Coal be phased out because of pollution

Coal be phased out because of pollution –  Since coal incineration emits close to 50% of all fossil fuel-related carbon emissions, it has always been the first target in climate change discussions. The first global agreement made by more developed countries to reduce emissions was the 1999 Kyoto Protocol. In this internationally binding agreement, 37 countries agreed to reduce their carbon emissions by 2012 to below the 1990 level, including the EU countries, Japan, and Russia. They succeeded in the reduction goal but primarily as a consequence of the financial crisis of 2008 and low economic growth, and only secondly due to government policies. In the same time period, at a global level, emissions of carbon dioxide increased by 52% from 1990 to 2012, due to growth in developing countries that were not part of the agreement.

Coal be phased out because of pollution

Coal use in the 37 Kyoto countries was reduced 9% by 2012, and 17% by 2015. But this was solely because of a drop in US coal use, coalesced by market forces and state-level policies, as coal, is increasingly being replaced by natural gas in the country. In the other 36 countries, coal has largely stayed at its earlier levels. Even in Germany, one of the most aggressive countries when it comes to solar and wind electricity generation, coal hardly declined at all, and still provided 44% of electricity in 2015 versus 45% in 1999. The only country that may in the short term succeed in phasing out coal is the UK, a country which based on the Climate Change Act of 2006 instituted an 80% emissions reduction by 2050 in combination with a legally binding 2% annual reduction. As part of its framework, it is phasing out all coal power stations and replacing them with natural gas and imported biomass pellet fuel from the US.

The failure to reduce coal use in nearly all high-income countries begs the question of whether we can easily do without cheap coal. If as of today no new coal power plants are built, coal use for electricity generation would end by 2065, and 50% fewer power plants would be operating in the 2040s (figure 1).

Coal be phased out because of pollution
Figure 1.

Low- to middle-income countries with a lot of coal and limited natural gas resources will have an especially hard time phasing out coal. Investment costs to build a 1 GW coal power station in Asia was estimated at $200 million, versus $1.1 billion for a natural gas plant of equal size. Also, fuel prices are vastly cheaper, with locally mined coal in India and China costing less than $2 per GJ of energy. To substitute natural gas would require imports, which via pipeline from Russia so far costs between $8.50 and $10.50 per GJ. LNG ship-based imports from countries like Australia, Qatar, Malaysia, and Nigeria in the last 10 years have fluctuated between $4.80 and $14.20 per GJ. And imported coal is far cheaper, such as from Indonesia to China which fluctuated between $2.00 and $7.60 per GJ in recent years.

The main reasons to phase out coal today are thus not due to cost or availability but climate change and to reduce local human health costs. Global coal generation capacity today is close to 1,800 GW. Because many power plants are nearing their 40 to 50-year retirement age, and few countries are still expanding coal-based power generation, the current expectation is that coal supply will likely stay stable for now. The two countries that could change this picture are China and India, with 15% and 50% of all new coal power plants under construction, respectively. 

China has since 2005 worked heavily on reducing the energy and carbon intensity of its economy and invested massively in clean energy sources. Today China is globally the largest investor in clean energy and the biggest in producing electricity from solar and wind. It is also experimenting with several regional carbon dioxide emissions trading systems. So far, Chinese policies have resulted in a stabilization of coal usage at present rates, and China is showing signs that coal use is declining. Despite many more coal power plants being built, their use is declining. In 2015 China’s coal power plants only operated 50% of the time 2015 for 4,329 hours, versus 57% in 2013. Far too many were built in low-demand northern coal regions with too few power lines in place to transport surplus electricity to high-demand regions until about 2018. Chinese coal production likewise declined since 2013, with a 20% drop in production to 3.2 billion tons in 2016. It looks like China does not need more coal power. The central government is now slowing down coal expansion, with a moratorium on new power station approvals until 2018 and a maximum increase of 20% in coal generation capacity by 2020 from existing approvals (to 1,050 GW). 

Climate Change Wasn't Happening
Credit: sciencealert

India is on a similar course of coal slowdown and aggressive pursuit of renewables. The government made the smart move to put a tax on coal in 2010 to support renewable energy development. The tax has been doubled four times since and is now $0.30 per GJ of coal consumed. The revenue is much needed as the country is investing heavily to reach its ambitious targets for 100 GW of solar electricity by 2022, and 75 GW of wind- and biomass-based generation. At the same time its power estimates for 2013 turned out to be about 20% too optimistic, and about 50 GW less coal capacity is needed in the time frame to 2022. The government has announced it won’t need any new power plants for the next three years, and due to lackluster regional interest, 16 GW of large coal power plants have been dropped that were already approved earlier. 

If India and China continue on this path, coal is likely to become a fuel of the past for electricity production. Goldman Sachs analysts Christian Lelong and Amber Cai may turn out to be right, that ‘peak coal is coming sooner than expected, as outlined in an investor presentation in 2015.

1 thought on “Coal be phased out because of pollution

  1. Pingback: Future Energy Blends Especially for Vehicles | mech4cars

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.