Coal Powering China as ‘Equivalent of Two Large Coal Power Plants’ Permitted to Open Each Week

Coal Powering China as ‘Equivalent of Two Large Coal Power Plants’ Permitted to Open Each Week
An excavator sift through dunes of low-grade coal near a coal mine in Pingdingshan, Henan province, China, on Nov. 5, 2021. (Aly Song/Reuters)
Naveen Athrappully

China, the largest coal consumer in the world, saw coal power projects jump in 2022 despite the country’s commitment to cut down coal consumption by the end of this decade.

In 2022, coal power construction starts, new project announcements, and plant permissions “accelerated dramatically” in China, according to a February report (pdf) by Global Energy Monitor and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). Two new coal power plants were permitted per week in China. “50 GW of coal power capacity started construction in China in 2022, a more than 50 percent increase from 2021. Many of these projects had their permits fast-tracked and moved to construction in a matter of months,” the report said.

“A total of 106 GW of new coal power projects were permitted, the equivalent of two large coal power plants per week. The amount of capacity permitted more than quadrupled from 23 GW in 2021.”

Out of all the coal power projects permitted last year, 60 GW were yet to begin construction as of January 2023. The report expects these projects to begin soon, signaling that more construction starts will likely be recorded this year. In 2022, 86 GW of coal power projects were initiated, which is more than double the 40 GW initiated in 2021.

The thrust in coal power follows Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s earlier commitment to reducing coal consumption between 2026 and 2030. Setting up hundreds of new coal power plants calls into question China’s commitment to achieving these targets.

“The politically influential owners of the plants have an interest in protecting their assets and avoiding a rapid build-out of clean energy and a phase-out of coal,” the report stated.

Jump in Coal Power Projects

Coal power construction starts in China slowed down between 2017 and 2020. In 2021 and 2022, new coal power capacity added to the grid remained steady at around 26 GW. In the coming years, capacity additions are expected to rebound. “The coal power capacity starting construction in China was six times as large as that in all of the rest of the world combined” in 2022, per the report.

The jump in coal power projects coincides with electricity demand rising in the country. Electric peak loads in 2021-2022 saw a “rapid increase” due to the higher use of air conditioners amid “exceptionally intense” heat waves.

In addition, the retirement of coal plants slowed down last year. Only 4.1 GW of coal power capacity shut down in 2022, lower than the 5.2 GW closure in 2021.

In 2023, power demand is expected to rise while coal projects keep increasing. Beijing said that it expects electricity demand across the country to jump by 6 percent year-over-year in 2023, up from the 3.6 percent rise in 2022, according to Power Mag.
In a Jan. 19 report, the Chinese Electricity Council said that it expects to add 70GW of new coal and natural gas-fired capacity in 2023, up from the 40 GW of fossil fuel power generation brought online last year, the outlet noted.

Coal Use in India, US

The second-largest consumer of coal, India, has also seen its coal consumption rise. According to the “Coal 2022” report (pdf) by the International Energy Agency (IEA), coal demand in India had risen by 14 percent in 2021.

Demand for coal in India, one of the fastest-growing major economies in the world, is increasing due to rising industrial electricity use as well as extreme temperatures including heat waves. Coal-powered plants make up 70 percent of the country’s power output.

In September, the Central Electricity Authority, an advisory body to the federal power ministry, said in a draft plan that 17GW to 28GW of additional coal-based capacity might be required till 2031-32, according to media outlet Mint. This is in addition to the 25GW coal-based capacity that was under construction at the time.

Annual demand for electricity was estimated to grow by 7.2 percent on average over the five years till March 2027, which is almost double the rate from 2017 to 2022.

Meanwhile, coal demand in the United States saw a growth of 15 percent in 2021, based on the IEA report.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects coal production in the country to fall this year. Coal-fired electricity generation is also expected to decline. The United States is the third largest consumer of coal in the world.