China cuts back on coal fired energy

Anyone who is part of Australia’s resource boom would have you believe that our nation’s future rides on the back of our abundant coal resources and indeed, recent submission to the Government’s Energy White paper have suggested we should be exporting even more.

According to the World Coal Association, Australia was the second largest exporter of coal in the world in 2012, (just behind Indonesia) and latest estimates suggest we will be the largest exporter by the end of this year. Estimates suggest that if our exported coal is taken into account our contribution to global climate change leaps from 0.3% to around 5%. When this is taken into account we are responsible for more cumulative global emissions than 94% of all the countries in the world and one of the largest emitters per capita.

One of the biggest importers of Australian coal is China and indeed, they import more coal than any other nation on the planet–but this may be starting to slow.

In 2013 there were several key announcements from China which could signal the end of the growth in coal consumption. As just one example, with a population of 11.4 million, Beijing has four coal fired power plants with a capacity of 2.7GW. Yet in late 2013, they announced they will be shut down progressively by the end of 2015 and replaced by gas. This means that they will require 13 million mt/year less coal than presently consumed.

We also read about a coal-fired power station that was under construction that was scrapped due to environmental and air pollution concerns in 2013. This highlights that even in tightly controlled Chinese society, when provoked, local communities who are fed up with dealing with the deadly pollution can be an even more powerful force than the coal industry.

Now having said all this, China remains a massive consumer of coal, but these changes show what is possible. While China is shifting to gas and renewables, incredulously only last week the Queensland Government announced the closure of a gas plant and the re-opening of a previously mothballed coal fired plant “because it was cheaper”.

China is also embracing renewable energy and in particular solar power as part of its solution and indeed, renewable energy accounted for more than half of all its new capacity in 2013. China is now the world largest producer of solar panels and this year alone will install an expected 14GW of solar power, in addition to its exports. It will also add another 35GW of other renewables. To put that in perspective, Australia has around 50GW of installed (conventional) capacity; so in one year alone they have connected the equivalent of 28% of our total capacity with solar power.

China may just be showing the world how a transition to cleaner energy can be made.

© 2014 Solar Choice Pty Ltd 

Nigel Morris

Nigel is one of the foremost solar energy analysts in Australia, having worked in the industry for over two decades.
Nigel Morris