Global coal-fired electricity generation is expected to suffer its biggest ever fall in 2019, according to the annual industry assessment from the conservative International Energy Agency, and its near term future will depend almost entirely on decisions made in China’s next five-year plan.
According to the International Energy Agency’s Coal 2019 report, released this week in Johannesburg, South Africa, 2019 will see a record-breaking decline in coal-fired electricity generation capacity of over 250 terawatt hours (more than Australia’s entire electricity output), or more than 2.5% of global output.
The falls have largely been driven by double-digit reductions in the US and in Europe, including in Germany were coal generation is expected to fall by a massive 18 per cent. Cheap gas is partly responsible, but cheap renewables are also having their mark, with renewables expect to overtake coal in the US in 2020.
I”n 2019, global coal power generation will experience the biggest drop ever, and coal power generation in India will probably decline for the first time in 45 years,” said Keisuke Sadamori, the IEA’s director of energy markets and security.
It is too soon to gauge whether the expected decline in 2019 coal power generation will be the beginning of a lasting trend, or whether it will just be a one-off event. Ultimately, according to the IEA, global trends rely heavily on China, which currently accounts for half of the world’s coal production and consumption.
At best, however, electricity generation from coal is expected to rise only marginally over the same period – at less than 1% per year – and even this rise will see its share of global electricity production drop from 38% in 2018 to 35% in 2024.
“Wind and solar PV are growing rapidly in many parts of the world. With investment in new plants drying up, coal power capacity outside Asia is clearly declining and will continue to do so in the coming years,” said Sadamori.
“But this is not the end of coal, since demand continues to expand in Asia. The region’s share of global coal power generation has climbed from just over 20% in 1990 to almost 80% in 2019, meaning coal’s fate is increasingly tied to decisions made in Asian capitals.”
Coal’s role in generation is dropping to levels not seen in decades in places like the United States and Europe, where a mixture of government policy and private sector appetite for renewables has made coal-fired power generation increasingly obsolete.
Growth in solar PV and wind capacity – especially when safeguarded by battery storage – low natural gas prices, and stagnating electricity demand in these developed regions have created what the IEA describes as “a perfect storm for coal … where coal plants retirements continue to take place.”
Further, the IEA expects this decline in coal’s importance will accelerate in developed nations over the next five years, although it also expects the speed of declines to slow unless stronger climate policies or lower-than-expected natural gas prices further push coal’s relevance off the proverbial cliff face.
Australia’s resources minister Matt Canavan responded to the IEA report by issuing a press released titled “IEA Outlook shows continuing strong demand for Australian coal.” There was no mention of the record decline in coal generation in 2019.