Tracking Progress: Coal-fired power

Coal power plant

Coal continues to dominate global power generation, with a share of over 40%. While generation growth has slowed, emissions from coal power would need to decline on average by 3% per annum until 2025 to be on track with the 2DS. In 2015, capacity additions stood at 84 GW, of which around 25 GW use subcritical technology. Under the 2DS, unabated coal capacity additions would have to slow down, with subcritical technology deployment abandoned altogether. 

Recent trends

Coal’s share in power generation remained at a notable level of 41% (9 690 TWh) in 2014, with generation growth of 0.7% from 2013 to 2014. Coal generation in 2015 and 2016 is estimated to have decreased, but pronounced regional and annual variations can be found. Coal-fired power generation in the major developed countries, in particular the United States, is on a steep downward trajectory while developing countries are still experiencing coal generation growth.

In OECD countries, power generation from coal decreased from 2014 to 2015 by 7.5% (-260 TWh) to an estimated 3 201 TWh, setting a new record low for the past decade. The main contributor to the decrease was the United States, which experienced a sharp decline of 14% (-239 TWh) compared with 2014, due to competitive gas-fired generation and the expansion of renewables. Electricity demand growth in OECD countries remains weak, and the share of coal in the overall generation mix fell from 32% to 30% in 2015.

Outside the OECD, coal generation in China, the centre of global coal demand, decreased in 2015 due to a reduction in electricity demand, coupled with an increased generation from hydro and nuclear.1 Despite the decrease in generation in 2015, 52 GW of coal-fired generation capacity was added in China in 2015, and roughly 150 GW is currently under construction. In India, the third-largest coal consumer in the world, coal-fired power generation increased by 3.3% in 2015, which is considerably lower than the 11% growth of 2014, mostly due to lower demand growth. 

Tracking progress

While coal generation growth has markedly slowed compared with the average of the past decade, and is estimated to have even contracted in 2015 and 2016, 84 GW of new coal capacity were still installed in 2015, almost 30% (25 GW) of which comprised subcritical technology, and around 280 GW are currently under construction worldwide, with roughly 10% being subcritical. According to 2DS projections, coal-based CO2 emissions must decline by around 3% annually by 2025. Further, to meet the 2DS targets, unabated coal generation needs to start to decline after 2020, led by a reduction in generation from the least efficient technologies. 

Recommended actions

Policy measures need to address both the long-term and short-term challenges associated with generation from coal. Ultimately, a long-term carbon price signal will be needed to set adequate investment incentives and hence enable a low-carbon energy transition. For the short term, carbon pricing and more stringent pollution control regulations may be used to reduce emissions, minimise local air pollution, and limit and ultimately phase out generation from subcritical coal-fired power stations. Examples are emissions performance standards in Canada and the United Kingdom for power generation capacity additions as well as the carbon price support in the United Kingdom. In OECD countries, and especially in many emerging economies, where coal-fired power generation is set to expand in the near future, new-build coal‑fired power units should aim for best available efficiencies (currently, through application of supercritical or ultra-supercritical technologies), where feasible, and be designed in view of potential future CCS retrofits, if they are not equipped initially with CCS. Further, coal plant designs should ensure sufficient operation flexibility to balance electricity supply and demand and to support the introduction of increasing shares of intermittent renewables onto the power grid.


Published: 16 May 2017

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