- Environment campaigners say satellite imagery shows a massive 259 gigawatts of new coal-fired power station capacity is under development in China.
- CoalSwarm says hundreds of coal-fired powered stations are under construction despite attempts by the central government to rein in expansion.
- The surge in high-emissions power generation would be wildly out of line with the Paris climate agreement.
China is building coal-fire power stations, many of them previously thought to have been cancelled by order of the central government, at a far greater rate than previously estimated, according to analysis of satellite imagery and official documents.
A study by green campaigners CoalSwarm shows 259 gigawatts (GW) of coal-fired capacity under development in China.
This is almost equivalent to the total installed coal power capacity in the U.S. of 266 GW.
This would mean a 25% increase in China’s current 993 GW of coal power capacity to 1252, pushing well past the stated national 1100 GW cap for coal-fired power.
The build-up in China, which already has half of the world’s coal power capacity, has implications for coal supplying countries such as Australia and will mean that China is unlikely to be able to meet Paris climate goals.
According to the International Energy Agency, a 50% chance of limiting average future temperature increases to 1.75C requires that China to close all coal plants without carbon capture and storage by 2045.
But a phase-out requires aggressive retirement of existing coal plants, and not the building new ones.
CoalSwarm says guaranteed power tariffs, easy access to cheap credit, and a permit spree by provincial authorities have led to a rapid build-up of coal power capacity in China, far exceeding the country’s needs.
The green campaigners used the Global Coal Plant Tracker, an online database that identifies, maps, describes, and categorises every known coal-fired generating unit in China, to determine that work is progressing, and not slowing, on the construction of hundreds of coal-fired power stations, despite attempts by the central government to put the brakes on new work.
Below is a sample of the type of facility under construction, referenced in the CoalSwarm report and published at Planet Labs. The slider allows you to compare the completed cooling tower as pictured in January this year against the same site in July 2017.
The latest buildup has implications for world demand and prices for coal.
Australia is the world’s fifth largest producer of black coal, producing 430 million tonnes in 2017, most of its exported to Asia. China is the world’s largest thermal coal importer.
Whitehaven Coal, the largest Australian-owned producer of power station coal, says coal demand in just Southeast Asia is forecast to grow to 452 million tonnes in 2040 from 187 million tonnes in 2016. The growth is more than Australia’s current exports.
Almost two-thirds (64%) of China’s power generation comes from coal, according to 2016 numbers from China’s National Energy Administration.
Analysts at the Minerals Council of Australia had been forecasting an easing in demand for coal from China as a national campaign for more renewable energy comes into play.
But this latest intelligence could change that.
Most of the extra capacity is from a surge in new projects approved by provinces after authority was devolved by the central government to regions.
“Mitigating that surge has been the principal goal of subsequent central government measures, but CoalSwarm’s new survey shows those efforts have been significantly less effective than indicated by earlier media and analytical reports,” says the report, Tsunami Warning.
According to the study, there was a surge in new coal projects at provincial level between 2014 and 2016.
“Since 2016, the central government of China has made repeated efforts to rein in the overbuilding of new coal-fired power plants through a series of suspension policies,” the report says.
“But new evidence based on satellite photography and official documents shows hundreds of coal projects still in development, on course to overwhelm the country’s own announced coal power cap and seriously undermine global climate goals.”
CoalSwarm says China already has enough coal-fired power plants to meet its needs, with the average plant running less than half the time.
Cancelling the current pipeline of 259 GW would free up $US210 billion in capital that could be used to build nearly 300 GW of solar panels or 175 GW of onshore wind power in China, it says.
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