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Data Bite: China’s Unwinding From Coal

March 14, 2016
Tim Buckley

New data shows China’s electricity-sector transformation accelerating in the first two months of 2016. While electricity consumption was up just 0.3% year on year (yoy) to 870TWh for the January-February period, coal imports fell 10.2%i and coal production declined 6.4%.

Thermal power generation (coal and gas) was down 4.3% yoy to 679TWh for the first two months of 2016. By comparison, hydro electricity production was +22.6% yoy to 129TWh, a new record high.

What it means: Slowing economic growth, reduced energy intensity of economic activity and a rapid diversification in electricity towards renewables, nuclear and hydro electricity generation are combining to rapidly unwind China’s historic dependence on coal.

Two key trends are evident in China’s electricity sector transformation:

First, electricity consumption has decoupled from economic activity as the Chinese economy continues to transition toward a greater reliance on less electricity intensive service sectors.

Second, electricity generation continues to diversify away from a reliance on coal- fired power generation. A record 32 gigawatts (GW) of wind installations and 18GW of solar installations in 2015 alone shows China’s efforts to diversify its electricity grid continues to gain momentum.

IEEFA estimates coal-fired power’s share of China’s total electricity generation peaked at 79% in 2011, and declined to 70% in 2015 (73% including gas). This new data puts China on track for coal fired power generation to lose another 2% share in 2016 and to exit this decade with a share below 60%. This is consistent with the Chinese government’s target of just 50-55% share for coal fired power generation by 2030.

IEEFA previously concluded that China’s absolute use of coal likely peaked in 2013. The subsequent data certainly supports this position. China’s coal consumption declined 2.9% yoy in 2014, with a further decline of 3.7% yoy in 2015 that accelerated in the first two months of 2016. As a guide, production year to date was -6.4% yoy.

In response to the unexpected decline in coal consumption, on 22 February 2016 China’s National Energy Board reported plans to eliminate 1bn tonnes per annum of coal mining capacity and redeploy over 1.2 million coal miners. The cuts could total as much as 17% of China’s total capacity. Additional new plans include a three-year moratorium of new coal mine developments and implementation of a coal-fired power plant capacity rationalisation.iii

The Chinese economy continues to slow, with the government targeting 6.5% real growth in gross domestic product in 2016, down from 6.9% in 2015. The first two months of 2016 saw momentum at the slowest rate since the start of 2015. While retail sales in China still grew 10.2% yoy,iv industrial output was reported to be up just 5.4%. In the first two months of 2016, China’s cement production is down 8.2% yoy and steel production down 5.7% yoy. The economic transformation is clearly continuing.

Tim Buckley is the Director of Energy Finance Studies, Australasia, for IEEFA.

Tim Buckley

Tim Buckley, Director, Climate Energy Finance (CEF) has 30 years of financial market experience covering the Australian, Asian and global equity markets from both a buy and sell side perspective. Tim was formerly Director Energy Finance Studies, Australia/South Asia, IEEFA, and was a Managing Director, Head of Equity Research at Citigroup for 17 years until 2008.

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