Deconstructing the case for coal

in Medium

There have been some exaggerated claims about future prospects for coal fired power plants lately — Australia Institute research shows these claims are based on misunderstandings, so lets get clear about coal.

Commentators and politicians have recently called for renewed investment in coal-fired power generation, including calls for the government to build a new power station in the Latrobe Valley or to compulsorily acquire the Liddell power station.

In arguing for extensive government intervention, coal advocates have made some claims about the global prospects for coal that are misleading or incorrect.

The comments appear to draw heavily on a report by Coalswarm, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace: Boom and Bust 2018This article also uses this report as its main source and will address some of these claims.

Important distinctions in coal projects

The Boom and Bust report makes a distinction that is sometimes missed in the commentary: that there are many more coal projects that are under “active development” than there are coal projects “under construction” (i.e. that are “being built”).

“Active development” includes “pre-construction” projects, those that are in the announced, pre-permit and permitted stages.

Not only are these projects not currently under construction, there is a good chance that they will never be under construction — So far this decade, over half of these projects were halted, cancelled or shelved.

Another important distinction is that not all coal projects are new coal power stations. Many are expansions of existing stations in the form of new generation units and do not result in new power stations.

Claim 1: 60 countries have coal-fired capacity under construction

“Then why do 60 countries around the world have more than half a million megawatts of coal-fired capacity under construction? — Are they all stupid?”

This claim appeared on Facebook, with an accompanying screenshot from the Boom and Bust report.

However, the screenshot clearly shows that only 35 countries have coal-fired capacity under construction. The remaining 25 have coal-fired capacity at the “pre-construction” phase. As described above, in this decade more “pre-construction” coal capacity has been halted than has been implemented.

The screenshot also excludes two other columns that appeared in the original report: “Shelved” and “Operating”. Boom and Bust finds that more coal capacity has been shelved (635,000 MW) than is under construction (210,000 MW) or in pre-construction (447,000 MW).

It is also worth mentioning that in 2017 only 12 countries started constructing coal units — and only seven started construction at more than one location.

Figure 1: The first five countries as they appear in Boom and BustFigure 2: The first five countries as they appear in Mr Kelly’s screenshot

Claim 2: Over 600 coal-fired power stations are under construction

“Around the world you’ve got over 600 coal-fired power stations under construction at the moment — in 25 countries.”

This claim, made by a coal advocate on RN Breakfast, and was found to be incorrect when it was checked by Adam Morton in October of last year. The total number of new stations under construction as of July 2017 was 154.

Here, new projects have been mistakenly counted as new power stations. Many new coal projects are adding or replacing units in existing stations rather than building new power stations. This claim also used out-of-date figures that did not reflect the shelving of some coal projects.

Claim 3: 650,000 megawatts of coal-fired power are under construction

Around the world there’s something like 650,000 megawatts of coal-fired power currently under construction.[10]

This claim was made in April of this year, as reported in The Australian.

There is 210,000 MW of coal-fired power under construction, not 650,000 MW.

The 650,000 MW figure is for all coal under “active development”, which includes “pre-construction”. As described above, in this decade more “pre-construction” coal capacity has been halted than has been implemented.

Claim 4: Japan is building 40 “high efficiency, low emissions” power stations

Japan is building 40 of these high efficiency, low emissions power stations. There’s hundreds of them being built in China. Many other countries throughout Southeast Asia.

This claim was also reported in The Australian.

There is in fact one dedicated, “high efficiency, low emissions” coal power station under construction in Japan, not 40.

A number of classification errors have been made to reach the figure of 40 power stations under construction. The source for this claim appears to be the Global Coal Plant Tracker, which we too will use for consistency.

The first error is that the figure of 40 coal power stations includes coal units that are in the “pre-construction” stages. But it is not accurate to describe Japan as “building” these plants, since they are not under construction — and, as established earlier, most pre-construction plants are never built. Excluding pre-construction projects, there are only 11 coal projects under construction in Japan.

The second error is to describe all coal projects as “high efficiency, low emissions” (HELE). “HELE” is a coal industry marketing term that describes supercritical coal generation, in contrast to subcritical coal generation.

The term “HELE” is misleading because supercritical coal is only higher-efficiency and lower-emissions relative to other coal generation, and even then the difference is sometimes only marginal. They have much higher emissions than gas generation, let alone renewable energy generation.

However, even taking the term at face value, it does not accurately describe the power stations under construction. Two of them are subcritical power stations, and therefore not HELE by definition. Two others are unspecified as to whether they are supercritical, but in both cases they also burn biomass — so are not dedicated coal power plants.

The third error is to describe all coal projects as “power stations”. In fact, six of these 11 coal projects are additional units being added to existing power stations, rather than new coal power stations.

There is only one dedicated HELE coal-fired power station on the record as being under construction in Japan, the Hitachinaka Kyodo power station.

Source: Coalswarm (2018) Global Coal Plant Tracker,

Claim 5: Other countries are building “high efficiency, low emissions” power stations

Japan is building 40 of these high efficiency, low emissions power stations. There’s hundreds of them being built in China. Many other countries throughout Southeast Asia.

This is the second part of the above claim, reported in The Australian.

This claim about coal power plants in China makes the same errors as his claims about Japan:

  • China has hundreds of coal projects under “active development”, but most are not currently being built — and may never be built
  • Only some of these projects represent new power stations — others will be expansions of existing power stations or separate units of a single new station
  • Of the new power stations, not all will necessarily qualify as high efficiency, low emissions (supercritical) generation

Because of the large number of coal projects in China, it is not practical to subject them to the same breakdown that we applied to Japan. However, a simple count on Global Coal Plant Tracker shows that there are around 200 coal projects under construction in China, and that many of them are expansions of existing stations or represent multiple units at the one new station.

This claim also neglects to mention that China has halted 151 planned and under-construction coal plants in the last couple of years.

It is also telling that this comparison selected East and South-East Asia. By contrast, apart from one power plant in Germany, which has been under construction for over a decade, there are no coal plants under construction in Western Europe or North America.

Advocates for coal development in Australia have been selective in the information that they report about the prospects for coal in the rest of the world.

Even more concerning is that they have misunderstood key distinctions in coal projects, such as “pre-construction” vs. “under construction” projects and power station expansions vs. new power stations. It is also not accurate to suggest that all new generation is “high efficiency, low emissions”, a term that is itself very misleading.

From all of the team at The Australia Institute, thanks for reading.
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