Global Coal Power Set a New Power Generation Record

Coal-based generation rose by 3% in 2018, the same rate as in 2017, to reach a new peak at more than 10 000 TWh. Coal generation in Asia – particularly China and India – increased significantly, but it fell elsewhere, including in the United States and Europe. It remains the largest source of electricity generation worldwide, with a share of 38%.

Coal-fired power generation in the United States continued to drop in 2018 (by 60 TWh) despite strong electricity demand growth, as 15 GW of coal capacity was retired.

Coal generation in Europe also decreased (by 20 TWh), mainly because of strong renewables-based expansion. In fact, many countries have announced coal phase-outs: Germany, the largest coal consumer in Europe, plans to be coal-free by 2038.

2018 Latest Solar and Wind Build in the USA

In 2018 EIA shows utility-scale solar and wind added 33 TWh. 20 TWh for Wind and 13 TWh for solar. $40 billion was spent on solar and wind in 2018. So $20 billion of US solar and wind spending in 2018 to get to 16.5 TWh. China and South Korea can spend $5–8 billion for a pair of reactors to generate at that level.

The US still generates 860 TWh from coal power. Replacing coal power would take about 26 years at the 2018 rate. Let us assume that solar and wind speed up to an average of double that pace. It will still be 13 years to replace coal in the US.

Coal usage is increasing worldwide. Coal is adding 250-300 TWh every year worldwide. Solar and Wind additions have to more than double to offset the coal increase worldwide.

Worldwide spending on solar and wind would need to increase to $500 billion per year for 30 years to phase out worldwide coal and prevent increased usage of coal.

Global coal emissions in 2018 were at 14.6 billion tons per year. So $15 trillion over 30 years would offset 225 billion tons of CO2 per year and then prevent 14.6 billion tons per year thereafter with additional spending on rebuilding the solar and wind as it wears out in 15 to 30 years.

This is about $75 per ton of CO2.

74 thoughts on “Global Coal Power Set a New Power Generation Record”

  1. Thank you for that video.

    It has been quiet about Heather Willauer after she some years ago said that her teams prototyp catalysts was ready for industrial production by a private company.

    One for CO2 +H2 => synthetic jet fuel, one for synthetic methanol.

    If they get out on market energy taxes i most European countries must go down.

    CO2 can we get from combustion or cement produktion and H2 from almost every energy form.

    For me high temperatures nuclear like FS-MSR (but a simpler model than ORNL proposed in the Blue ribbon program) can produce H2 for industrial heat and for synthetic fuel with CO2 from cement production.

    Cement is limestone and we make synthetic limestone of it (concrete) that take up same amount CO2 from air but when we produce cement it is cheap and concentrated.

  2. I was thinking about MSR. Go with a cheap tank and tubing. Then pump out one reactor and fill its replacement with the liquid when the reactor vessel started to corrode too much. If you build the reactor vessel cheap enough then you don’t have to go nuts using the best material.

  3. The cow dung age didn’t end because of lack of cow dung. It ended because of better technology. And that is how the coal age should end. What we need to do is not postpone the end but help communities going thru the transition with job retraining and tax-free enterprise zones.

  4. Its the tragedy of the commons. Utility companies don’t have to pay for the atmosphere they pollute and they don’t have to pay the health care cost that they cause by polluting. Because of this they don’t care. What is needed is that they should have some skin in the game. They should at least have to cover the calculated healthcare cost of their pollution. And the expected cost of dealing with climate change. Sometimes society must provide punishments for sins.

    One of the fundamental defect of laissez faire capitalism is that you can made greater profit by poisoning the environment and abusing your workers and customers. Of course some will say you can’t do that in the long run. I would say tobacco.

  5. Odd. Nuclear submarines and surface ships have existed for over half a century. They could not operate without fast ramping.

  6. You don’t have to stop emitting all co2 in order to stop the accumulations in the oceans and atmosphere. I think ~50% remains in the atmosphere, 25% is absorbed by terrestrial flora, and the other 25% is absorbed by the ocean. I don’t recall the rate at which the ocean sequester co2 into non problematic forms. There is a break even amount that will produce any desired level of co2 ppm.

  7. Both India and China has serious pollution issues. 1950 level in the west or often worse.
    This is an serious drive to reduce coal use, yes you can clean but guess they have to many small inefficient plants to this to be very economical and not an long term solution.

    You problem is base load.
    Nuclear is nice but has an build time as is expensive. Gas is nice if you have it. Hydro is perfect but limited, its and gas is also fast to switch so works well mixed with renewable.

  8. A bit like the stone or bronze  age.
    You would still use coal to make steel, this is however just an tiny faction of the use so don’t really count.

  9. Winning the Powerball is a probability also – but I wouldn’t bother trying to plan on it happening.

    Plus, Boston Dynamics has done some pretty impressive things with autonomous bots. Put a radiation sensor on it’s ‘head’, and it can pick up scraps and put them in a shielded container for disposal.

  10. When cannon were developed they could demolish castle walls but then defenders found that cannonballs would just bury themselves in earth works. It can’t be expensive to pile many meters of dirt over the concrete dome, so the kinetic energy of the impacting airplane just moves dirt around without damaging the containment dome.

  11. I find that very suspicious.

    If nobody has bothered prospecting for coal in a country that is a major market for the stuff… then there is something really messed up.

    I believe it. I just believe that there is something really messed up.

  12. The reactor vessel of a molten salt reactor isn’t much smaller than the core of a light water reactor of the same power – maybe bigger, if it’s graphite moderated. But the pressure vessel of a LWR is much bigger than the core, and the steam generators are each bigger than the pressure vessel. Then the containment dome needs to be big enough, and strong enough, to survive the shock wave if the pressure vessel explodes. An MSR runs 200 C hotter but at about atmospheric pressure, so the steam generators can be half the size, and outside containment, and the containment is only to stop jets breaking in, not explosions coming out. The containment can be ten times smaller for the same power.

  13. Sounds interesting – got a reference? Shame the Trump admin is removing methane regs, not strengthening them.

  14. There’s methane detectors in prototype ready to be mass produced for cheap. No GHG price nor inspections though so zero demand.
    A remediation study I read priced stopping nearly all leaks happening at $14 per tonne CO2 with negligible cost (gas not leaked pays for half of it). Slightly higher cost now with some inflation since the study.
    Cheap and easy. There is zero political will for it, though.

  15. Much of the world is actually fairly under prospected for coal. There is a LOT more to be found out there, even if only 2% of it is economically recoverable.

  16. Different measurements. That is proved reserves, the most conservative number, but India is very very under prospected for coal. They spend basically zilch on that and still add 4 billion tonnes every year.

  17. Yes, now actually over–60. Seems like I’ve been commenting away on the Interwebz for what… nearly 22 years? Wow. Time flies. 

    Yes, also I agree regarding India’s oh-so-very-Indian institutionalized career-graft-science “research” in thorium reactors. When I say “institutionalized” from first hand experience, it really is kind of “a thing”. Scientists keep their research going for years, decades, entire careers. Papers are cautiously published, talks given at international conferences. The Government, in cahoots with the intellectuals to keep milking along international co-funding, takes the money and various politicians siphon off the meaningful dough for other “purposes”. 

    Yet, again, first hand, I can say that the Indian research done is top-rate. Just that progress isn’t anywhere near as important as the shuffling of papers, looking the other way when funds don’t materialize, and generally accepting that one’s professional life isn’t anywhere near as long as in “The West”. Perhaps only 25 years, from age 25 to just under 50. There is a continent’s worth of new young adults adulating the elders, avidly trying to get into relevant STEM fields, ready, willing and sometimes well funded to hang onto the Nuclear Physics Graduate bus. 

    Just the way it is. 

    It is the same reason why the world hasn’t seen an India-made ARM processor, or any processor for that in the last 50 years. 

    Just saying, (love India)
    GoatGuy ✓

  18. An impact is a probability not a hypothetical. Your robots are not a probability…they don’t exist.

  19. 9/11 was the product of “Let the hijackers have what they want”. Until then, the protocol was to cooperate to ensure the safety of the passengers.

    Now, the passengers know it’s a potential death sentence. They don’t cooperate – and the potential hijacker ends up being forcibly restrained. (And if pummeled within an inch of his life, and bones are broken, I see not a damn thing wrong with that.)

    “Why would you think the situation would be limited to a mile around the plant? If the cooling system was unable to operate because the building caved in, you are going to have a large radioactive steam release.”

    If you disassemble the reactor through impact, do you think the core is going to stay intact? The pieces are heavy, they won’t go far. (Far enough to disrupt any core activity, to be sure.)

    And we’re talking about small reactors – you rip the things apart and that’s it. If they’re molten salt- then it won’t be under pressure and it may splash- but the water in the cooling loops won’t be terribly radioactive.

    Bomb disposal robots could go in, pick up the pieces. But hey, if you want bigger we can always recreate ’60s tech.

    If you prefer not having hypothetical solutions to your hypothetical issues, please let people know that so they can hypothetically stop trying to provide them.

  20. Well, there has been just SO many robot cleanup androids, we hardly know what to do with them all. Like the thousands they have employed cleaning everything up in Fukushima? Nonsense.

    The robots that are used, are just robots in name. Actually, they are radio controlled toys with cameras only good for information gathering.

    Wiping out an $11 billion facility, and costing at least twice that much to clean up…not attractive to terrorists? The World Trade Center was only about $2.5 billion in today’s money.

    How many attempts were there to hit buildings with commercial jets prior to 9/11?

    And they did anticipate the possibility of aircraft hitting the World Trade Center and plan for it…but they clearly miscalculated. Or they assumed an airplane hitting would be an accident and the pilot would be trying to slow the plane.

    Why would you think the situation would be limited to a mile around the plant? If the cooling system was unable to operate because the building caved in, you are going to have a large radioactive steam release. There is no way to just turn off a light water reactor quickly. Molten salt might be ok, but even that is iffy, if there was an impact that totally blew through the building. If that molten material came in contact with water, there could be a nasty explosion as well. No, you have to take the possibility of impacts very seriously in design and construction.

  21. Depends on which will bring in more income for the politicians via carbon taxes.

    I’m thinking dirty coal will ALWAYS be popular with them.

  22. You’ve got it. Hitting something on the ground intentionally is HARD, as anyone with a flight simulator could attest. Miss by 20-100 yards, and the thing’ll be untouched.

    And even if you do hit it, it’s not going to go Chernobyl on you. At worst, it’ll break apart and litter radioactive crap across the landscape for a few acres – but that can be cleaned up with remotes or just buried in concrete.

  23. Well, there’s been just SO many attempts to take out reactors with 747s that I can understand your worry.

    Of course, smashing a jet into one would simply disassemble the thing. It’d be unpleasant to clean up, but the chunks would be confined to a smallish (square mile or so) area, so robots would be able to take care of a lot of that.

    With the engineering changes since the late ’50s, you’re just not going to get a Chernobyl-style disaster again.

  24. Wind is powered mostly by the sun. This is driven by the differences in the way water and land deal with solar heating. The air over land rises when there is sunlight warming the ground. That creates suction pulling air from over the oceans and seas across the land. At night it eases and reverses as the land cools faster, but the heat is less, so the energy is less and the speed slower.

    The average per hour is not a terrible match for demand, but reality is not average and quite variable, while demand is more uniform day to day.

    There is an area of Texas though where the wind is pretty darn reliable.

  25. You are talking molten salt vs light water…that has nothing to do with size. No reason we can’t build huge molten salt reactors.
    The only reason I wouldn’t initially is that we need to know how the metals hold up over time…before going all in.

    As for comparing the amount of material. The smaller something is, the more surface area it has, everything else being equal, that is just physics/geometry.

    Consider a cube. You can cut that into 8 smaller cubes with 3 cuts. Everywhere you cut you added more surface area. So collectively, those 8 smaller cubes have more surface area than the large cube. Double the surface area.

  26. Maybe good for folks to know that China is CURRENTLY building about 300 coal power plants in 38 countries (most are in Africa). Their current build-out is about the same as the total installed capacity in the EU. These, and the ADDITIONAL plants on the drawing board will still be around in 30-40 years.

    Their spend last year was about $75bn on this endeavor. They have ALREADY built 260 plants in 40+ countries since 2001 along the BRI with about a 270 GW capacity. I.e., China’s coal export business is booming, and there is nothing Paris Agreement apparatchiks can do to stop them.

    China is basically polluting the planet while virtue-signaling to rest of world. Africa will have 1.3 BILLION more people by 2050. The base load energy requirements to make this equation work, as their income is growing very quickly, means roughly 1.2TW installed NEW capacity (or 2x all of EU) is required. It won’t come from wind/solar, not from hydro (most rivers already built out), and not from nuclear (security) or CCGT (too expensive).

  27. That’s a bit trickier with methane, which is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 over the short term, especially, and where the percent of leakage is disputed.

  28. If a small plant is more energy dense, you can put a metre thick concrete shell round it for a fraction of the cost of a LWR containment dome. Just excluding water from the primary circuit does that. Much harder to hit for an inexperienced pilot, too – especially if you string a few wires across above it. Even if somebody breached the reactor vessel with a missile, there’s no pressure to eject fission products.

  29. Coal has an inherent component of Nitrogen in it’s composition, usually no more than between 1% to 2%.

    Allam cycle SCCO2 system forms nitric and sulfuric acids in the combustion water condensate, which will be extracted for sale as a chemical feed-stock.

  30. One still cannot escape that fact that at present, wind and solar only produce KW when the sun shines or the wind blows. And what about latitudes north and south of 45* where there are only 7-8 hours (or less) daylight in winter.
    I was just out for a Sunday evening drive and went past the small local installation of 29 1.5KW windmills. All of them were stationary as it is dead calm right now. No KW being produced. At all.
    This is the huge advantage of nuclear power. We just need the will and rational reasoning to bring the right type of reactors into production and forget about temporary power sources that provide power only 30% of a day on average.

  31. When big jets hit the ground many of the components keep right on going. There is a lot of momentum involved.

    And it will not be light anyway holding up all that dirt and the force of impact will still be there. That adds a great deal to the weight.

    However, if you can keep people from seeing where it is at, that might make it hard to hit. Maybe build a phony building…that you have some use for, but just nothing radioactive or important to keeping the reactor going. And all the publicity shots and whatnot just show that dome or whatever. That would only work if you had only a few employees who kept that hush hush. Russia and China would still find out, but terrorists probably would not.

    Another idea is reactive armor like they have on tanks. The dome could have missiles ready to fire into the parts of an aircraft more likely to cause problems like the engines and landing gear. The aluminum and glass is not really much of a problem. Even the fuel is no big deal vs reinforced concrete.

  32. And it gets WAY better when direct oxygen is injected instead of nitrogen-oxygen of the air. No nitric oxides to have to deal with up there where the red arrows are. Almost nothing but copious unburned hydrocarbons (themselves quite useful), CO, CO₂ and SO₂. A few variously nasty arsines and other toxins. But relatively easy to sift out. All in all. O₂ + H₂O is a great mix. LOTS of hydrogen generated.

  33. Couldn’t we just pile earth on top of a modest concrete dome & plant grass to protect against impact? The cost of that for protection would be no big deal.

  34. India has nearly 3x the coal reserves of China.

    So your conclusion doesn’t follow from the facts.

  35. The only thing that can end coal globally is being undercut substantially. Nuclear has the best prospects for achieving that. We need to build nuclear plants that are cheap to operate, cheap to decommission, with high up time, very long life, and with very high output. I think that is all doable, and production costs could be well below 1cent /KWh. Recent designs have concentrated on safety, speed of construction, and low initial investment. These are the barriers they have been facing. They have been addressing mostly irrational public fear and risk averse impatient investors. There is nothing wrong with increasing safety, but what we need is power so cheap that coal is unprofitable. That gets you real health and safety.

    The recent designs, mostly small reactors, do not take into account 9/11. They can’t afford to build protection against a high speed 747 impact because they make too little power to offset the cost of the very thick concrete required. If we make really big power plants, that extra cost for more protection is no big deal.

  36. ‘But there is more wind at night than during the day.’ Except when there isn’t. And more renewables don’t ‘levelise’ output, they make the difference between clear/noon/windy and anything else increasingly harder to bridge.

  37. China can use more advanced mining techniques as prices go up and mining technology doesn’t stand still, so it is 30 years at current prices. Also China only has about 10% of the world reserves so they can definitely import as much as they desire.

  38. The answer is “a helluva lot cheaper than nuclear!”

    For 4 hours of storage.

    ”Wind came in lowest, at $18.10 per megawatt-hour. It was followed by combined wind and solar, at $19.90; then wind with battery storage, at $21; PV alone, at $29.50; then wind, solar and battery storage, at $30.60.”

    So a delta of 1.81 cents per kWh to 2.1 cents for 4 hours of storage. The next 4 hours sets you back much less if you use flow batteries instead of lithium ion.

  39. But there is more wind at night than during the day. And the more renewables we are bringing in the better we are becomig at levelizing it, so your point is not relevant now and may never be. If and when it will however nuclear energy maybe part of the solution, or the whole solution if it is cheap and safe enough by then, but this is not where we are now.

  40. It is perhaps as you say… but why?

    Well … because India isn’t sitting on the world’s second largest known coal deposits (or natural gas for that matter)… but she does have a LOT of sunlight and in the hilly regions plenty of wind too.  

    An abundance of the kinds of weathered pegmatite gravels (alluvial monazite, for example) is very high in India. She is reckoned to be the № 1 thorium resource worldwide. Hence… India’s strong independent pursuit of thorium-fueled nuclear reactors. Liquid salt or otherwise.  

    In the end though, all countries and peoples are motivated by using the resources they have, or can secure in large enough quantities, at attractive enough prices, to generate power sufficient not just to keep the lights on, but also to power all nature of present and future envisioned industry.  

    In the end.
    Just saying,
    GoatGuy ✓

  41. Or you could just have a revenue neutral GHG tax, that would accomplish all of that (and more cheaply) without picking the winning technology, which often turns out to actually be a big loser a decade later when something better comes along.

  42. India is at a beginning of a solar drive. Soon, its solar capacity addition numbers are planned to approach those of China for many times overall capacity additions. It is already causing cancellation of coal plants additions. These trend is going to be followed by the rest of the developing world.

  43. The 20 gigawatt-hour 1.3 GW Eagle Crest project in California is projected to cost 2.5 billion. That is $125 per kilowatt-hour.

    Vanadium flow batteries are already at $100 per kilowatt-hour to extend energy storage (but not power) once you pay for the first eight hour 400 kilowatt-hour 50kw setup – and expected to cost half of that in 4 years. And there are many more environmentally chemistries e.g. ESS that will likely beat vanadium on price in 4 years.

    So at least in California, pumped hydro is now obsolete – and probably lots of other places also.

  44. The report didn’t show extrapolations, it should actual dramatic decline in approval of coal burners as of 2018.

  45. US NG only seems cheap. There is a mega billion dollar malinvestment bomb there … waiting to explode.

  46. The IEA is famous for extrapolating everything in the future with a straight line, based on the previous 5 years …

  47. Wikipedia has a nice write up on the limitations of the LCOE:

    “Thermally lethargic technologies like coal and nuclear are physically incapable of fast ramping. Capital intensive technologies such as wind, solar, and nuclear are economically disadvantaged unless generating at maximum availability since the LCOE is nearly all sunk-cost capital investment. Intermittent power sources, such as wind and solar, may incur extra costs associated with needing to have storage or backup generation available.

    Put another way, what is the LCOE of solar power at midnight? Without batteries the answer is “near infinite cost and you can’t recharge your car”. With batteries the answer is “buy a gas powered Honda Civic”.

    There is more than one variable at play here.

  48. Neither is the end of the age of wind and solar a perquisite to the birth of the age of nuclear, each will stand on their own merits.

    The fight to bring about the end of the age of coal is just a warmup for the fight bring about the end of the age of oil and then gas. No one need fear the end of strife and division, a post scarcity of cultural melodrama awaits all for the foreseeable future.

  49. Incidentally the VVER-TOI was approved a couple of days ago by the EU. This might be the ‘ultimate’ PWR for Russia, as they’ve indicated that after this they will move to ‘fast reactors’ (BN1200) and the ‘closed fuel cycle’.

    Back in 2015 it seemed they might use the super-duper RPV above in the TOI design but I don’t think they have.

    The first VVER-TOI at Kursk is over a year into construction and the second unit was started a month or so ago.

    This is the unit that they hope to export all over the World.

  50. Rosatom tested annealing on a 1 GW RPV and claims a life-extension of 15-30 years.

    A while back Rosatom made an experimental RPV that the expect to last 120 years. I think I read somewhere that its lifetime is essentially infinite (can’t find it though).

    Of course other parts do need ‘refurbishing’, but it looks like you might be able to keep a modern reactor going for centuries, which makes the capital investment look pretty good.

  51. In the short run, switching over to natural gas is pretty good environmental triage but not everyone has the luxury of ridiculously cheap NG like Russia, U.S, and Qatar. Just my $0.02 if I were running U.S. energy policy I would:
    -prioritize Supercritical CO2 turbines
    -do a “cash for clunkers” type deal for utilities to shut down old coal fired plants and build natural gas-fired generation
    -pour cash into nuclear combined with regulatory reform.

    It just occurred to me, as an aside, one way to price load following is to compare the increased cost of in-place NG fired electricity as a result of reduced capacity factor as a result of solar additions to a grid. I recall that, recently, a utility out west saw their NG turbine capacity factor fall to ~76% from ~82% as a direct result of additional solar installation. I’m sure a corporate bean counter could tell you how the reduced capacity factor would increase the price of that generation.

  52. As an aside, I read somewhere recently that China might only have ~20 years of “economically viable” coal left at current consumption rates and that the average seam thickness mined in China was down to 0.5m

  53. Just outlawing coal isn’t that easy. Cheap methane has done more and coal to methane conversions will continue.

    I don’t like energy taxes as energy is really the foundation of our entire economy. I’d prefer to actually develop cheaper power production. If you must put a price on carbon then I would set it to phase in in a decade so that utilities have time to adjust to future market conditions.

    But really the goal should be science + engineering to make cheaper power.

    I’d recommend:

    • Gen IV fission
    • Supercritical CO2 turbines
    • Geo-engineering
    • Throw alt-fusion some $ (Polywell, etc)
    • Batteries

    I’d also try to encourage utility scale pumped storage (it is 10x cheaper than lithium-ion at utility scale).

  54. Used to do consulting work for Lazard’s old boss Bruce Wasserstein. He passed away the same year he married a gal a quarter century younger than himself, not that there’s anything wrong with that.

  55. The most prudent choice to just out law the use of coal. You can modified a coal power plant to burn natural gas. Not the most efficient way but it is doable.

  56. That is installed capacity which is not the same as power produced. Generally solar is divided by 5 and nuclear is divided by 1.2 to get an idea of how much power they will actually produce.

    Nuclear in China is still in the post Fukushima lull and in the pre CAP-1400 buildout.

  57. 15 to 30 years seems a pretty short lifespan for wind and solar. By the way coal power plants must be maintained yearly and then refurbished every 15 to 20 years for them to last 50 years.

  58. Since they are still building coal power plants in India and China I think it will be more like 70 years before coal will be phased out.

  59. Esteem’d Brian:

    Might I recommend that you include a “time-to-doubling” as part of statistics?

    The equation is  (Y = ln(2) / ln(1 + percent))

    For instance (percent) becomes… 

    1.0% — 69.7 yr
    1.5% — 46.6 yr
    2.0% — 35.0 yr
    2.5% — 28.1 yr
    3.0% — 23.4 yr
    3.5% — 20.1 yr
    4.0% — 17.7 yr
    5.0% — 14.2 yr
    6.0% — 11.9 yr
    7.0% — 10.2 yr
    8.0% — 9.0 yr
    9.0% — 8.0 yr
    10.% — 7.3 yr

    So, the world increase in coal of 3% (roughly) corresponds to about 23 years doubling time. And we’re talking about reduction in consumption? REDUCTION?

    It is obviously going to take a heck of an international moratorium on coal… 

    • mining
    • coking
    • direct cement calcining
    • transportation
    • power generation
    • domestic cheap-heating
    • industrial process-heating
    • commercial building heating

    These are THE BIG HERRINGS that are making/and/or/consuming the coal and its energy-of-combustion.

    Mining and consumption ARE the problem. 

    Just saying,
    GoatGuy ✓

  60. The choice is $75 or $0 per ton of CO2, I cant wait to see which pathway will win out in the end.

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