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China allowed more coal-fired power plants last year than at any time in the past seven years, according to a new report released this week. That’s the equivalent of about two new coal-fired power plants a week. The energy data organizations report world energy monitor and the Center for Research in Energy and Clean Air finds that the country quadrupled the number of new coal power approvals in 2022 compared to 2021.
That’s despite the fact that much of the world is moving away from coal, says Flora Champenois, coal research analyst at Global Energy Monitor and one of the report’s co-authors.
“Everyone else is moving away from coal and China seems to be stepping on the accelerator,” he says. “We saw that China has six times as many plants starting construction than the rest of the world combined.”
What is driving the new permits for Chinese coal plants?
The report authors found that the increase in permits for new coal plants appears to be a response to the ongoing drought and last summer’s record heat wave, which scientists say it was made more likely due to climate change. The heat wave increased the demand for air conditioning and caused problems with the network. The heat and drought caused rivers to dry up, including some parts of the Yangtze, and meant less hydroelectric power.
“We’re seeing kind of a knee-jerk response to build a lot more coal plants to address that,” Champenois says.
High prices for liquefied natural gas due to the war in Ukraine also led at least one province to turn to coal, says Aiqun Yu, a co-author of the report and a senior researcher at Global Energy Monitor.
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Why is China building new coal plants at the same time increasing renewables?
China leads the world in construction new lot other windwhile also building more coal plants than any other countryfind the report.
There are government and industry arguments that coal plants will be used as backup support for renewables and during periods of intense electricity demand such as heat waves, he says. ryna cui, deputy director of research at the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. “That is being used as an excuse for new projects,” says Cui.
Last year’s boom in new coal didn’t come out of nowhere, says Yu, noting that the domestic coal industry has long pushed the message that coal is a reliable form of energy security.
“When the energy crisis happened, when energy security is a big concern, the country just defaulted to coal for solutions,” Yu says.
Champenois says the increase in permits last year could mean China’s coal industry is taking one last chance to get financing for new coal plants, which are increasingly uneconomical compared to renewables.
“We see it as a door opening, maybe one last time,” she says. “If you’re a power company, you’re going to try to get your foot in that door.”
How does permitting new coal plants affect China’s goals to reduce emissions?
China is the world’s largest emitter of fossil fuels and has committed to its emissions peaking by 2030. But there are questions about how high that peak will go, and how soon that peak will come, Champenois says.
he The International Energy Agency recently reaffirmed there must be “no ceaseless new development of coal-fired power plants” to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst effects of climate change.
It’s too early to tell how long the plants will run and how they will affect China’s emissions, says Lauri Myllyvirta, principal analyst at the Center for Research in Energy and Clean Air and one of the co-authors of the report.
“The challenge, though, is going to be that all of these power plants have owners who are interested in making as much money as possible from their operation,” he says.
What potential solutions can help speed up China’s green transition?
Myllyvirta says many solutions boil down to fixing the country’s power grid, including making the grid more efficient and facilitating power sharing between regions in China if there are power shortages.
Champenois says shifting investments from coal toward renewables and storage would be a smart move for China. That way they won’t have “stranded assets,” he says, investments that will end up losing money.