Are we on the way to ending coal: the coal plant pipeline

I’ve managed to get a little free time, and I’ve decided to do a series of posts looking at the vital question of whether we are on the way to ending reliance on coal as a source of energy. I’m going to focus first on thermal coal used for electricity generation. We have the apparent contradiction of a resurgence in coal prices combined with ample evidence that new coal plants are no longer economic, and that, when health costs are taken into account, the same is true of most existing coal plants.

I’m going to start with a “fact sheet” issued by the pro-coal Monash Forum. Interestingly, it draws on the work of the anti-coal site CoalSwarm, so there’s a fair bit of basic agreement.  Here’s the sheet

Larger version available here

These numbers are taken from the table Coal Plants by Country (Units) which is available in a convenient Google Docs form.  They are accurate as far as they go – Monash has extracted the top ten countries* in terms of planned plants, and given the total over all countries. If all these plants are constructed and operate for a lifetime of 40 years, there will be continuing demand for coal well into the future, and no hope for a stable climate.

However, the table has a lot more interesting information, not reported by Monash. Here’s a table with the same countries and all the columns.

Scalable version available here

The complete table gives a rather different story to that told by the Monash Forum. The number of plants cancelled since 2010, nearly 200 per year, is substantially greater than the number still in planning.  The crucial question is whether the trend of cancellation will continue, so that the vast majority of planned plants are never built.  That’s what needs to happen if we are to have any chance of saving the global environment.

The evidence from the table shows that the necessary scale of cancellations is possible. If the 2010-2017 trend continued for another five years, the pipeline of planned projects would be wiped out**.  Such a total wipeout is unlikely, but its equally unlikely that all the projects in the list will go ahead. I’ll try to say a bit more about this in later posts.

One promising straw in the wind: A few days after the release of the Monash fact sheet, the Pudimadaka Ultra Mega Power Project, a proposed 4 *1000-megawatt coal-fired power station in India, was cancelled. As I understand the table, this counts as four units off the list. There’s still nearly 900 to go but every little helps.


* For some reason, South Africa (11th) was included and Zimbabwe (10th) omitted. It’s not important, but I’ve included both in my list.

** Some projects under construction may also be cancelled. A close look at the state of progress would be needed to make an estimate of the possibilities.

22 thoughts on “Are we on the way to ending coal: the coal plant pipeline

  1. One thing I regularly find with people who use this data is that they confuse units with coal plants. As we have here in OZ there are several units in a coal plants.

  2. I think to make sense of this data you also need to have the data for no. of coal plants closed. China is interested in replacing old dirty plants with newer versions which are more efficient and with scrubbers for instance.

  3. “Cancelled” and “operating” are pretty clear and unambiguous. Not so “under construction”. In India at least, some coal plant sites seem to have been slowed to a dawdle, waiting for something to turn up and hoping their banks will not list the loans as non-performing. Eventually the developers must decide whether to finish the project or give up. Giving up is looking better all the time.

  4. According to Gail the Actuary, from BP energy data;

    “Wind provided 1.9% of total energy supplies in 2017; solar provided 0.7% of total energy supplies. Fossil fuels provided 85% of energy supplies in 2017. We are moving away from fossil fuels, but not quickly.”

    The missing percentages in the above statement relate to nuclear, hydro and geo-bio-oth. In total, we are still getting only 15% of total energy (not just electrical generation energy) from non-fossil-fuel sources. The penetration of wind and solar is still far too low to make a significant difference. This is consistent with predictions that humanity will fail to implement clean power fast enough to prevent dangerous climate change.

    Of particular concern are the large energy deficits of China and India. They still rely heavily on importing energy products (coal, oil and gas). India in particular imports nearly half of its energy product needs.

    The dynamics of the world system, economically and energetically, are such that it cannot transition to clean power fast enough to prevent dangerous climate change. Dangerous climate change is not a future event. It is here now.

    “The Year Climate Change Began to Spin Out of Control” – MIT Technology Review.

    The attempt to prevent dangerous climate change has failed. The world is into that phase now. The battle from this point is one of amelioration. Considering the lack of real progress so far, we would have to conclude that amelioration will largely fail too. Until there is a serious climate event which terrifies the elites and convinces them that they too are vulnerable, then no real progress will be made. The plutocratic elites and their corporate functionaries dominate all major decision making world-wide and have shown scarcely any real interest in preventing climate change. Aspiration statements and goals signed up to by these elites are subterfuges to enable business as usual. Their statements are worthless and proven so by the developing facts on the ground.

  5. What counts is the total MWh of energy produced, not the total number of plants.

  6. The latest global energy outlook from BNEF also predicts a slump in coal, to only 11% of electric generation in 2050 (****** summary free, full version paywalled). The bad news is that they also think gas will stay flat and the 2 degree emissions cap will be missed.

    Predicting gas is harder than coal. The trajectory depends on (a) the price of gas, which is volatile especially in the US (fracking); (b) the price of competing storage, which is dropping fast, as you can now replace a 4-hour gas peaker turbine economically with batteries in parts of the USA, see also Tesla’s megabattery in Australia; (c) the cost of capital – BNEF’s assumptions are not available in the summary, while Lazards’ well-known survey uses a WACC of 9.6% which is now wildly unrepresentative (2x) of the costs faced by major investors in renewables; (d) European fear of Putin and dislike of fracking, leading to anti-gas policies in residential heating and high investment in P2G technology.

    An additional nonlinear factor is the risk of a stockmarket crash in oil and gas as prudent investors join the ethical divestors. If oil and gas companies come to be seen as speculative, their cost of capital would soar, driving up breakeven prices. Since the US shale gas boom has so far made losses for investors overall – “profits next year, promise” -, the risk is not small.

  7. The elephant in the room is that dangerous climate change has already started. Fossil fuels provided 85% of world energy supplies in 2017. To prevent further dangerous global warming and a feedback spiral, fossil fuels ideally should provide 0% of world energy supplies in 2018. Of course, that is impossible. Phase-out by 2025 or 2030 is also impossible. Plans which retain some technical credibility set the phase-out target for 2050. Whether this could prevent dangerous, runaway climate change is very doubtful.

    In 2015, G7 leaders agreed to phase out fossil fuel use by end of century, 2100. That won’t cut it. Even 2050 is too late. The year 2100 is just a bad joke. If they have set that year as a goal, then they will miss it. They always miss all goals. I’d put one caveat on that. If they (and we) collapse global civilization or send humans extinct before 2100 then fossil fuel use might go to zero by 2100.

    Of course, the commencement date for runaway climate change will only become clear in retrospect. And even then it will only be clear if humans are still around to retrospect. Dangerous, runaway climate change has already started. 2018 is probably the year.

    See, “We’re doomed: Mayer Hillman on the climate reality no one else will dare mention” – Patrick Barkham, Guardian.

  8. Correction: “I think dangerous, runaway climate change has already started. 2018 is probably the year.” The qualifier “I think” is needed or else I am contradicting myself.

    An interesting perspective on this is “The Dark Mountain Project”. The “Manifesto” of this site is well worth reading. I understand what they are driving at. The authors are objectively correct, in my view, about the inevitable and relatively imminent collapse of civilization. They seem to seek escape from nihilism via a newly adopted aesthetic. However, this aesthetic proposes an escape from the myth of progress only via the mythopoeic path itself. Their new myth seems to be that we can escape myth A (progress) and reintegrate with nature via myth B (an in-nature aesthetic).

    Behind this continued canonization of myth (and art) lies the deeper myth inherent in elaborated language itself; the myth that words (and art) can reconcile us to reality. They can I suppose, but only in the mind. The reconciliation is a subjective path which changes nothing external. Substitute bunch of words B (the myth of mythopoeic efficacy) for bunch of words A (the myth of civilizational progress) and we will feel better. The myth of mythopoeic efficacy is just another anodyne. It is an internally constructed and elaborated anodyne which sets up the mind as a final refuge and a relatively calm place. All religions and myths function this way in the mind.This will work until you can’t get food, shelter and dental care. Then you begin to function much more directly like an animal. This goes for the “Manifestosi” too. 😉

  9. Past and present costs of low emissions RE are poor guides to future costs, as are the rates of past uptake and total contributions. Wind and solar – with firming – are already undercutting new coal plants and if cost reductions continue it won’t be more than a few years before they undercut the running costs of old coal. This is apparent in the numerous RE projects in the pipeline and the lack of equivalent coal plants under construction in Australia. Nothing is ever going to be the same.

    The way I see it, cost reductions of RE are an economically rational wedge that can split the previously impervious alliance of mining, industry, commerce and Right politics that opposes climate action – and the cracks are already showing.

    The Monash Forum’s key members may imagine that climate science being wrong is the key reason why commerce and industry opposes climate action but it was always about financial fear and the bottom line; the denial thing was always just a way of justifying opposition and obstruction for them and the die hards who stick to it, who show themselves gullible enough to have actually believed it, may find they are not held in such high esteem by hard headed business people as they imagine.

    I suspect the cost reductions in PV in China just since Trump imposed tariffs are already closing the price gap. More cost reductions remain very likely, just with what is in that pipeline. RE will move from dominating new build generation to dominating overall generation faster than most people realise. That isn’t going to be enough to fix the climate problem but it may be enough to change the politics and bring about the demise of mainstream obstructionism; in a political environment where obstructionism ceases being influential real and productive rethinks of how we should proceeed become possible.

  10. Unfortunately, it is difficult for utility scale solar farms to drive existing coal generators out of the market. This is because once the average wholesale cost of daytime electricity drops too low it’s no longer profitable and construction stops. While we can hope the cost of large scale solar will continue to rapidly fall, we don’t have a guarantee that it will.

    But the good news is rooftop solar is very resistant to this effect as it can still make sense to install it even when the average wholesale price of electricity is very low or even zero. This is very useful for driving coal out of the market.

  11. Ronald: Trye that we don’t have a guarantee that solar prices will keep falling. But it’s a very strong prediction, of the same order as the fall in the costs of computing. There is a 22% learning curve going right back to 1954. There is the annual survey of VDMA, the German association of PV manufacturing equipment, detailing the roadmap for the next five years. There is a fat pipeline of research, for instance on perovskite tandem cells, that promises the progress will continue after that. It’s a pretty safe bet.

  12. Let’s hope they can leave the lead out of perovskite,
    Toward Lead-Free Perovskite Solar Cells – Feliciano Giustino and Henry J. Snaith

    However, focusing on technology alone is myopic. Leaving everything to capitalism and technology is a recipe for too little action too late, as we have seen to date. We need socialist solutions to reduce wasteful consumption. An example would be moving away from private automobiles to bicycles, mass transit and self-driving shuttles; the latter two solutions being government owned and run. On the energy side, we need a nationalized renewable energy plan to phase out coal as fast as possible. Rich owners of stranded coal and generation assets should receive no compensation. In addition, they should be billed for shuttering and remediation costs plus punitive damages for climate change effects to date.

    The capitalist economy is predicated on over-production and over-consumption. Wasteful over-consumption is the key problem of our political economy with respect to the environment and indeed to human health. The one solution capitalism cannot achieve is efficient conservation of resources and genuine sustainability. Capitalism is systematically programmed for endless growth, maximum production, maximum consumption and even for maximum waste. We need a new political economy (socialism) which can work to the goal of minimum necessary production to achieve socially desirable goals.

    It needs to be an economy dedicated to steady-state material and energetic demands on the environment; demands which are sustainable long term. Continued improvements in the arts, sciences and technology would be possible under such a system. Reducing wasteful material consumption of unnecessary consumer goods (automobiles for example) would free up adequate materials and energies for the arts, sciences and technology in addition to making less demands on the globe’s bio-services. We have to end capitalism before it ends us.

  13. James, unfortunately, back when we had a carbon price, Victoria’s brown coal plants showed they were willing to keep operating when they were averaging under 2 cents per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated. Things are a little better now that Victoria has raised brown coal royalties from basically nothing to almost nothing, but since brown coal power plants can ramp up and take advantage of higher wholesale prices in the later afternoon and evening and during the morning peak, it’s not easy for utility scale solar to be a brown coal power station killer. It is simply difficult to get the wholesale cost of electricity during the daytime below the marginal cost of brown coal for long enough to make it uneconomical to keep the brown coal power stations in service. And of course the increasing amount of energy storage in the country is helping the economics of brown coal.

    The brown coal power stations are old and falling apart, so utility scale solar can help end their lives sooner, but if the government offers no support for renewables or clean air, which is their current plan, then an accelerating expansion of rooftop solar is pretty much our best hope for closing coal power stations early, as our government is going to make large scale renewable investment fall off a cliff at the end of next year

  14. The elephant in the room is that dangerous climate change has already started.

    I used to think that we would be able to avoid dangerous climate change by load-shedding [that is, euthanising] the climate change denialists [avoiding moral hazard, capturing externalities, etc]. Point being that it was a proof-of-concept exercise to demonstrate that climate change was avoidable and it was all a question of cost distribution.

    I still think it’ll help, but it doesn’t look like it’s enough to be a complete solution.

    [I don’t particularly want people to die, but if climate change is going to kill people then the only moral choice for who it is who get killed is the people who stopped non-lethal outcomes]

  15. The “lead in perovskites” complaint lacks a sense of proportion, There are 8 kilos or so of lead in a typical car battery. These aren’t a major hazard (though new lead smelting is) and the lead is well recycled. The lead in a sealed perovskite solar panel would be microgrammes, well-packaged for 30 years. People are working on solar panel recycling. I imagine the main problem is that glass is cheap and has no resource constraints, and the stuff that’s worth recovering – copper, silver and so on – is present in such small quantities that the effort is hard to justify without subsidy or coercion (which I would support on the principle of the thing).

  16. James W., that was an unfortunate rebuttal analogy I think.

    But first a disclosure. I have solar panels on my roof, a lead-acid battery in my vehicle and that vehicle is a diesel. I can’t for a minute pretend I am Simon-pure. We are all enmeshed in this highly damaging global system. Trapped might be a better word.

    Lead is an accumulation poison. Tiny amounts add up in persons over time. Brains and children are the most susceptible. Lead pollution from poor recycling practices definitely is a problem in some parts of the world.

    It might be that the lead would be safe if such panels (as with batteries) were disposed, stored and/or recycled properly. In all such cases though, we cannot assume that all downstream events, after manufacture, will happen properly, according to law and regulation or that there will even be effective law and regulation in some jurisdictions.

    The days of manufacturing without concern for the full life-cycle of a product should be over. That is why it is sensible to see if lead can be removed from the perovskites manufacture process. It is clear from a multitude of cases over an almost endless range of products that the global economy still cannot manage its waste stream. The best policy is to not build dangerous wastes into the products in the first place if this is technically possible. It probably is the case that some products are so dangerous pollution-wise and in other ways (for example automobiles) that ideally we should give them up altogether.

    Capitalist manufacturers have demonstrated an almost endless duplicity in the matter of wastes and human and environmental damage. (The industrial and nuclear command economy of the USSR was no better.) Even today, If there is a way to reduce costs by avoiding pollution regulation manufacturers will do it. The recent Dieselgate emissions scandal, not just limited to one manufacturer, is an example.

    The problem with techno-optimism is that it places too little emphasis on the size, range and complexity of the unintended consequences arising from applied science and technology. Our (so far) open-ended and meta-strategically unplanned endless growth (exacerbated by the current form of capitalism) is also a central part of the problem. I say “meta-strategically unplanned” because of course our growth is tactically and strategically planned (in nation-state civil, economic and military terms).

    However, our growth is not meta-strategically planned. That is to say, we do not know what the strategy of our strategy is. What is the goal of endless growth? Since endless growth cannot occur (it’s a biophysical and thermodynamic impossibility), then it itself cannot have a strategy. Of course, neolithic humans, feudal humans and industrial revolution humans did not have a meta-strategy for civilization. Those concepts were beyond them because the experiences of global limits and global integration and the possession of high levels of scientific knowledge were beyond them at those times.

    But we are in a different position now. We know enough to know that we need a higher level strategy than the one we are currently using which is endless growth capitalism harnessed for the purpose of nation-state competition. Can we figure out this challenge and negotiate the dangers? Who knows? But manufacturing without full product life-cycle planning is a huge mistake. On that side of the ledger, the devil is in the detail. On the big picture side of the ledger, there is a need to realize that we must develop a steady state economy with regard to material and energetic inputs. Waste streams must be reduced below the rates where the bio-services systems of the biosphere are overwhelmed.

    Naive techno-optimism is a real trap in my opinion. Very possibly, we still do need further technical solutions. But technology applications need to be vetted in the most thorough way possible. Low environmental impact solutions need to heavily favored. High consumption solutions need to be scrupulously avoided. Finding ways to prevent efficiency gains being lost to the Jevon’s Paradox (via more growth) is absolutely crucial.

  17. But the good news is, the amount of lead people are exposed to is way down. This is true across the developed world, even in Port Pirie, and true in general in the developing world. The few countries that haven’t banned leaded petrol generally don’t sell much of it, as far as I understand. The reason why our lead exposure is down is because of standards and regulation. While there have no doubt been cheaters, we are exposed to far less lead than in the past. So yay for that. It’s a very good thing.

    I think it is important to recognize what does work, otherwise one might become depressed or ignore effective solutions or partially effective solutions.

  18. Ronald, the history of capitalist-industrial civilization’s ongoing waste stream releases and amelioration efforts demonstrates a disturbing pattern. For every hopeful story like the reduction of lead pollution or of ozone-depleting chemicals, one can point to many real stories of the dangerous increases of ubiquitous wastes spread globally through air and water; for example, atmospheric CO2 levels, plastic pollutants, chemicals and hormone-mimicking pollutants.

    Where the pollutant;

    (a) has relatively few potential release sites and release events (compared to the huge total number of potential release events in the entire global economy); and/or

    (b) has relatively easily developed substitutions of a more benign nature; and/or

    (c) is the result of a less economically central process; and/or

    (d) is the result of less fetishized (less popular) products; and/or

    (e) is not central to great nation-state military or economic power;

    then governments, corporations and technology specialists are more willing and able to push through solutions. These solutions are then propagandized to green-wash capitalist-industrial civilization’s ongoing total waste stream. Basically, this process presents a few nice shiny cherries prominently displayed for handy cherry-picking by capitalist apologists and techno-optimists.

    A recent example of this near futile tokenism is the banning of disposable plastic shopping bags in Queensland supermarkets. All other plastic waste streams remain untouched by this decision. Indeed, sales of light plastic bags from the shelves (not re-usable bags, plastic or otherwise, from the checkouts) are increasing. I do not know what percentage of total plastic waste was accounted for by disposable plastic shopping bags. I can only conclude it must have been a tiny percentage when I look around at the total number of products wrapped in plastic or bottled in plastic. Then, how much more plastic is in items from electronic goods to cars and other products?

    It is clear that capitalist business in total has not the least intention to reduce plastics manufacture in any meaningful way. Even more to the point, our global economy is so highly dependent on plastics just as it is on a myriad other dangerous chemicals, oil and natural gas, it is hard to see how biosphere-saving reductions could ever happen without totally collapsing the world economy. There possibly is a way but we are not attempting anything like it.

    We can’t save the world except by ending capitalism and creating a new system (and maybe not even then but we ought to try). It’s as simple as that. Plenty of the real thinkers in the world have said it recently. Naomi Klein just for one. I remain astonished how few people have got the message yet. Of course, I bang on endlessly and annoyingly about the unsustainability of capitalism. It’s the only real and fundamental issue today. Every other issue hangs off it.

  19. All good points, Ikonoclast, but ultimately a distraction from the real problem of replacing human DNA.

    Human DNA is clearly inadequate and, without major change, will ultimately lead to the death of everyone on the planet. It makes us vulnerable to diseases, cancer, aging and any malady you care to name. The only option is to completely replace it with an entirely different molecule. One that contains information in at least triplicate and regularly error checks so human health, happiness, and dignity will always be maintained.

    Sure there have been major advances against infectious disease and there have even been minor improvements in the treatment of cancer, but these don’t solve the basic problem and these solutions are then propagandized to health-wash medical-industrial civilization’s ongoing increasing total mutation load. Basically, this process presents a few nice shiny cherries prominently displayed for handy cherry-picking by health apologists and medical-optimists.

    Sure, when we have pneumonia, or a broken bone, or a melanoma, we’re all tempted to use medical technology, but this just props up the medical establishment and perpetuates the cycle of not replacing human DNA. As long as they keep getting paid for treating the symptoms resulting from human DNA health professionals have no incentive to replace human DNA with something better. Sure, we have no real idea of how to go about replacing human DNA at the moment, but we do know it can be done better and that should be enough.

    We can’t save the world except by ending medicine and creating new DNA (and maybe not even then but we ought to try). It’s as simple as that. Plenty of the real thinkers in the world have said it recently. Ray Kurzweil just for one. I remain astonished how few people have got the message yet. Of course, I bang on endlessly and annoyingly about the unsustainability of human DNA. It’s the only real and fundamental issue today. Every other issue hangs off it.

  20. I thought I found some under a rock, but it turned out to be the same old DNA as always.

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