March 25, 2016 Read More →

China ‘Is Getting Serious’ About Scaling Back Coal

Keith Johnson for Foreign Policy:

The Chinese government is halting construction of hundreds of coal-fired power plants across the country, a major move that highlights the sudden and accelerating death throes of the fuel that powered the creation of the modern world.

Beijing’s decision to build fewer coal plants than planned is the latest blow to the prospects of coal, which alongside crude oil remains the globe’s most important energy source.

In the United States, which after China has the second-largest electricity sector, natural gas use in the power sector will surpass coal this year for the first time ever. In the United Kingdom, where coal launched the Industrial Revolution, Scotland this week shuttered its last coal plant; this month, England sealed off its very last coal mine. Huge coal companies like Peabody and Arch are tottering into bankruptcy, and major international banks are fleeing from coal projects in many countries. What initially began as a series of pinprick setbacks for coal in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, in other words, seems to be turning into a rout.

On Wednesday, Chinese media reported that government officials ordered the halt of more than 250 coal-fired power plants slated for construction in more than a dozen provinces. The measure will scupper planned power plants with a combined capacity of 170 gigawatts — or as much generation capacity as there is in all of Germany.

The move is part of China’s ongoing plan to cap the use of dirty energy like coal that has contributed to massive air pollution and, in turn, sparked major protests by a growing Chinese middle class. Late last year, China announced a freeze on opening new coal mines, and is closing thousands of smaller mines.

Other environmental concerns — such as the massive consumption of water by coal plants in water-stressed regions such as northern China — also played a role. As did economics: A burst of cleaner energy options in China, including renewable energy such as hydroelectric power, has made coal plants increasingly economically unviable. Many coal plants in the areas targeted by Beijing’s new order operate less than half the time.

And many of those same headwinds are working against coal in other parts of the world. A flood of cheap natural gas — rather than environmental regulations — is crippling coal’s future in the United States. International agreement to start tackling climate change, such as last year’s Paris climate accord, is pushing governments and companies around the world to focus on cleaner energy options.

Global investment in renewable energy like wind and solar power hit a record in 2015 of $286 billion, more than twice as much as was invested in coal- and gas-fired electricity projects, the United Nations Environment Program said Thursday. For the first time, renewable energy — not even counting big hydroelectric projects — made up more than half the new electricity-generating capacity in the world.

Meanwhile, huge gains in energy efficiency mean economies in both the rich world and the developing world are squeezing more growth out of less energy, making investments in huge, centralized power plants something of a black elephant.

Even so, coal’s not dead yet. It still accounts for the bulk of Chinese electricity generation, and will probably continue to do so for years, if not decades, to come, because power plants can operate for half a century. Even in Chinese provinces targeted by the new order, hundreds of coal plants will forge ahead, dismaying environmental campaigners. And halting the construction of newer, more efficient coal plants could paradoxically end up leaving older, dirtier coal plants operating for longer, said John Deutch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

And coal’s future isn’t limited to China. India is massively expanding its electricity sector.

Full article: China Is Getting Serious About Kicking Its Coal Addiction

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