One in seven coal power plant owners are heading for the exit

North American and European utilities are phasing out old coal plants, Coal Swarm survey shows, as Asian companies dominate new development

Open pit mine and power plant (Photo: Deposit Photos)


One in seven coal plant owners worldwide fully or partially phased out their coal fleets between 2010 and 2017.

The first ever global survey of coal phase out plans, released on Wednesday by data trackers Coal Swarm, revealed two different trajectories as the industry collapses in the west but marches on in Asia.

Out of 994 companies with coal plants, 139 closed at least 20% of their capacity, predominantly in north America and western Europe, with 71 retiring their coal fleets completely.

A parallel report by Greenpeace identified 23 cities, regions and countries implicitly or explicitly phasing out coal burning for power.

Together, they show a rapid shift in the politics and economics of coal, researchers say. “Five years ago, nobody was forecasting this,” Greenpeace analyst Lauri Myllyvirta told Climate Home News, “so in that sense, things are moving incredibly fast”.

At the same time, the data shows 303 first-time coal plant developers are actively pursuing projects, with Asian companies dominating. Interest persists despite a recent clampdown on excess capacity in the two biggest markets: China and India.

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In the US, where president Donald Trump is promising to put coal miners back to work, several prominent utilities are steering in the opposite direction.

AES, Berkshire Hathaway, Duke, NextEra Energy, NRG Energy and PSEG have retired 12-77% of their coal capacity in the last eight years, the report shows. Of these, only AES has plans to build a new plant – in the Philippines.

California went coal-free in 2014 and five states are expected to follow by 2025, regardless of Trump’s planned rollback of curbs on coal burning.

Some European majors have changed their names or structures to signify a break from the fossil-dominated past. E.on split its declining thermal power business Uniper off from its renewables business while Dong (an acronym referring to its origins in oil and gas) this month rebranded as Ørsted. Iberdrola retired 82% of its coal fleet.

Eight EU countries including the UK and France have declared plans to quit coal by 2030 or sooner. Last week, the Netherlands’ newly formed coalition government confirmed it would close three brand new coal plants early to meet climate targets. The UK and Canada last week announced they would form an alliance of nations who have committed to phasing out coal power.

“In Europe, US, Canada, you can really see companies running away from coal,” said Carlos Fernandez-Alvarez, senior energy analyst at the International Energy Agency, commenting on the trends.

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The outlook for Asia, which is critical to meeting international climate goals, is more complex.

Coal Swarm highlights that of the 681 first-time coal developers it studied, 56% shelved or cancelled their projects. This is presented as evidence that appetite for the sector is dwindling.

Fernandez-Alvarez said a 56% project drop-out rate was not unusual for large scale energy infrastructure. After a decade of surging coal development in Asia, it was “a big change” to see the trajectory flattening out. But “this is very far from the end of coal,” he added.

The IEA has revised down its growth forecasts for coal in recent years, “but not that dramatically”, said Fernandez-Alvarez. Its central scenario still predicts a slight increase in coal demand over the coming decades.

China slashed the number of construction permits issued to coal power projects 85% between 2015 and 2016, Greenpeace notes.

India is seeing a finance squeeze for coal, as cheap solar power shakes up the market. Its Central Electricity Authority estimates plants currently under construction will be sufficient to meet demand until 2027.

“The markets that have been driving growth have been overbuilt and are really not seeing demand for coal-fired power growing anywhere near as fast as planners imagined,” said Myllyvirta.

“If you look at how competitive renewables are already now in India – both wind and solar are able to bid lower [prices] than new coal plants… a rebound [for coal] in ten years is not really a worry.”

Still, China’s five year plan aims to cap coal power capacity at 1,100GW in 2020, allowing for a 150GW increase from today’s level. For comparison the US, with the world’s second biggest coal fleet, has less than 300GW.

Of the ten biggest developers of plants in pre-construction planning globally, six are Chinese, two Indian, one Indonesian and one Thai.

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