How much of the world’s electricity needs are provided by coal?  Does still coal contribute to the energy mix globally?

As of 2013, coal provided approximately 41% of the world’s electricity needs. And at 29% of total world energy supply, coal is second only to oil, at 31%.

What are supercritical and ultra-supercritical plants?

Supercritical (SC) and ultra-supercritical (USC) plants produce heat that drives water above the critical point where there is no difference between steam and liquid. This marks them as different from the traditional, subcritical plants, which run below this critical point and produce a mix of water and steam. Given the higher pressure and temperature involved, the efficiency of SC and USC is much greater, as much as 45% against the 33% average for existing coal-fired capacity. While the SC and USC plants require higher financial investments, their increased efficiency saves coal and reduces carbon emissions.

Is coal production declining?

No, far from it. Since the start of the 21st century, coal production has been the fastest-growing global energy source. While provisional IEA figures show a slight decrease in 2014 driven by a decline in China and some exceptional circumstances such as unrest in Ukraine, the IEA sees global supply increasing at an average rate of 2.1% through 2019.  

Will production of coal continue to increase?

Although coal was the fastest-growing primary energy source from 2000-10 at 5.5% per year, this growth is unevenly distributed. Most of the growth in coal consumption came from Asia, particularly China, while coal consumption growth in the OECD region was sluggish.

Economic growth is likely to continue in both China and India at least over the medium-term (five years). Coal remains the key fuel in both countries’ energy mix and since economic growth and energy use are highly correlated, coal demand prospects for both countries and other emerging economies are expected to be strong enough to offset sluggish coal demand in OECD countries. Therefore, global coal demand is likely to grow for at least the next several years. That said, China has been increasing the role of natural gas, nuclear and renewables in the recent years.

What about coal consumption? 

Coal consumption increased by more than 70% from 4 600 Mt in 2000 to an estimated 7 876 Mt in 2013. Demand grew 2.4% in 2013, up from 2.0% in 2012, though slow when compared with the ten-year trend, in which the compound average growth rate was 4.6%.

The IEA sees continued but slowing coal demand growth in the medium term, projecting in Medium-Term Coal Report 2014 a 2.1% increase through 2019, though that figure is likely to be lower in the next report. Already that outlook is down from the 2.3% rate seen the previous year through 2018. For a number of reasons including strong hydro power production in China, provisional IEA data for 2014 show a 0.9% decrease in global consumption in energy terms, with more than three-fifths of the decline in OECD countries. But as in past years, global demand varied significantly according to geography. Among non-OECD countries, the provisional data showed Chinese demand easing 2.9% but Indian consumption surging 13.8%. And despite the drop in OECD consumption, Korean demand increased 4%. Overall, however, of the top ten consuming countries, which accounted for 86.8% of global consumption in 2014, the provisional data show declines in demand for eight of these countries. 

Are there geopolitical risks associated with coal supply?

Coal reserves and resources are widely dispersed over the globe and supply is not concentrated to a few regions only, as is the case for natural gas and oil. The key exporting countries, Indonesia, Australia, Russia, South Africa, Colombia, and the United States are politically stable. Nevertheless, the fact that around 90% of coal exports come from only these six countries suggests the need for further diversification.

How significant is China’s share in global coal production and consumption?

China’s share in global coal production is almost four times that of Saudi Arabia’s in oil output. China’s share in global coal consumption is more than twice that of the United States for oil. Overall, the Chinese domestic coal market is more than three times that of all international coal trade. In 2011 China became the largest coal importer in the world; however, China’s coal imports make up just 5% of its total coal consumption. Therefore, any fluctuation in Chinese production and demand has the ability to have a large impact on global coal trade.