New Report – Boom and Bust 2020: Tracking the Global Coal Plant Pipeline

Global coal power under development declined for the fourth year in a row, but much steeper reductions needed for Paris climate agreement

U.S. coal plant retirements up 67% under President Trump compared to Obama

LINK TO REPORT 

COVID-19 Update: Subsequent to the time frame covered in the report, responses to COVID-19 in China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia are substantially impacting the coal plant pipeline. In an apparent move to stimulate its domestic economy, China has surged its new coal plant permitting. From 1 to 18 March 2020, authorities in China permitted more coal-fired capacity for construction (7,960 megawatts) than they did in all of 2019 (6,310 MW).

In South and Southeast Asia, Global Energy Monitor has identified 15 locations totaling an estimated US$21 billion in capital outlays where coal-fired power plant construction is now on hold due to COVID-19 workforce and supply chain disruptions. These stoppages point to the high degree of vulnerability of the global coal fleet expansion to disruption by the pandemic, as overcapacity issues are further heightened by recessionary conditions. Details on COVID-19 impacts on the coal sector can be found at the wiki page “Coal and Coronavirus.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. — For the fourth year in a row, the number of coal-fired power plants under development worldwide dropped steeply in 2019, according to a new report released today by Global Energy Monitor, Greenpeace International, the Sierra Club, and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. 

The report, Boom and Bust 2020: Tracking The Global Coal Plant Pipeline, is the fifth annual survey of the coal plant pipeline. Its findings include a 16% year-on-year drop in capacity under construction and in pre-construction development, and a 66% drop since 2015. Construction starts were down 5% from 2018 and 66% from 2015, compared to 2019. 

Despite the decline in development, the coal fleet grew by 34.1 gigawatts (GW) in 2019, the first increase in net capacity additions since 2015. Nearly two-thirds (43.8 GW) of the 68.3 GW of newly commissioned capacity was in China. Outside China, the global coal fleet overall shrank for the second year in a row, as these other countries together retired more coal power capacity (27.2 GW) than was commissioned (24.5 GW) (see Figure 1 below).

Figure 1. Coal power capacity additions and retirements, and the net change. 

Global power generation from coal fell by a record amount in 2019, as renewable energy grew and power demand slowed down,” said Christine Shearer, lead author and Director of Global Energy Monitor’s Coal Program. “Regardless, the number of new plants added to the grid accelerated, meaning that the world’s coal plants were operated a lot less – more plants generating less power. For banks and investors that continue to underwrite new coal plants, this means weakened profitability and increased risk.”

Even as coal power development shrank in the rest of the world, alarming trends in China continue. The amount of new coal power capacity added to the grid increased in 2019, even as the utilization of coal plants fell further, indicating worsening overcapacity. Previously shelved coal power projects were re-activated as controls on overcapacity were loosened further.

The coal power lobby in China is pushing for hundreds of new coal-fired power plants by 2030, starkly at odds with China’s pledge to be a contributor in the fight against climate change,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. “As policymakers look for ways to stimulate the economy after the coronavirus crisis, a wave of new coal plants would be the worst kind of waste. Both China’s climate pledges and the increasing competitiveness of clean energy technologies mean that clean energy installations will accelerate, leaving no space for coal-fired generation to grow.”  

Within members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), coal power capacity has been declining since 2011. Nearly half of the retired coal power capacity in 2019 was in the US, the second highest on record. In the European Union, retirements were the fourth highest. Under Trump, US coal plant retirements have increased 67% compared to Obama. Retirements averaged 8.2 GW a year during Obama’s tenure (2009–2016), and 13.7 GW a year during Trump’s tenure (2017–2019) (see Figure 2 below).

Figure 2. US coal power capacity retirements under Presidents Obama and Trump, and the average of each term.

“Coal plant retirements have not just continued over the past three years under the Trump Administration, they have accelerated,” said Neha Mathew-Shah, International Environmental Justice Representative for the Sierra Club. “Coal simply cannot compete with cheaper, less-polluting alternatives of the modern energy economy. It is time for the U.S. to acknowledge the writing on the wall and embrace the clean energy transition.” 

As the US and EU move away from coal, Japan is now the biggest driver of new coal power in the OECD. Japan has 11.9 GW of coal power under development domestically that would increase lifetime carbon dioxide emissions from its existing coal fleet by 50% (from 3.9 to 5.8 billion tonnes). Outside its borders, Japanese public finance is behind 24.7 GW of coal power, larger than the coal fleet of Australia (24.4 GW). 

“Though coal is still advancing in some Asian countries, the rest of the world is clearly seeing an overall decline in the coal fleet. This is an international trend that is only going to continue,” said Gyorgy Dallos, Global Strategist for Greenpeace International. “Unfortunately China and Japan are still increasingly out of step with global trends, becoming the biggest countries building new coal plants and financing coal power development in Asia.”

Even with the fall in coal plant development in 2019, the world is not on track for the steep reductions in coal power necessary to meet the Paris climate agreement. Coal power use needs to fall 80% by 2030 to keep global warming below 1.5°C, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the United Nations has called for 2020 to be the global end date for new coal plant proposals.

“The world already has far more coal power capacity than it can run under the goals of the Paris agreement,” said Greig Aitken, Finance Research Analyst for Global Energy Monitor. “It’s time for financiers to align with reality.”  

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Note: The average size for coal-fired generating units is 350 megawatts, with most power stations having two or more such units.

Read the report here.
Additional summary tables here.
Global Coal Plant Tracker methodology here.

About Global Energy Monitor

Global Energy Monitor (GEM) develops and shares information on fossil fuel projects in support of the worldwide movement for clean energy. Current projects include the Global Coal Plant Tracker, the Global Fossil Infrastructure Tracker, the Europe Gas Tracker, the CoalWire newsletter, and the GEM wiki. For more information, visit www.globalenergymonitor.org

About Greenpeace International

Greenpeace is an independent global campaigning organisation that acts to change attitudes and behaviour, to protect and conserve the environment and to promote peace. Greenpeace is present in more than 40 countries across Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Pacific. For more information, visit www.greenpeace.org

About the Sierra Club

The Sierra Club is America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization, with more than 3.5 million members and supporters. In addition to protecting every person’s right to get outdoors and access the healing power of nature, the Sierra Club works to promote clean energy, safeguard the health of our communities, protect wildlife, and preserve our remaining wild places through grassroots activism, public education, lobbying, and legal action. For more information, visit www.sierraclub.org

About the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air

The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) is an independent research organisation focused on revealing the trends, causes, and health impacts, as well as the solutions to air pollution. For more information, visit www.energyandcleanair.org