Tracking Power

Not on track
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Coal-fired power

Not on track

Share of coal-fired power generation in the Sustainable Development Scenario, 2000-2040

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Overview

Coal power generation increased 3% in 2018 (similar to the 2017 increase), and for the first time crossed the 10 000 TWh mark. Coal remains firmly in place as the largest source of power at 38% of overall generation. Growth was mainly in Asia, particularly in China and India. That said, investment in coal-fired power declined by nearly 3% to the lowest level since 2004, and final investment decisions for new plants continue to decline. Coal-fired generation without CCUS needs to decrease 5.8% per year to 2030 to be in line with the SDS.
Tracking progress

Coal-based generation rose by 3% in 2018, the same rate as in 2017, to reach a new peak at more than 10 000 TWh.

CCUS-equipped coal generation still accounts for only a negligible share of overall coal generation, as just two plants are currently in operation; it is therefore not in line with the Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS).

Coal-fired power generation without CCUS is also not on track with the SDS, which would require a decline of 5.8% per year until 2030. 

Coal generation in Asia – particularly China and India – increased significantly, but it fell elsewhere, including in the United States and Europe. It remains the largest source of electricity generation worldwide, with a share of 38%.

Coal-fired power generation in the United States continued to drop in 2018 (by 60 TWh) despite strong electricity demand growth, as 15 GW of coal capacity was retired.

Coal generation in Europe also decreased (by 20 TWh), mainly because of strong renewables-based expansion. In fact, many countries have announced coal phase-outs: Germany, the largest coal consumer in Europe, plans to be coal-free by 2038.

Changes in coal-fired power generation capacity by region, 2018

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China, India and Southeast Asia led the overall increase in coal-fired electricity generation in emerging economies in 2018. China’s coal power generation rose by 4% in response to rising electricity demand (+8%), while generation from gas and renewable energy sources also continued to grow.

Coal-fired electricity generation in India rose by 5%, a slowdown from 2017 due to lower power demand growth, and generation also increased strongly in Southeast Asian economies.

Despite higher generation, investments in coal-fired power (at under USD 60 billion) were nearly 3% lower than in 2017, falling to the lowest level since 2004 mainly due to China and India.

Moreover, new coal-fired power plant capacity receiving final investment decisions (FIDs) declined by 30% to 22 GW, the lowest level this century.

Most FIDs are now for high-efficiency plants, with inefficient subcritical plants comprising only 10%.

The largest fall in FIDs was in China, but levels in Southeast Asia were at their lowest level in 14 years. India was the largest market, now largely oriented towards supercritical technology, but levels were 80% lower than in 2010.

Coal capacity by type in the Sustainable Development Scenario, 2010-2030

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Current investment levels are not sufficient to raise CCUS-equipped coal-fired power generation from less than 1 TWh today to the 310 TWh by 2030 seen in the SDS.

Building unabated coal plants today risks locking in emissions over the long term and stranding assets. As coal plant capacity already exceeds the SDS level, getting on track with its trajectory will require more retirements or decreased utilisation (or both) over the next decade.

Policy measures are required to ensure that processes are in place to:

  • assess the potential to deploy lower-carbon generation options
  • phase out generation from less-efficient subcritical coal units when possible
  • check that new coal-fired unit efficiencies are consistent with global best practice – currently supercritical or ultra-supercritical technologies

These measures are particularly important for emerging economies in Asia, where electricity demand is expanding and coal remains a fuel of choice for meeting it.

Also, whenever it is feasible, new coal-fired units should be constructed CCUS-ready. Then, when policy or economics dictate, CCUS can be deployed quickly.

Modernising the existing coal power plant fleet with flexibility and efficiency improvements remains a priority. To this end, in January 2019 the US Department of Energy announced up to USD 38 million in funding for R&D to enhance the overall performance, reliability and flexibility of existing coal-fired plants.

Innovation gaps

Innovation efforts should focus on boosting overall full-load efficiency and plant flexibility, 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, and the importance of improving CCUS for coal to conform with carbon constraints is increasingly being recognised.

Several innovative approaches are being explored, such as integrated gasification fuel cells, direct coal fuel cells and supercritical CO2 power cycles. 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.

Advanced ultra-supercritical (AUSC) coal plants promise higher combustion temperatures and efficiencies, and hence lower emissions. Certain technological limits have yet to be overcome, however, to address the high temperatures and pressures. The SDS envisions a shift in the coal power plant fleet towards the highest-efficiency plants (USC and AUSC), and away from subcritical and supercritical technologies.

Additional resources
References

IEA CCC (International Energy Agency Clean Coal Centre) (2019), "Technology readiness of advanced coal-based power generation systems",https://www.iea-coal.org/technology-readiness-of-advanced-coal-based-power-generation-systems-ccc-292/.

Acknowledgements

Keith Burnard (IEAGHG), Andrew Minchener (IEA Clean Coal Centre), Hans-Wilhelm Schiffer (World Energy Council)