Will China build hundreds of new coal plants and then shut them off ? Wishful thinking versus what will happen as China is sitting on 15 trillion tons of coal resources

The recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance report had the hopeful title “The Future of China’s Power Sector: From Centralized and Coal-Powered to Distributed and Renewable?”

According to Bloomberg, 343-450 Gigawatts of new coal generation will be built in China over the next fifteen years, more than the total capacity of the entire current US coal fleet, which is roughly 300 Gigawatts. Even in the best case aggressive solar and wind investments, China will continue to bring on line roughly an average of one large 500 MW coal plant per week through 2030. This is on top of China’s existing 750 GW coal fleet, already more than twice the size of America’s.

In all cases, including the most optimistic, well over half of China’s power in 2030 will come from coal.

There are studies from China that show that China could have over 15 trillion tons of coal resources.

A energy and environment policy taskforce that is led by the Vice-premier of China in 2009 described China’s coal resources.

China’s prospective coal reserves have reached 5,555 billion-ton (Gt), with cumulative proven reserves at 1,042 Gt. For a long time coal will remain dominant in the primary energy structure in China.

The 5.5 trillion tons is before over 2 trillion tons of coal was found in Xinjiang and another large deposit in Shianxi.

Coal use will also be increasing in at least 10 other asian countries.

There is a Citi report which predicts a peak in China’s coal usage. It is counting upon a rapid increase in natural gas extraction and usage in China. If fracking is not mastered for China large natural gas resources then the coal peak scenario will not play out.

The report points to a variety of trends in China – the drive for pollution reduction, general growth slowdown, slowdown in energy intensity of GDP, government support for nuclear and renewables, the potential for expanded gas use, and increases on coal plant and end use efficiency – which it suggests could moderate coal electric growth. It is worth, noting, though, that, under Citi’s stable economic growth scenario, coal generation continues to grow beyond 2020. Under two alternative scenarios, which received most of the media attention, coal generation either plateaus in 2020 or begins a modest decline.

As Citi acknowledges at page 26 of its report, these latter two peak scenarios embody a number of highly optimistic assumptions: that China’s growth in natural gas will result in 100 GW of new gas plants; that China’s nuclear development will hit its 2020 target of 58 GW; that GDP growth will not rebound to historic levels above 8%; and that renewables will be easy to integrate into the China grid at their current blistering development pace.

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