NEW REPORT: Tsunami Warning — Can China’s Central Authorities Stop a Massive Surge in New Coal Plants Caused by Provincial Overpermitting?

Tsunami Warning — Can China’s Central Authorities Stop a Massive Surge in New Coal Plants Caused by Provincial Overpermitting?

Like an approaching tsunami triggered by a distant earthquake, a massive cohort of hundreds of new coal-fired power plants is on course to be added to the already overbuilt Chinese coal plant fleet. This wave of new capacity—comparable in size to the entire U.S. coal fleet—is the consequence of a little reported surge in permit approvals at the provincial level from late 2014 to early 2016.

While China’s central authorities have sought to mitigate the surge through a series of special regulatory measures, new satellite imagery and plant-by-plant research show the measures to have been only partially effective. Rather than cancelling unneeded coal plants, China’s officials in many cases have merely rescheduled them.

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“Avoiding dangerous climate change requires essentially phasing out coal plants globally by 2045,” said Christine Shearer, researcher and analyst for CoalSwarm and lead author of the report. “China needs to begin planning for the aggressive retirement of its existing coal fleet, not building hundreds of new coal plants.”

CHINESE: Tsunami Warning — Can China’s Central Authorities Stop a Massive Surge in New Coal Plants Caused by Provincial Overpermitting?

The report, which is based on CoalSwarm’s Global Coal Plant Tracker, finds:

  • 259 Gigawatts (GW) of new capacity are under development in China, comparable to the entire U.S. coal fleet (266 GW). This represents a 25% increase in China’s coal power fleet. (Note: A typical coal-fired generating unit is 300–1,000 Megawatts, or 0.3–1.0 GW, in size, with most power stations having two or more such units.)
  • The new capacity is the result of a permitting surge from late 2014 to early 2016, after a regulatory devolution from central to provincial authorities.
  • In 2016 and 2017, central authorities sought to rein in the surge through a series of suspension orders.
  • Contrary to previous reporting and analysis, many of the restrictions only delayed new projects rather than stopping them.
  • China’s developmental pipeline places it on a trajectory to exceed its own announced 1100 GW coal power cap through 2020, with coal power capacity already at 993 GW in 2018.
  • Adding 259 GW of new coal power in China is wildly out of line with the Paris climate agreement. According to the IEA, a 50% chance of limiting future temperature increases to 1.75°C requires China phase out its traditional coal plants by 2045.
  • The surge in new projects will overwhelm China’s own 1100 GW coal cap in the country’s current Five-Year Plan.
  • Given that China’s coal fleet operates less than half the time, 259 GW additional coal power capacity is unneeded and represents US$210 billion in capital expenditures that could instead fund nearly 300 GW of solar PV or 175 GW of onshore wind power.

Examples of Locations Where Construction is Proceeding Despite Restrictions:


Huadian Nanxiong power station

Although it was covered by January 2017 suspension orders, satellite imagery shows construction clearly ongoing from February 2017 to March 2018. Wiki page here.


Huaneng Daba-4 power station

Although it was covered by September 2017 restrictions, satellite photos show that substantial construction occurred after December 2017. Wiki page here.


Zhoukou Longda power station

Although it was covered by January 2017 restrictions, satellite photos show continued construction through March 2018. Wiki page here.


Tianming power station

Although covered by the September 2017 restrictions, satellite photos show construction continuing through March 2018. Wiki page here.


Tianyuan Manganese power station

Although it was covered by September 2017 restrictions, satellite photos show construction between July 2017 and March 2018. Wiki page here.