Are 1200 New Coal Power Plants on the Way?

World Resources Institute report illuminates a world unwilling to back off from a primary electricity source


What would 1200 new coal-fired power plants around the world look like? For starters, it would look a lot like 4°C of warming.

A new working paper from the World Resources Institute finds that 1199 coal plants are currently proposed in 59 countries. If every single one of these plants actually gets built (an unlikely scenario, to be sure), it would increase global coal-fired electricity capacity by more than 1.4 terawatts. That's about 40 percent more electricity than the United States has in total and four times as much as its coal generating capacity. The World Coal Association says there are only about 2300 existing coal power stations today.

The WRI worked to confirm the proposed plants through a variety of means, and stress that the results do not generally include coal plants already under construction. Unsurprisingly, China and India account for the bulk of proposed plants: 76 percent of the projects and more than one terawatt of capacity. Russia, Turkey, Vietnam, South Africa, and the United States round out the top 7 countries.

That the United States has 36 proposed projects equaling about 20 GW of capacity does show the difficulty in projecting all of these proposals onto actual world coal consumption. It has been widely asserted that new EPA rules on emissions will severely limit utilities' ability to build new coal plants without some version of carbon capture and sequestration in place. Coal companies in the United States have thus increasingly turned their attention to export, with designs on taking trainloads of coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming to massive terminals in the Pacific Northwest. From there, the coal would be shipped to Asia, suggesting that the proposed U.S. projects might be dead on the vine even now.

Coal exports from the United States peaked in 2011, and the country became the third-biggest exporter of coal behind Australia and Indonesia, according to the WRI report. The proposed terminals in Washington and Oregon would add up to 186 million tons of capacity; in 2011, total exports were about 107 million tons.

So how does all this fit into other global energy use projections? The Energy Information Administration's latest International Energy Outlook found that coal's proportion of electricity generation would drop from 40 percent in 2008 to 37 percent in 2035, "as renewables, natural gas, and nuclear power all are expected to advance strongly." The problem is that policies around the world have not yet worked toward those advances; coal remains the cheapest, easiest option, especially for rapidly expanding countries like China and India. As the EIA put it: "If a cost, either implicit or explicit, is applied to carbon dioxide emissions in the future, there are several alternative technologies... [that] could be used to displace coal-fired generation."

With no such explicit cost on the immediate horizon (implicit costs can be found everywhere in that 4°C of warming report, though those don't seem to be doing the trick right now), the 1199 coal plants are very much in play. It will take massive global policy shifts to scale back a massive global coal expansion.

Image via Richard Croft

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