Data from Global Energy Monitor (GEM), a group that tracks thermal and renewable power generation projects worldwide, shows that China was responsible for construction of 96% of all new coal-fired facilities globally last year, and for almost 70% of all new coal-fueled power plants that came online.
GEM, a San Francisco, California-based non-governmental research organization, on Feb. 5 published its latest Global Coal Plant Tracker, which provides information about new construction and other data by country and by megawatt capacity. The report shows China accounted for nearly all new construction that would use coal, along with 81% of newly announced projects. The country accounted for more than 47 GW of new coal-fired generation capacity coming online in 2023, or 68% of the global total of new operating units.
The report shows that China has placed more than 191 GW of new coal-fired generation into service over the past five years, or 64% of all new coal power projects that entered operation worldwide from 2019-2023. Chinese officials have said they will continue to build coal-fired power plants even as most of the world moves away from coal-supported generation.
“Even though coal represents only 40% of capacity of electricity generation in China, in 2023 it accounted for over 60% of the electricity generated in the country,” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, vice president for Energy and Innovation at the University of Houston in Texas. “This has been due to the fact that hydropower was significantly short as a supplier of electricity because of insufficient rainfall in the country. Importantly, China represents over 50% of all the coal consumption in the world.”
Krishnamoorti noted, “Separately and equally important India’s coal consumption went up about 8% in 2023, again to offset [a lack of] hydro.”
Adding Renewable Energy and Supporting Coal
Chinese officials have said that much of the country’s coal capacity will serve as a backup power supply for renewable energy. The country also leads the world in deployment of renewable energy, including solar, wind, and hydropower. Government data has shown that China receives more than one-third of its electricity from renewables.
“China, despite COP28 commitments and broader investments into green energy investments, is perfectly fine with not only expanding its use of coal, but accommodating that growing demand,” said Irina Tsukerman, a geopolitical analyst and president of Scarab Rising. Tsukerman told POWER, “China’s actions indicate expectations for domestic growth in that sector but also reflect the understanding that despite the global commitments the expansion of the coal sector is inevitable and tacitly accepted by the international community.”
The China Electricity Council (CEC) in a Jan. 30 report said the country’s installed wind and solar power generation will overtake coal for the first time this year, despite the continued building of coal-fired units. The CEC in a forecast said grid-connected wind and solar would make up about 40% of installed power generation capacity by the end of this year, with coal’s share expected to be about 37%. Nuclear power accounts for most of the remainder.
The CEC said that solar and wind accounted for about 36% of China’s power generation capacity at year-end 2023, with coal just under 40%.
By contrast, coal-fired generation’s share of the U.S. energy mix is expected to drop below 15% this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s latest “Short-Term Energy Outlook,” which was released Tuesday. The agency said it expects the share of the nation’s electricity from coal-fired units will fall to 13.8% next year.
Renewable Energy Capacity
A GEM report last year said China is set to double its renewable energy capacity and produce 1,200 GW of power from wind and solar by 2025, or five years ahead of the country’s stated goal for renewables. The report said that through the first quarter of 2023, China’s utility-scale solar capacity had reached 228 GW, more than that of the rest of the world combined.
Krishnamoorti told POWER, “Renewables are an important component of [China’s] mix … in 2024, in China, solar will be added at four times the amount of new added coal capacity [170 GW vs. 40 GW]. However, solar has an average of 1,200 hours of use per year … coal stays on four times as long typically [70% uptime]. So, the issue is that we will see growth of renewable capacity in China far outpacing the growth of coal, but the actual electricity generation will continue to be disproportionately dependent on coal.”
Tsukerman said China’s climate initiatives “are apparently more focused on the financial opportunities in energy diversification and assorted investments and less about overall economic impact. In short, anyone even remotely familiar with [China’s] inner workings understands that the economic growth and geopolitical power and growth trump all other considerations for Beijing and the rhetoric about the ‘One World System,’ is less about China’s balancing its own interests as part of the international community and more about China taking advantage of the vulnerabilities resulting from idealistic and excessively stringent environmental policies by others to boost its own role.”
Tsukerman continued: “None of the coal-oriented expansion negates China’s interest in alternative energy sources as a means of achieving energy dominance, income, and trade value in the international markets. China will continue to invest into these sources if only as a means to dominate the share of the market and to be on top of any innovation that could serve its goals.”
Coal Production and Imports
China primarily uses domestic coal for its power generation. Data from the National Bureau of Statistics released in January showed coal production in China hit a record output last year, at 4.66 billion metric tons, which was 2.9% higher than output in 2022.
Data from the General Administration of Customs published in January said China also is importing record amounts of coal. The agency said higher demand for power that resulted after restrictions around the COVID pandemic were lifted, and higher prices for China’s domestic coal, led to imports rising nearly 62% year-over-year in 2023, to 474.42 million metric tons. Much of the increase was tied to higher imports from Indonesia, the world’s leading exporter of thermal coal.
Chinese officials have said they expect the country’s demand for coal to be lower this year, and to continue to decline as more renewable energy is deployed. The International Energy Agency in a recent report on trends in the global coal market, though, noted that China will continue to drive the global market, depending on the country’s economy.
“Coal has the highest carbon intensity for every unit of electric power generated, and the increase in total energy generated through coal should be worrying as it pertains to global climate change and the role of anthropogenic carbon dioxide in driving global climate change,” said Krishnamoorti, who said slower growth in renewable energy in many areas “as well as the absence of any credible at-scale storage [including new pumped hydro] is exacerbating the situation. The loss of significant amounts of reliable hydroelectricity in both China and India is another worrying trend, as hydro can be a baseload replacement for coal.”
“There is little the international community can do to reign China in, particularly concerning domestic power generation,” said Tsukerman. “China is clearly pushing manufacturing through the cheapest possible means, prioritizng industry and economic/employment means over climate initiatives. At the end of the day, while China’s role in coal expansion undermines global climate commitment, there is little to be done, and the rest of the international community to compensate through excessive focus on emissions monitoring will not compensate that China is disproportionally responsible for the expanding future of these emissions.”
—Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).