Coal investment could be a waste of $1 trillion (£695 billion), according to three anti fossil-fuel groups.
In a report released on Wednesday by CoalSwarm, Sierra Club and Greenpeace, demand for coal is falling much faster than the rate of capital investment in new or repaired coal factories.
An equivalent 1,500 coal plants are currently in construction — amounting to about 338 gigawatts (GW) of power — with another 1,086 GW worth in the various stages of planning.
“Meanwhile,” the report says, “as clean, renewable energy becomes more affordable and more accessible, the amount of capital wasted on these unneeded plants will be one and a half times the amount the International Energy Agency estimates could provide electricity to the 1.2 billion people who need it worldwide.”
The main problem is declining demand for electricity generated by coal — particularly in China where it dropped 3.6% in 2015.
This also resulted in a drop in “plant utilisation” — the amout of energy generated by a factory against its maximum capacity — to 49.4% in the country.
Here’s the chart:
At the moment, most Chinese coal plants function for less than 50% of the day — the lowest level since 1969. But it’s not just China — the drop in plant utilisation is mirrored in other major economic blocs.
India has 11GW of thermal capacity ‘lying idle,’ and 2015 saw the country’s first drop in annual installations since 2006. This drop is expected to increase this year.
The US, meanwhile, saw a drop of over 5% of plant utlisation, with the EU not far behind. While plant “retirements” are increasing in both areas, it’s still not fast enough to counter new plants and declining demand, and Europe and the US “continue to produce far more carbon dioxide per capita than the global average.”
The other problem coal energy investors don’t want to admit is that clean energy has become a significant competitor in recent years.
“After competitive bidding in India,” the report says, “multiple contracts for PV [solar] power were signed in late 2015 and early 2016 at INR 4,780/MWh or less, the equivalent of US$70 — $75/MWh, and fixed flat for 25 years — i.e. equivalent to a 5 per cent annual decline in real local currency terms.”
Those cheaper costs mean greater demand for wind and solar power.
As the chart below shows, new installations worldwide for clean energy sources exceeded new coal power installations in 2015:
“This research has revealed hundreds of billions being squandered on unneeded coal plants, but there’s more at stake here than money,” said Ted Nace, director of CoalSwarm, according to The Guardian. “In terms of climate safety, the clock is ticking on the transition to clean energy.”