Over the first half of the year, more coal power generation capacity has shut down than has started operation around the world for the first time on record, according to a US research and advocacy group. 

The Global Energy Monitor, which tracks fossil fuel development, found that the closure of coal generators across Europe and the US, exceeded stations being commissioned, largely in Asia. 

China, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, dominates coal power development, having built nearly two-thirds of the world’s operating plants and being home to nearly 90% of generators under construction. 

However, the amount of coal power commissioned in China to the end of June was more than 40% below the same period last year, at 11.4 gigawatts compared to 19.4 GWs, because of COVID-19.

Thankfully, India shut more capacity than it opened. New Delhi commissioned 0.9 GW of coal generation, while 1.2 GWs were closed and more than 27 GWs of proposals were cancelled. 

Christine Shearer, Global Energy Monitor’s coal program director, says that India had reduced the amount of coal it planned to build because it struggled to compete with cheaper alternatives, such as new solar and wind. 

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She adds that the global decline was due to COVID-19 and record retirements in the EU after the carbon price was increased and pollution regulations tightened. Coal-fired generation fell by an estimated 3% last year. 

China and India’s coal fleets were running at barely half capacity before the pandemic started, but China was continuing to grant permits for construction at the highest rate since 2016. 

There is already overcapacity in China’s coal industry. A study from the University of Maryland projected that the average utilisation rate of the country’s coal plants could drop to 45% by 2025. 

“The COVID pandemic has paused coal plant development around the world and offers a unique opportunity for countries to reassess their future energy plans and choose the cost-optimal path, which is to replace coal power with clean energy,” says Shearer.

Globally, 18.3 GWs of coal power was commissioned in the first half of the year, and 21.2 GWs shut. About 8.3 GW of this was in the EU, with Spain shutting half its fleet and Britain going coal-free for two months, and 5.4 GW in the US. 

Japan opened 1.8 GW but plans to retire 100 inefficient coal-fired units and Germany opened the 1.1 GW Datteln coal plant. About 72 GW of planned new coal was cancelled, but 190 GW remains under construction. 

IPCC scenarios suggest that coal power generation must fall 50% below current levels by 2030 to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. 75% will need to shut over the decade to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

Despite this, world demand for coal is set for its biggest annual drop since World War II because of COVID-19, according to the International Energy Agency. Additionally, global investment in offshore wind power increased 319% in the first half of the year, with financing approved for 28 new projects totalling USD$35 billion, more than what was approved in all of 2019

Featured image by: Henk Verheyen