Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Killer Coal is still king

Coal: India’s plans for coal-fired power plants soar — study[emphasis added]:

India is poised to contend with China as the globe’s top consumer of coal, with 455 power plants preparing to come online, a prominent environmental research group has concluded.

The coal plants in India’s pipeline — almost 100 more than China is preparing to build — would deliver 519,396 megawatts of installed generating capacity. That is only slightly less than pending new capacity in China, which remains the undisputed king of coal consumption.

The research found 1,231 new coal plants with a total installed capacity of more than 1.4 million MW proposed worldwide. Beyond the biggest users — China, India and the United States — the assessment finds a heavy coal demand building up in Russia, Vietnam, Turkey and South Africa. The United States, with 79 coal plants in the pipeline, ranks fourth in this category.

Wow, that sounds like a lot of new coal-fired electricity, doesn’t it? Yes, it is, and the numbers are even more unsettling than one might surmise…

To provide a broad basis for comparison, let’s look at the US electricity sector[1] and extrapolate from there. In 2010, the US electric power sector had an installed capacity, a.k.a. a “nameplate capacity”, of 342,296 MW for coal-fired generation, which produced 1,799 billion kWh of electricity, consumed 971,322,000 short tons of coal, emitted 1,828 million metric tons of CO2, and (based on less recent data) required the withdrawal of 25 gallons of water for each kWh generated, or a total of about 45 trillion gallons of water.

The planned coal-fired electricity generation has a nameplate capacity of over 1.4 million MW, or 4.1 times the total existing US capacity as of 2010.

Scaling up the US numbers to the size of the planned additions (by multiplying by 4.1) gives us yearly figures of 7,376 billion kWh of electricity generated, 4 billion short tons of coal consumed, 7,495 million metric tons of CO2 emitted, and 185 trillion gallons of water withdrawn, all yearly figures.

Worldwide CO2 emissions are 34 billion metric tons per year, which means this additional generating capacity will add 22% to current worldwide yearly emissions, which are, to put it mildly, far too high. It’s also about 130% of the US’ total CO2 emissions for 2010 from all sources and sectors, not just coal and not just electricity, which were about 5,700 million metric tons.

Assuming an average lifespan of 50 years for the individual coal plants, we have a grand(iose) total of 200 billion short tons of coal consumed, 374,750 million metric tons of CO2 emitted, and 9,250 trillion gallons of water withdrawn. That emissions total will push up the atmospheric CO2 level (very) roughly 23 parts per million higher than it would be in the absence of these new plants.[2]

Given that some of the new power plants will certainly be in service longer than 50 years, and none of them are built yet, this means we’ll be emitting CO2 from some of these plants well beyond the year 2060, surely into the 2080′s.

Once again, let me stress that this is additional coal consumption, water withdrawal, and CO2 emissions, on top of the consumption and emissions associated with other electricity generation, transportation, building energy use, etc. And I haven’t even touched on non-CO2 issues, like methane emissions and landscape destruction from coal mining, and mercury pollution.

And, of course, there’s the least convenient truth of all, that nasty business of CO2′s hideously long atmospheric lifetime, which extends the reach of these new coal plants well into the lifetime of multiple generations of our descendants, unless we can manage a large-scale roll out of an effective carbon recovery technology.

This is the point where people leap into the comment section and beat me up for not being realistic. Surely I can’t expect all of that planned coal capacity to be built, they’ll say. And, in fact, I don’t expect it to all be built, but not because we’ll realize what a colossally stupid thing it would be to do that to ourselves and our descendants, but because we’ll run into serious limitations in coal production and water supplies before we can erect all those coal plants and put them into service. What portion of that 1.4 million MW of new coal plants do you think we’ll actually build? Two thirds? Half? Make your guess and scale the numbers I calculated above, and you still get a daunting result.

The point of all this back-of-the-envelope (calculator applet?) number crunching, should it not be painfully obvious by now, is that:

  • The planned coal plant additions are a huge story that gets very little attention, even on greenie web sites. Lately we’ve all been transfixed by the Arctic news, which is understandable and likely even a good thing, to the extent that it helped spread the word. But new coal plants are so far off our radar screen that I only knew about the article above because it popped up in one of my Google alerts, and not any of the dozens of sites I track via RSS feeds.
  • The sheer scale of the planned coal plant additions is not just terrifying, but it becomes more terrifying the more you endeavor to put it into context, as I tried to do in this post.
  • These new coal plants, assuming that at least a small portion of them are actually built and run for decades, make our global target of reducing CO2 emissions and thereby, eventually, the atmospheric level of CO2 vastly more difficult. Once again, everything I’ve described above is electricity only, and doesn’t include the rapidly expanding use of private motor vehicles in China and India, for example.
  • If we don’t make a serious, focused, global effort to turn away from coal we’re far more likely to see global annual CO2 emissions rise to 40 or 45 billion metric tons a year from its current level of 34 long before it drops to 30.

See also:


[1] I’ve used numbers just for the US electricity sector, as opposed to all electricity generation, as that is probably more representative of the large-scale build out of coal fired generation around the world that the original article and the WRI study mention. I’ve also ignored the possibility that any significant portion of the new coal plants will utilize CCS (carbon capture and storage).

[2] One ppm of atmospheric CO2 is about 7.81 metric tons of CO2. But since (very) roughly half of our emissions are removed by natural processes, like being absorbed by the ocean, I assumed a ratio of 16 billion metric tons of CO2 per ppm increase.

8 comments to Killer Coal is still king

  • These plants will NOT be operated for anything like 50 or 80 years. Once public sentiment turns, I can see them being shut down in 5-10 years or less. I’m placing my bet right now that the world will get religion on carbon somewhere in the 2016-2020 timeframe. 2024 at the latest. There will be Nuremburg-style trials and there will be wholesale dismantling of thermal power plants as well as tar-sands mining operations, Arctic and deepwater drilling–not necessarily in that order. And/or there will be violent breakdown and warfare based on lack of food and water for up to 1/3 of the world’s population. That’s a lot of refugees. There will be a lot of blame to go around and it won’t be pretty. But one thing’s for sure, we wont have the ‘luxury’ of using those plants for anything like their design life. Change is a-comin’.

  • Lou

    I suspect/fear you’re right, Sean. The problem is that the things needed to keep us from running all these new power plants for decades are the things I’m trying to avoid.

    It’s like saying that once a patient has advanced lung cancer he’ll stop smoking — it’s almost certainly true, but it’s a sign of failure, not a sign that the patient got the message and acted in his own best interest to avoid a horrible outcome.

  • Good analogy. Spot on, of course.

  • I think you’re being too optimistic. Taking your 2010 figures: 343 GW of coal-fired plant producing 1.8 PWh is 5248 hours of production per year. 2010 was 8760 hours long so that’s just under 60% capacity. All plants have some down time but I suspect that figure is so low because coal is pushed to the back of the generation queue by nuclear, gas and wind. The nuclear, gas and wind isn’t going away but if there’s a big expansion in coal but little change in the other generators (with an expanded demand for electricity for heat pumps, EVs, and so on) then the coal will be used proportionally more of the time and hence the emissions will expand more than proportionally to the amount of new plant.

  • Lou

    Ed: Hmmm — I hadn’t made that connection, but I think you’re right. A capacity factor of only 60% is very low for any utility-scale thermoelectric plant, and new plants would almost surely be run at something like 90%.

  • Dan

    Good news! The Economist reports that India’s stretched to the limit state-owned Indian Railroad can’t deliver enough coal to keep existing power plants running full time, much less supply any new ones. And that generally pro-business mag doesn’t see the bumbling Indian politicians getting their act together any time soon to correct the railroad’s deficiencies. So slow growth for the Indian economy, and slow growth in carbon output, despite the plans.

  • JV

    That kind of additional coal power plant capacity would very nearly completely deplete both China’s and India’s coal within 40 yrs. China’s coal production, according to numerous online sources, is currently near 3.7 billion tons a year and India’s is about 570 million metric tonnes a year (this is from International Energy Agency sources : http://www.iea.org). I don’t see how an additional 4 gigatons of coal production could come online so quickly on top of the existing production. That said, India is certainly looking to upgrade its existing electric grid, but they would need to extensively expand and upgrade their current grid to use the additional power. As it is, world copper supplies are being constrained by oil price as well as everything else. It would take centralized planning under national or international oversight to significantly increase renewable energy to replace existing sources and electric grid upgrades to power electric vehicles, and these activities would continue to put additional strain on fresh water resources.

    BlackSun, yes, water depletion is the main problem facing China and the U.S right now as water tables in many areas of these countries are depleting at a significant rate due to the enormous quantities of water withdrawn for irrigation. I hope it doesn’t lead to war and starvation as you say.

    Of course, several African countries have had water supply problems for years but we’ll see it in the so called “developed” world soon because developed countries have overconsumed their water resources.

    I guess we know how it’s going to go down, and why.

  • Reality ck! Thanks for this. Happy Monday all.

    Note… Climate extremes will be curtailing emission shortly though…