Coal-fired power

Tracking Clean Energy Progress

🕐 Last updated Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Not on track

Unabated coal generation (that is, from plants without CCUS) increased by 3% in 2017, more than offsetting the 2016 decline, due mainly to strong growth in Asia and particularly China and India. That said, investments in coal power dropped by one-third in 2017, and final investment decisions for new plants continue to decline. Unabated coal generation needs to decrease by 5.6% per year until 2030 to meet the SDS target.


Share of coal power generation in the SDS

Meeting the SDS target will require 5.6% annual decrease in unabated coal generation.

	Share of non-fossil electricity	Share of electricity from coal
2000	35.438	38.855
2001	35.180	38.673
2002	34.604	38.981
2003	33.469	40.082
2004	33.759	39.552
2005	33.447	39.984
2006	33.136	40.691
2007	31.879	41.312
2008	32.350	40.828
2009	32.970	40.234
2010	32.742	40.330
2011	31.923	41.232
2012	32.073	40.461
2013	32.557	41.256
2014	33.298	40.668
2015	33.688	39.326
2016	34.906	37.439
2017	35.444	37.411
2025	50.150	23.294
2030	61.259	14.639
2040	77.845	6.099
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In 2017, coal generation rose by 3%, after falling the previous two years (-2% and -3%, respectively). There was significant growth in coal generation in Asia, particularly in China and India, and decline elsewhere, including in the United States and the European Union. Coal-fired power generation remains the largest source of electricity generation worldwide, with a share of around 37%.

Coal-fired power generation in the United States continued its decline in 2017 (-33 TWh) as competitive gas generation and renewables – benefiting from tax credits, state-specific expansion targets and cost reductions – further squeezed coal out of the generation mix. Coal generation in the European Union decreased (-22 TWh), mainly due to low gas prices and carbon policies that prompted fuel switching to gas. In the United Kingdom, a phase-out of coal by 2025 has been announced.

China, India and Southeast Asia led an overall increase in coal-fired electricity generation in non-OECD countries in 2017. China’s coal power generation increased by 4% due to rising electricity demand (+6%). Low power plant utilisation rates are an indication of persisting coal overcapacity in China, where generation from gas and renewable energy sources continued to grow.

Coal-fired electricity generation in India rose by 13%, a substantial rebound of growth in the country, due mainly to strong growth in power demand (+12%). Southeast Asian economies saw strong coal generation growth as well in 2017.


Coal capacity by type

Historical development and targets

	CCS	CHP	Ultra-supercritical	Supercritical	Subcritical
2010	1.27	378.26	82.52	259.02	912.37
2011	1.28	400.87	100.00	281.55	933.38
2012	1.45	419.68	119.36	299.69	937.88
2013	1.72	437.47	139.05	311.04	939.75
2014	1.84	453.77	157.39	326.80	945.89
2015	1.87	474.44	195.05	341.28	950.82
2016	1.60	485.81	230.59	355.55	946.70
2017	2.17	486.86	265.82	388.96	944.88
2020	3.26	482.92	330.84	430.90	895.59
2025	8.96	467.38	320.39	417.86	775.97
2030	59.47	439.70	254.51	343.68	588.80
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Investment

Despite the increase in generation, investments in coal-fired power capacity declined sharply in 2017 from over USD 90 billion in 2016 to around USD 60 billion due to a slowdown in commissioning of new coal plants. Moreover, the capacity of new coal-fired power plants receiving final investment decisions in 2017 fell to just over 30 GW, the lowest level in over 15 years and only 35% of that registered in 2015. The slowdown in investment decisions during the past two years has been led mostly by China, followed by India and Southeast Asia.


Tracking progress

Coal-fired power generation without CCUS is not on a trajectory to meet SDS targets, which require a decrease of 5.6% per year until 2030. In addition, current investment levels are not sufficient to increase coal-fired power generation with CCUS from less than 1 TWh today to the SDS goal of 305 TWh by 2030. Building unabated coal plants today risks locking in emissions over the long term and stranding assets. The capacity of coal plants is already above the SDS targets, so meeting the SDS generation target requires more retirements, decreased utilisation or both over the next decade.

There are signs, however, that investments in new coal-fired power capacity might have peaked in 2015 and 2017. First, coal plant additions declined significantly in 2017, led by China. Second and most important, final investment decisions dropped sharply in 2017 to historic lows of just over 30 GW.

Further, investments have shifted towards deploying more efficient supercritical and ultra-supercritical coal power generation technologies. The overall capacity of existing subcritical plants declined in 2017, as retirements of over 20 GW exceeded capacity additions.


Innovation

Efforts to improve coal power plant designs include boosting overall peak efficiency and the flexibility of plants, for example by increasing ramping speed (the pace at which generation can be increased to meet demand) and part-load efficiencies. Flexibility improvements to plants will be crucial to integrate a growing share of variable renewable generation into the grid system.

Reducing local air pollution from coal plants continues to be a priority for innovation, and the importance of improving CCUS for coal in a carbon-constrained world is increasingly being recognised.

Several innovative approaches are being explored, such as integrated gasification fuel cells, direct coal fuel cells and supercritical CO2. These technologies, which promise ultra-high efficiencies, are at different stages of development, with several technical and engineering challenges that still need to be overcome.


The IEA’s new Innovation Tracking Framework identifies key long-term “technology innovation gaps” across the energy mix that need to be filled in order to meet long-term clean energy transition goals. Each innovation gap highlights where R&D investment and other efforts need improvement.

Explore the technology innovation gaps identified for coal-fired power below:

Why is this RD&D challenge critical?

High efficiency low emissions coal power is a requirement for new coal power plants.

Key RD&D focus areas over the next 5 years

Explore technical options for retrofitting coal fired power plants and assess their economics against other flexibility options. Includes higher live steam parameters, larger capacity, and steam double–reheating.

Key initiatives

First double-heating ultra-supercritical unit in Taizhou, China, and ongoing research on 700 Celsius USC programme.

Why is this RD&D challenge critical?

Coal power suffers an efficiency penalty when ramping frequently, which is exacerbated with the power mixes in the SDS. Among the impacts are load-following or on-load cycling (e.g. operating at base load during the day and ramping down to minimum generation at night), two-shifting or sporadic operation. These cause thermal fatigue of components, corrosion and its impacts on material fatigue, as well as operational impacts on efficiency, emission controls and inventory management.

Key RD&D focus areas over the next 5 years

  • Conducting case studies to identify strategies that both reduce startup times and the minimum sustainable loads.
  • Improved strategies for corrosion protection.
  • Design and develop heat recovery steam generators and boilers for flexible operation.
  • Holistic layup methods for durations of several days.

Key initiatives

NETL programme on coal power R&D

Explore all 100+ innovation gaps across 38 key technologies and sectors here.