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China’s declining coal dependence is evident in the data

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The latest energy-market numbers from the Chinese government show an acceleration of a remarkable phenomenon that began to emerge in 2012-2014. The bottom line today is that the traditional nexus between real GDP growth, electricity expansion and coal demand is now broken.

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Demand for coal in China grew by 10 percent annually over the decade to 2011, but that halved to between 4 percent and 6 percent annually in 2012 and 2013. In 2014, according to the most recent government figures, demand actually declined by 2.1 percent.

This is no small thing for global coal markets, and the implications are enormous.

The latest data is consistent, however, with IEEFA’s prediction last fall that China’s demand for coal will permanently peak by 2016 —if not earlier—and will gradually decline thereafter.

Digging a littler further into the most recent trove of economic data from Beijing helps explain what’s happening.

China’s overall GDP growth in 2014 is expected to come in about the same 7.3 percent growth reported for the first nine months of the year. But China’s electricity demand, as seen in the newest numbers, grew by only 3.9 percent year-over-year through November. What these two figures demonstrate in tandem is that the combined impact of energy-efficiency initiatives and structural economic changes toward less electricity-intensive industry sectors has reduced the ratio of electricity-demand growth to GDP from above 1.0x over the past 13 years to 0.53x in 2014.

This is an emerging shift that has not gone entirely unnoticed by Wall Street analysts. This past August, for instance, Morgan Stanley halved its outlook for China’s electricity-demand-to-GDP ratio from 2014 to 2016, forecasting that it will register at somewhere between 0.3 and 0.5x over the medium term, signaling a fundamental shift in the Chinese energy economy. IEEFA has forecast a ratio of 0.6x 2014-2020, by the way, an estimate that may—if anything—prove conservative.

chinacoalOf equal importance is that China’s domestic coal production declined by 2.1 percent in the year to November compared to 2013, while coal imports were down by 9 percent, meaning that coal consumption dropped roughly 2.3 percent. This contrasts with an electricity-production growth rate of 3.9 percent year over year, reflecting a rapid loss of market share for coal in 2014 against all other sources of electricity generation across China – wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, biomass and natural gas.

The rise of renewables in China is significant. IEEFA forecasts that in 2014 alone China will install 22 gigawatts of hydropower electricity capacity, 18 gigawatts of wind-powered capacity, 13 gigawatts of solar, 5 to 7 gigawatts of nuclear, and 4 to 6 gigawatts of gas-fired capacity. Combined with 22 gigawatts of net new coal-fired capacity, IEEFA sees China’s total electricity capacity installs totaling 90 gigawatts in 2014 (a more than 6 percent year-over-year increase in total capacity growth).

The result is that coal-fired average utilization rates have declined from an estimated 60 percent in 2011 to about 56 percent in 2014. Given this excess capacity, new installations of coal power are expected to slow rapidly, and China could well see net annual coal-fired power capacity reductions from 2016 onwards.

IEEFA has coal’s share of electricity production in China dropping from the 78 to 79 percent average recorded in 2008-2011 to 72.5 percent in 2014. Further, IEEFA sees that number falling to 60 percent by 2020 as China’s rapid diversification into lower-carbon alternatives gains steam.

We see it as no coincidence that China has recently announced two major policy moves that together suggest dramatic change/deterioration in the outlook for the global seaborne thermal coal market. China has moved explicitly to reduce coal export tariffs from 10 percent to 3 percent starting in January 2015. This follows the announcement in October 2014 that Beijing will impose a 6 percent import tariff on thermal coal (unless sourced from Indonesia, under the Asian bilateral free trade agreement). China was a net coal exporter before 2009, and IEEFA expects could reclaim that status later this decade.

Add to all these numbers Chinese press reports in December suggesting that Beijing is considering an end to approvals for new coal-to-gas (CTG) and coal-to-oil (CTO) projects as part of its next five-year plan for the industry. Given that the government had previously proposed a massive CTG and CTO program that would have required an additional 300 million tons of coal production annually, such a move would further erode the last main area of potential new growth for China’s domestic coal industry.

All of this is occurring, of course, at a time in which solar-efficiency records are being set every month, all around the world.

IEEFA stands by its forecast that global coal markets will mirror Chinese coal markets and that peak demand for coal will occur by 2016 globally, with a structural decline thereafter. These trends, combined with recent changes in currency markets and continued oversupply as new mines are pushed online, indicate that stranded assets associated with proposed greenfield coal-export mines and related infrastructure development remain an especially acute financial risk.

Tim Buckley is IEEFA’s director of energy finance studies, Australasia.

 

Source: IEEFA. Reproduced with permission.

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  • Alan Baird

    Quelle horreur! The Queensland general erection (routinely a cock-up with either major) should become a gradually more interesting event as China leaves the field. Here’s a thought! What if Chinese coal should begin to severely undercut Oz coal? Now what would the climate change denier/ranters say when the domestic funding of opinion dried up? Perhaps money from China to “sell” coal for poverty stricken Australian citizens? Merde!
    PS. Denizen: an Oz citizen who embraces “climate variability”, especially when it’s upwards temperature/carbon-wise. Fits really well with the “standard” dictionary definition too.

    • SunGod

      Not to mention that when Chinese coal undercuts Oz coal, the money they use to sustain the Coalition and Labor through campaign bribes will also dry up :)

      Of course, as solar and wind power surpass fossil fuel power in Australia, that’ll help a helluva lot in finishing the job.

      Change is coming!

  • David

    You guys need to do some research – China is completing two new Coal fired plants a day until 2030
    http://www.wired.com/2008/02/chinas-2030-co2/

    • David Osmond

      wow, you’ve referred to an article from 2008 in order to suggest that this article, using the latest data from 2014, is wrong. I wonder who really needs to do some research….

      • Ronald Brakels

        I’m sure that with a little more research we’ll suddenly discover that China hasn’t reduced its coal purchases from Australia at all and coal prices are actually still $118 US a tonne instead of the $62 US a tonne those cheapskates have been paying us lately.

        • Calamity_Jean

          Hey, if China won’t pay Australia what the coal is worth, I say you Aussies should just quit sending it to them!

    • JonathanMaddox

      It says per week, not per day. It was *almost* true in 2006, but not since.

    • David

      Apologies folks for the incorrect material and dated link – I missed cleaning it out of favourites..
      This link is more up to date (Jan 2014)
      http://www.climatecentral.org/blogs/chinas-growing-coal-use-is-worlds-growing-problem-16999
      While not as dramatic as the previous one – it still shows the reliance on coal and given the propensity of world leaders to promise one thing while delivering another – the Nov 2014 agreement between US and China well I say no more

  • Bruce Boyes

    There’s also other evidence of China’s declining coal dependence. Here in Shanxi Province, the traditional heart of China’s coal industry, there are noticeable and substantial improvements in air quality, and the coal industry is not the career option that it once was – http://english.cntv.cn/2014/12/11/VIDE1418277247983196.shtml The provincial and local governments are moving to stimulate alternative economic opportunities, for example tourism based on Shanxi’s wealth of cultural and natural attractions.

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