lead in proposals, but…

China continues to have the most proposed coal plants with 406 GW. However, this is a significant decrease from January 2016, when the country had 519 MW of coal proposals.

Much of the decrease has to do with guidelines issued in April 2016 by the central government that CoalSwarm estimates suspended 77.5 GW of the country’s pre-construction proposals. The Chinese government has also suggested it may suspend all new coal plant construction until 2018. The policies are seen as a response to reports of coal overcapacity, locked-out renewables, and declining plant utilization rates in China.

Yet China has an additional 205 GW of coal plants under construction, and commissioned 11,580 megawatts (MW) of new coal in 2016, due to a spike in permitting after the authorization process was devolved to the province level. It remains to be seen how effectively the central government can rein in provincial coal plant building.

India has the second highest amount of capacity proposed (178 GW) and under construction (65 GW). It was recently reported that 35% of India’s existing coal power capacity is lying idle, raising questions about the viability of future projects.

Most proposals would use supercritical tech

It has been argued that making coal plants more efficient would lower global greenhouse gas emissions. Where combustion technology is known, supercritical combustion accounts for 246 GW, followed closely by ultra-supercritical at 233 GW; few plants would employ subcritical technology (88 GW). Among plants under construction, supercritical and ultra-supercritical combustion also account for most capacity.

CO2 emissions would use up entire 1.5°C “carbon budget” 

Although most proposed coal plants would employ more efficient ultra- and supercritical plant technology, the level of CO2 emissions that would be produced under current development plans is still incongruent with international climate goals.

If built, coal plants currently under in construction or in pre-construction  development would emit 220,241 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 over a 40-year lifetime, exceeding the entire 204,620 Mt limit for a high (66%) probability of limiting warming to 1.5°C.

Aggregating all pre-construction and construction categories, just over half the emissions (51%) would come from East Asia.

Currently operating coal plants

As of the July 2016 update, the Global Coal Plant Tracker now includes all operating coal plants, in addition to proposed coal plants..

At 895 GW, China has by far the most coal power capacity of any country, followed by the US with 302.5 GW and India with 206 GW.

While coal consumption in OECD countries has been falling since 2007, these countries still consume more coal per capita than non-OECD countries.

*Note on status categories: Projects that have not entered the permitting process are categorized as “announced.” Those that have begun permitting are categorized as “pre-permit development,” and those with environmental clearance are categorized as “permitted.” Proposals without activity for two years or more, or that have been suspended or called off by sponsors, are categorized as either “shelved” or “cancelled.”

Christine Shearer is a Senior Researcher at CoalSwarm. Her twitter is here. Aiqun Yu is a Researcher at CoalSwarm. Ted Nace is Director of CoalSwarm. His twitter is here.

CoalSwarm also publishes CoalWire, a weekly bulletin on global coal industry developments. (You can sign up for it here.)