Tag Archives: coal

Wind vs coal.

Nobody is going to make coal great again, says Bloomberg New Energy Finance founder

With new technologies hitting the markets every day, renewables are becoming cheaper far faster than anyone anticipated. This trend puts clean energy in investors’ cross-hairs and spells the end of coal as the mainstay of power grids around the world.


Image via Pixabay.

Michael Liebreich, founder of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), says clean energy will take the cream of future investments, leaving fossil fuels in the dust. In a presentation he held at the research group’s conference this Tuesday in London, Liebreich said emerging tech is making clean energy more economical than fossil fuels for utilities in many countries around the world. In light of this trend, he estimates that the clean energy sector will attract 86% of the $10.2 trillion likely to be invested in power generation by 2040.

BNEF first took shape as New Energy Finance, a data company focused on energy investment and carbon markets research based in the United Kingdom and was purchased by Bloomberg L.P. back in 2009. When the company first began collecting data in 2004, it could already spot a trend towards larger machines and installations in the wind energy sector, all designed to deliver more power to the grid. A trend that is continuing even today, with both Siemens and Vestas Wind Systems working on plans for huge turbines, with wingspans larger than that of the world’s biggest aircraft, the Airbus A380.

This trend also carries with it the promise of even greater cost-efficiency, so much so that offshore wind developers in Germany are promising electricity without subsidy for their upcoming projects.

“One of the reasons those offshore wind costs have come down to be competitive without subsidies is because these turbines are absolute monsters,” Liebreich said. “Imagine a turbine with a tip height that’s higher than The Shard.’’

The cost per unit of energy from photovoltaic solar panels is also continuing to drop, making them more and more competitive against fossil fuels. That’s why Liebreich predicts two “tipping points” in the future, which will make fossil-fuel-generated power increasingly unattractive from an economic point of view.

“The first is when new wind and solar become cheaper than anything else,” Liebreich said.

“At that point, anything you have to retire is likely to be replaced by wind and solar,” he added. “That tipping point is either here or almost here everywhere in the world.”

Wind vs coal.

Image credits Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

These tipping points won’t happen everywhere at the same time, and their exact dates aren’t set in stone; it’s a process. A slide from Liebreich’s presentation, however, shows we could expect Japan to reach this milestone (i.e. building a PV plant will become cheaper than building a coal-fired generator) in 2025, while India will pass it by 2030, but for wind power.

Further down the road, the second tipping point will come when running costs for coal or gas plants become higher than those of solar or wind. According to this chart published by BNEF, that point may arrive sometime in the middle of the next decade in both Germany and China.

Running costs clean vs coal.

Image credits Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Energy prices vary quite considerably from country to country, so it’s difficult to make a precise estimation of when renewables will overtake fossil fuels in supplying power grids. Still, Liebreich is convinced that the economics of solar and wind are becoming attractive enough to overtake coal’s dominant position in the global power equation, no matter what incentives President Trump imposes on the US.

“This is going to happen,” Liebreich said, reffering to the transition to clean enery. “Coal is declining in the US. Nobody is going to make coal great again.”

“Clean coal is a lie,” coal CEO admits

Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy Corp., the largest coal company in the US, has long tried to convince people that global warming is a hoax. But even he admits that the so-called “clean coal technologies” are a load of nothing — a lie.

Coalers against coal

“Carbon capture and sequestration does not work. It’s a pseudonym for ‘no coal,’” the CEO of Murray Energy, the country’s largest privately held coal-mining company, told E&E News.

Clean coal? No such thing. Image via Pixabay.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS), the proposed technique, involves trapping the carbon from burning coal and then storing it permanently, usually underground. This is a challenging task, both technologically, and financially. In a world where natural gas is often cheaper than coal and where renewables are becoming more and more affordable, coal is struggling to keep up in any form. There’s a lot of concern about the scientific and economic possibility of CCS, even ignoring environmental concerns. So CCS, often referred to as “clean coal,” seems expensive, ineffective, and an overall counterproductive option.

Still, CCS has been touted as a magic solution for the natural fall of the coal industry, which is why it’s so unexpected to see someone like Murray speak against it so bluntly. Murray went on record saying that ‘clean coal’ just doesn’t do anything.

“It is neither practical nor economic, carbon capture and sequestration,” he said last week. “It is just cover for the politicians, both Republicans and Democrats that say, ‘Look what I did for coal,’ knowing all the time that it doesn’t help coal at all.”

The cat is out of the bag, but really, the news here isn’t that clean coal doesn’t do anything — it’s that big execs are admitting it.

Clean coal doesn’t exist

You got that right buddy. Image credits: linh.m.do / Flickr.

This is not a new type of statement. Environmentalists such as Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s Global Warming and Energy Program, have often claimed that the term “clean coal” is misleading: “There is no such thing as clean coal and there never will be. It’s an oxymoron,” he said. He’s not the only one to hold that view.

“There is no such thing as ‘clean coal,’” Travis Nichols, a spokesman for the environmental giant Greenpeace, told The Huffington Post by email. “It’s a myth used by the industry to get taxpayer money in order to prop up a dying industry. It’s worse than pixie dust and hope, it’s coal dust and nope. Coal miners deserve a just transition, not snake oil and empty promises.”

Even other coal industry CEOs publically admit ‘clean coal’ is all hype. In an interview with ABC, Martin Moore, who is the CEO of CS Energy, one of the biggest energy company Australia, said new generation coal plants use less coal for the same amount of energy and “can have about 25 per cent less emissions”. But even him wasn’t impressed by ultra-super-critical plants.

“It’s not game-changing. You’ve still got to think that ultra-super-critical produces twice the emissions of gas-fired technology,” he said.

The science backs it up. Clean coal is indeed an oxymoron and its technological potential has yet to be demonstrated. CCS consumes a lot of energy (25% more), while producing the same yield. But that isn’t even the difficult part. You have to carry millions and millions of tons of high-pressure CO2, safely store them somewhere, using an infrastructure that doesn’t exist. Again, you have to do all this while competing with natural gas and renewables which are already cheaper than coal. It’s just a big no-no, on all fronts.

So if doesn’t make scientific sense, it doesn’t make economic sense, and even coal people are against it — why does President Trump insist on fighting this losing battle?

“My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” Trump said. “We’re going to have clean coal, really clean coal.”

We don’t really know for sure, but as it’s been so often the case, the President is lying. “Really clean coal” simply doesn’t exist. Just look at this statement from the Office of Fossil Energy, explaining the state of CCS technology:

“Today’s capture technologies are not cost-effective when considered in the context of storing CO2 from existing power plants. DOE/NETL analyses suggest that today’s commercially available post-combustion capture technologies may increase the cost of electricity for a new pulverized coal plant by up to 80 percent and result in a 20 to 30 percent decrease in efficiency due to parasitic energy requirements. Additionally, many of today’s commercially available post-combustion capture technologies have not been demonstrated at scales large enough for power-plant applications.”

Sure, there are several small CCS experiments scattered across the world, but in the US at least, a working CCS carbon plant just doesn’t exist.

So instead of diverting efforts and resources into a technology that can’t work, why not focus on something that is already working?

Chinese company offers free training for US coal miners to become wind farmers

It’s the disproval of every Trump narrative around renewable energy — it will take our jobs, it’s expensive, China are the bad guys. In fact, renewable energy is so cheap and so efficient that a Chinese company will now train US coal miners in the ways of wind energy, and they’ll do it for free.

Image credits: TPSDave / Pixabay.

Carbon County, Wyoming, was named after its extensive coal deposits. The county opened its first coal mine in 1868, and year after year, decade after decade, the coal industry was the backbone of the community. But things started changing recently. More and more miners started losing their jobs, and for the first time in more than a century, Carbon County started losing its faith in the mines. Hundreds of jobs were lost in 2016 alone, which for a county with less than 16,000 people, is quite a lot.

Naturally, needed someone to blame, and they quickly found it: renewable energy. It’s renewable energy that’s taking our jobs and closing down the coal mines. In his campaign (and his first actions as president as well), Donald Trump has made it excessively clear that he wants to bring back coal mining to its former glory and slash down on renewables. The only problem is… you can’t do that. Coal is too dirty, and renewables are already too cheap to stop the momentum. Thankfully, a Chinese company is doing something much more productive. They’re offering free trainings to former (and current) coal miners, enabling them to shift to renewable energy.

The American arm of Goldwind, a Chinese wind-turbine manufacturer, believes that former coal workers have valuable skills which makes them perfect candidates for new employees. They’re accustomed to working in difficult conditions, which is sometimes what you need to do to maintain wind farms, and they’re used to being a part of a larger industry. They see coal mining and turbine fabrication/maintenance as different but somewhat similar things — kind of like how electrical and mechanical engineering are.

“If we can tap into that market and also help out folks that might be experiencing some challenges in the workforce today, I think that it can be a win-win situation,” David Halligan, chief executive of Goldwind Americas, told the New York Times. “If you’re a wind technician, you obviously can’t be afraid of heights. You have to be able to work at heights, and you have to be able to work at heights in a safe manner.”

Wyoming is, coincidentally, very rich in both coal and wind energy potential. Image source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory .

While this program won’t cover all the miners who will lose their jobs, it might trigger an important change in narrative. Basically, it could help people understand that the renewable industry is not the bad guy in the room and that they actually generate more jobs than fossil fuels.

Robert Godby, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy at the University of Wyoming, said he hopes the announcement will inspire others to start similar projects.

“This is actually a realization of these benefits in a way that hasn’t been apparent before,” Mr. Godby said. “The more you hear these positive stories and you start to see more direct benefits, it changes local perspectives and kind of begins to open minds.”

Advanced economies, like the US is, depend more on services than on industry. The current administration has been talking a lot about generating industry jobs, almost at all costs, putting way less emphasis on services. What Goldwind is doing is a reminder that even in Wyoming, the US’s largest coal supplier, renewable energy is continuing its progress — and that’s a good thing.


Britain powered itself for a day without coal — the first time since the industrial revolution

UK’s National Grid hailed a lofty milestone as it reported that Friday, 21st of April, was the first day since the Industrial Revolution that the country powered itself without coal.

Coal power is a significant part of the UK’s historical identity. Image credits: Acombmate2114.

A world built on coal

In the 19th century, Britain was leading the planet through the Industrial Revolution, and nothing would never be the same again. The shift from hand production methods to machines affected every aspect of human life. For the first time in history, the standard of life started to exhibit a solid, sustained growth, and this was clearly visible for everybody: average income and population grew wildly. It’s estimated that the world population in the early 1800s was just around 1 billion people, but the rate of increase after that was staggering. It took several centuries for the population to double from 500 million (around the year 1500) to 1 billion – yet after just one century, the population reached two billion in the 20th century, and here we are now at over 7 billion.

Coal energy powered the world through the Industrial Revolution. Image via Wiki Commons / US Gov.

All that was possible largely due to coal and other fossil fuels (oil & natural gas), which provided the necessary energy. But aside from the population growth and the increase in standard of living, the Industrial Revolution brought in another, more insidious effect: climate change. As Britain and subsequently the world became industrialized, greenhouse gas emissions started to increase and accumulate in the atmosphere. In the mid 20th century, concerns started to grow about our impact on global climate, and by the turn of the century, the situation became pretty clear: man-made emissions were having a significant, detrimental impact on the global climate. If we wanted to change that, reducing our emissions was the way to go.

So it came to be that much like the rule of the British Empire over the world had faded, the grip that coal had on humanity was starting to wane.

A day without coal

It was a clear sign of coal’s dropping power when the control room of the National Grid tweeted this on Friday:


Coal has seen a strong and steady decline in the UK, coming down from 30% in the early 2010s to less than 10% in 2016. To their merit, the UK has invested greatly in renewable facilities, although they’ve done so out of economic reasons rather than a desire to reduce emissions. Still, Gareth Redmond-King, head of climate and energy at WWF, called the first coal-free working day “a significant milestone in our march towards the green economic revolution”.

“Getting rid of coal from our energy mix is exciting and hugely important. But it’s not enough to achieve our international commitments to tackle climate change – we haven’t made anything like the same progress on decarbonising buildings and transport. Whoever forms the next government after the general election, they must prioritise a plan for reducing emissions from all sectors.” Redmond-King said.

In recent years, renewable energy has surged in Great Britain, with wind covering some 12% of the country’s electricity needs, and solar also pitching in (to a lesser extent, this is rainy Britain after all). Nuclear is also solid in the UK as a low-carbon energy source, contributing to about 20%, a figure that has remained more or less constant for many years now. But it wasn’t all low-carbon sources that compensated for coal — natural gas also stepped into the picture, and natural gas also shows a steady growth in recent years across the country. So it’s not like it’s all renewables replacing coal — a big chunk of that is replaced by natural gas, which while still an improvement, is still not the best way to go.

Getting rid of coal

Scotland’s wind energy helped a lot. Image credits: Gordon Proven.

Worldwide, coal is still used on a massive scale, especially in developing economies such as China and India. While this is an encouraging milestone for the European country, we still have a lot to go before we can say we’re on the right track. Scientists have warned time and time again that despite the Paris Agreement, the world is not doing enough to maintain a healthy track. As for the UK itself, the country seems too caught in its political woes to truly worry about the environment.

After the Brits decided they want to leave the European Union, the government just announced new general elections and that’s pretty much covering all the headlines. The country’s ongoing air crisis is largely ignored as action was delayed yet again, despite the government actually losing a trial due to this. It seems that the sheer inertia of and economic rentability of renewable energy is carrying the UK on its back — and for now, we’ll just have to settle for that.

The mine near the city of North-Rhine Westphalia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

German coal mine will be converted into a huge hydro battery for renewable energy

The mine near the city of North-Rhine Westphalia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The mine near the city of North-Rhine Westphalia. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Since 1974, the Prosper-Haniel pit has been churning out millions of tonnes of coal. There is still some coal left but the fossil fuel resource is no longer favored by demand. Proving more of a hassle, the mine close to the Dutch border will be shut down in 2018 and German engineers already have plans for the sore ground. They plan on repurposing the mine’s pits into a 200-megawatt pumped-storage hydroelectric reservoir where energy from wind turbines or solar panels will be stored.

Regions like Rhineland or the Ruhr area haven’t been blessed with a varying landscape — it’s mostly flat, basically. The Proper-Haniel mine, however, is 600 meters deep which makes it ideal for a hydroelectric power storage thanks to the height difference. There is also no need to interfere with natural landscapes or re-route river flows which can be very damaging to local ecosystems.

A diagram showing the working principle of a typical hydro storage system.

A diagram showing the working principle of a typical hydro storage system.

The working principle for pumped hydro is very simple. Water is pumped in between two reservoirs positioned at different heights, where the difference in elevation is called the ‘water head’. When there’s low demand but the sun is shining strongly to produce a lot of energy, water is pumped into the highest reservoir. When demand is high and the solar farm or wind turbine can’t supply it, energy is released from the highest reservoir whose water flows into the lower reservoir pulled by gravity alone. Here, it turns a turbine for electricity.

Inside its 26-kilometer long shafts, Prosper-Haniel could hold as much as one million cubic meters of water which can hold immense amounts of energy.

Not only will this project ‘recycle’ old energy infrastructure, it will also help the local community by creating jobs which would have otherwise been negatively displaced. When the metamorphosis is complete, the Prosper-Haniel hydro plant could power as many as 400,000 German households.

A similar faith will have Australia’s Kidston gold mine, but also other coal mines from Germany planned for decommissioning as the government struggles to meet its 30 percent renewable goal by 2025.

Beijing shuts down its last coal power plant, replaces with natural gas

On Saturday, Beijing officially closed its last big coal-fired power station. The move has been welcomed by environmental groups and furthers the country’s progress towards the emission reduction targets agreed in Paris. 

It's the last of four coal-fired plants to be shut down in Beijing.

It’s the last of four coal-fired plants to be shut down in Beijing.

Back in 2013, Beijing officials promised that the city’s four coal-fired thermal power stations would be closed by this year — and on Saturday, they’ve honored that pledge. The closure of Huaneng Beijing Thermal Power Plant has been hailed in Chinese state media as Beijing is now the first city in the country with a coal-free electricity and heating supply. The city’s mayor, Cai Qi, said that “[r]eplacing coal with clean energy is not only to deal with air pollution but also a requirement of the company’s transformation.”

There’s no ‘coal’ in ‘energy’

The coal-fired generator won’t be scrapped right away but kept as a back-up in case things go south while the replacement power plant, this time burning natural gas, comes into operation. The three other coal plants have already been replaced with natural gas systems.

Huaneng said that by shutting down the generator, they’re cutting coal consumption by 1.6 million tonnes a year. So the closure is a big step towards China’s commitment to reduce coal use by 11.8 million tonnes by the end of 2017 compared to 2012. With this latest contribution, the country is some 70% of the way towards achieving that goal.

There’s an extra benefit for Beijing locals, who have had to put up with some downright terrifying levels of smog and air pollution. While natural gas plants are far from ideal, since they still produce nitrogen oxide which affects air quality, they’re way better than what coal spews out. Greenpeace China’s air pollution spokesman Liansai Dong has applauded the move away from coal, saying that the closure of the plant was just one in a series of steps Beijing has taken to combat air pollution and declaring central Beijing as a “zero coal zone.” But he also warned that there is still much to do in China.

“Beijing alone cannot fully solve its air pollution problem. Surrounding provinces like Hebei should develop more renewable energy and accelerate on phasing out coal power and other coal boilers […] If we want to solve the problem of climate change and air pollution, of which coal and fossil fuels are the cause, we should transfer to renewable energy,” he said.

“China has made some progress and we hope China can keep up this ambitious pace.”

Dong said “quite a lot” of renewable energy was being developed across China, which can boast the most solar and wind capacity installed over the last year. This is in line with China’s National Development and Reform Commission’s pledge to lower coal’s share in the energy market to 58% by 2020, while raising non-fossil to 15% or more and natural gas to 10%.

The next problem, he says, is distribution and “how to integrate clean and green energy into the energy system”.


Caricature of Malcolm Turnbull, the 29th Prime Minister of Australia and Leader of the Liberal Party. Credit: Flickr // DonkeyHotey.

Even ‘dirty’ energy companies don’t want new coal-fired plants in Australia. Not even for free cash

Caricature of Malcolm Turnbull, the 29th Prime Minister of Australia and Leader of the Liberal Party. Credit: Flickr // DonkeyHotey.

Caricature of Malcolm Turnbull, the 29th Prime Minister of Australia and Leader of the Liberal Party. Credit: Flickr // DonkeyHotey.

Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s Prime Minister, wants to fix the country’s high energy prices and vulnerable energy security by going back to the roots: just build more coal plants. This approach would have been welcomed in 1967, not in 2017, though. It’s well established that coal is the dirtiest energy source out there and there’s no such thing as ‘clean’ coal. Furthermore, renewable energy has gotten so cheap that it doesn’t make business sense to build anything new that’s not solar or wind-based, especially on such a sunny continent. Even so, despite promises of subsidies and other gov breaks, no energy company seems interested in erecting any new plant.

Blaming renewables for Australia’s blackouts

Addressing the National Press Club in Canberra earlier this month, Turnbull accused the Labor governments of an “ideological” obsession with renewable energy at the expense of “energy security”. He essentially blamed “huge” renewable ­energy targets set by Labor governments for pushing power prices to the highest of any OECD country, all while another blackout occurred in South Australia.

“States are setting huge renewable targets, far beyond that of the national RET, with no consideration given to the baseload power and storage needed for stability,” Mr Turnbull said. “We will need more synchronous baseload power and, as the world’s largest coal exporter, we have a vested interest in showing that we can provide both lower emissions and reliable baseload power with state-of-the-art clean-coal-fired technology.”

“This has got to be all about Australian families and Australian businesses, making sure that they can keep the lights on and, when they’re on, they can afford to pay the bill.

“And, yes, of course, we meet our emissions ­reduction targets.” (Editor’s note: Australia pledged to reduce emissions to 26-28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030 per the Paris Agreement. Climate Action Tracker estimates that Australia is instead on track to increase emissions above 27 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030)

“Nothing will more rapidly de-industrialise Australia and deter investment more than more and more expensive, let alone less ­reliable, energy.”

If you don’t follow Australia politics, you might be surprised this is the same man who in 2010 said we to move to “a situation where all or almost all of our energy comes from zero or very near zero-emission sources” to avoid the risk.

The Australian reports Turnbull’s cabinet might plan to use the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation to fund technology-neutral power sources. They also confirmed new coal would be part of the government’s energy policy mix.

The coal utopia

The Australian government seems keen on going forward with such measures despite studies and experts advise against it. Frank Jotzo, director of the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at the Australian National University, wrote it “may seem absurd to spend large amounts of taxpayers’ money on last century’s technology that will be more costly than renewable power and would lock Australia into a high-carbon trajectory.”

Jotzo says the government’s plan to build the latest generation of conventional coal-burning plants is anything by ‘clean.’

“A new high-efficiency coal plant run on black coal would produce about 80% of the emissions of an equivalent old plant. An ultra-supercritical coal plant running on black coal emits about 0.7 tonnes of CO₂ per megawatt hour of electricity, or about 0.85 tonnes using brown coal. That is anything but clean,” Jotzo wrote for The Conversation.

It’s anything but clean and anything but economically feasible, even with billions worth of government subsidies — and energy companies know this well.

In an interview with ABC, Martin Moore, who is the CEO of CS Energy, one of the biggest energy company Australia, said new generation coal plants use less coal for the same amount of energy and “can have about 25 per cent less emissions”. But even him wasn’t impressed by ultra-super-critical plants.

“It’s not game-changing. You’ve still gmmot to think that ultra-super-critical produces twice the emissions of gas-fired technology,” he said.

When asked whether CS Energy would be interested in building new coal-fired plants, Moore said:

“Well, I think CS Energy certainly has no intention of building any coal-fired power plants, ultra-centre super-critical or not. And it would surprise me greatly if there was any more coal-fired technology was built in Australia.”

“I think when you look at the risk of the investment, you’re talking about $2 billion-plus investment up-front. These assets have a plant life of roughly 40 years, and so it’s a very, very big long-term bet.”

“So given the current uncertainty, I think it would be a very courageous board that would invest in coal-fired technology in Australia.”

In other words, not even coal-fired utilities are buying into Turnbull’s utopia. Big energy companies know fully well that coal is the technology of the last century, not of the 21st century. They also know the Australian government made some climate target commitments and once Turnbull’s out, it’s likely the new government will tax any coal company until they go out the back door.

CS Energy isn’t alone. Origin Energy, which owns the 2,880 MW Eraring black coal power station in New South Walles says it has no plans to open a new coal-fired power plant. It did say instead that it would close the Eraring power in the early 2030s.

AGL Energy, which owns large coal fired power stations in Victoria, said it “will not build, finance or acquire new conventional coal-fired power stations in Australia (i.e. without carbon capture and storage). AGL will not extend the operating life of any of its existing coal-fired power stations,” per its Greenhouse Gas Policy.

Like in the United States, where Trump has made bringing ‘coal back’ a central theme for his campaign, the Australian Prime Minister seems to have missed all the memos. Coal is tanking and dying. It simply doesn’t make sense. Politically speaking, why don’t we see candidates promote how renewable energy generates jobs? In the U.S. already solar employs twice as many people in electrical power generation than all of coal, gas, and oil combined. Now that would make sense to everyone.

Europe has to shut down all of its coal-fired plants by 2030 to meet its Paris Agreement pledge

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

If we’re to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius per the Paris Agreement, a massive paradigm shift in how we source our energy has to take place. By some accounts, the world is already one degree Celsius warmer than in the pre-Industrial Age so the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy has to be made much faster. In Europe, a new study has identified phasing out coal-fired plants as the most cost effective and overall efficient measure for the union to meet its Paris Agreement goals. This phaseout should not happen later than 2030 — a highly ambitious target, considering the old continent is still highly dependent on coal for its energy and coal imports are on the rise.

Per its submitted intended contribution to the Paris Agreement, the EU has pledged at least 40% domestic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to 1990 levels by 2030. Right now, the sum of all the pledges (Nationally Determined Contributions – NDCs) doesn’t even come close to averting two degrees warming, let alone 1.5 degrees. The Paris Agreement parties will meet every five years to set even more ambitious targets, or that’s the plan, but bearing this in mind what kind of action would be required to meet the agreement’s intended goal?

In Europe at least, phasing out coal seems like the most effective solution — that’s not to say, of course, that it’s an accessible one.


According to Climate Analytics, the EU has a total budget for coal-based power generation of 6.5 billion tons of CO2. Anything above this budget results in a sort of carbon deficit which will make it almost impossible for the union to meet its climate targets. Right now, the annual CO2 emissions of coal-fired power plants in the EU is 0.8 billion tons, meaning the European Union has only eight years left in its carbon budget per business as usual.

There are 315 power plants currently active in the EU. To meet its goals, the EU would have to shut down 25 percent of these by 2020, 47 percent by 2025 and completely phase out coal power plants by 2031, a Climate Analytics report concludes.

“Not only would existing coal plants exceed the EU’s emissions budget, but the eleven planned and announced plants would raise EU emissions to almost twice the levels required to keep warming to the Paris Agreement’s long term temperature goal,” said Dr Michiel Schaeffer, Climate Analytics Science Director.

This highly ambitious target could be achieved by trading emissions, drastically increasing the share of renewable energy, and by providing a more investor-friendly framework.

“The challenge for Europe now is to capitalize on its massive investments in climate policy, to seize the opportunities created by a coal phase out, so that all European regions benefit from this,” says Bill Hare of Climate Analytics.

Our analysis shows that these power plants will need to be shut down long before the end of their economic lifetime in order to stay within the climate goals set at the Paris Agreement,” Niklas Roming, one of the report’s authors, said.

Though some nations in the block have made fantastic progress, like Scottland or Denmark, Europe is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. These accounted for 73 percent of all the energy produced in the EU in 2015, down from 83 percent in 1990. But coal use, which is the ‘dirtiest’ energy source, has dropped immensely which lends reason to be optimistic. In 2015, gross inland consumption of hard coal in the EU-28 reached its lowest level at 269 Mt, 47 % less than in 1990, according to Eurostat.

The report outlines two possible pathways showing how the EU could achieve a complete coal phase-out: market and regulator perspective. In the market perspective, the economic value of the plant is prioritised over its emissions intensity but even in this scenario, coal should become phased out by 2030. The date each specific plant goes offline differs significantly between the two approaches, however.

The report outlines two possible pathways showing how the EU could achieve a complete coal phase-out: market and regulator perspective. In the market perspective, the economic value of the plant is prioritised over its emissions intensity but even in this scenario, coal should become phased out by 2030. The date each specific plant goes offline differs significantly between the two approaches, however. Credit: Climate Analytics.

Already, some countries EU countries are seriously considering phasing out coal. The UK, which is still technically an EU member, announced it would replace all its coal-fired plants with gas-fired ones by 2025 while Finland said it would outright ban coal use by 2030. Scotland, a country that aims to become 100% renewable energy powered by 2020, closed its last coal-fired plant in 2016 after 115 years of operation.

The bulk of termination, however, would need to occur in Germany and Poland, where half of the EU’s active coal-fired power plants can be found. Together, the two countries also account for half of the union’s CO2 emissions. Germany announced it would shut down several coal-fired plants but critics cautioned it’s not nearly enough.

In Poland, the situation is a lot more complicated. While its neighbors are starting to shut down coal plants, Poland seems to embrace them. “Building more efficient coal power plants will get us better results in cutting CO2 emissions than building renewable energy sources like wind or solar,” says Energy Minister Krzysztof Tchorzewski, a member of the Law and Justice party. If you look at how much coal Poland consumes, it looks like an addict. About 90% of the country’s electricity comes from coal and new plants are considered for construction. So Poland will be a huge nut to crack if the EU has any chance of meeting its intended climate goals.

“While coal provides 85% of Poland’s electricity it is facing growing extraction costs, dwindling reserves and increased competition from renewables, as well as large environmental and health impacts, the Polish government is still favouring coal as the future mainstay of Polish electricity supply. Implementing the Paris Agreement means that Poland cannot go ahead with its plans for new coal plants, and instead needs to start planning for a phase out,” says Dr. Andrzej Ancygier, a Climate Analytics scientist.

“The necessary switch away from coal in Poland can have positive socio-economic implications. The alternatives in the renewable energy area and energy efficiency will produce large social, economic and environmental benefits that will be durable and lasting for the longer term. The European Union level policy approaches need to acknowledge these issues and ensure that adequate resources are provided for the transformation in Poland. In particular EU policies need to assist in developing structural alternatives and avoid structural breaks that would have negative socio-economic implications for some regions and create sustainable job opportunities,” he added.

Renewables just surpassed coal as the largest source of new electricity

It’s been a long and crazy ride, but coal’s time seems to be finally fading away. According to data released by the International Energy Agency (IEA), renewables have become the largest supplier of new electricity, growing much more than expected and surpassing coal.

Renewable energy in the California Desert. Image credits: Bureau of Land Management.

The shift actually occurred in 2015, but the data analysis was completed just recently. About half a million solar panels were installed every day around the world in 2015. In China, the biggest driver of new renewables, two wind turbines were installed every hour in 2015.

“We are witnessing a transformation of global power markets led by renewables and, as is the case with other fields, the center of gravity for renewable growth is moving to emerging markets,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA’s executive director.

Indeed, 2015 was a turning point for renewables. Led by wind and solar, renewables represented more than half the new power capacity around the world, reaching a record 153 Gigawatt (GW), 15% more than the previous year. The landmark Paris Agreement, in which countries agreed to curb greenhouse gas emissions, also helped push forth and set a good field for following years.

But the main reasons for this are purely economic. Renewables have simply become a good investment, and in many places, they’re already cheaper than fossil fuels – especially coal. The IEA estimates that both solar and wind will continue to become significantly cheaper in the next five years, by 25 and 15 percent respectively. The IEA writes:

“Renewables are expected to cover more than 60% of the increase in world electricity generation over the medium term, rapidly closing the gap with coal. Generation from renewables is expected to exceed 7600 TWh by 2021 — equivalent to the total electricity generation of the United States and the European Union put together today.”

Infographic by IEA.

But not all is rosy. There is still ground for caution, especially on the political side. Political instability is a great deterrent to renewable investments, as is lousy policy. Donald Trump’s statements to “bring back coal” have brought a shadow of doubt over the future of renewable investments. It’s also worth remembering that we’re still just starting to scratch the surface of renewable energy generation – the world has much more potential than we’re using.

“I am pleased to see that last year was one of records for renewables and that our projections for growth over the next five years are more optimistic,” said Dr. Birol. “However, even these higher expectations remain modest compared with the huge untapped potential of renewables. The IEA will be working with governments around the world to maximize the deployment of renewables in coming years.”

Michigan’s biggest energy provider will phase out coal, despite Trump

The coal industry seems to be singing its swan song, despite political efforts to save it.

The Simon Power Plant at Michigan State University. Image credits: Michael P. Kube-McDowell

President-elect Trump has vowed to end the ‘war on coal’ but the electrical industry isn’t really swayed. DTE Energy, Michigan’s biggest electricity provider has announced that it will phase out coal regardless of the political direction of the country. CEO Gerry Anderson said they’ve already shuttered three coal-fired units and will close another eight by 2030.

“All of those retirements are going to happen regardless of what Trump may or may not do with the Clean Power Plan,” said Anderson in an interview.

He went on to explain that while a new coal plant is set to last until the 2030s, that will probably be the last coal plant Michigan – or even the US – ever builds. Coal plants are expensive to build and maintain, while other sources of energy are becoming cheaper and cheaper.

“I don’t know anybody in the country who would build another coal plant,” Anderson said.

However, it’s not all good. While renewables play a key role in the future, natural gas is still a priority in Michigan (and in much of the US). Natural gas prices in the United States are low right now, much cheaper than coal. According to a February report from the Michigan Public Service Commission, the construction of a new coal plant cost $133 per megawatt hour, while natural gas is two times cheaper. Wind comes in at $74.52 per megawatt hour, which is competitive with natural gas, but it’s not quite there yet. But the thing is consumers want renewable energy and support subsidies for clean energy or carbon tax for dirty energy. Many are willing to even pay an extra bit for renewables.

This idea is becoming more and more popular with policy makers as well. According to Vox, a surprising number of Republicans in Congress, including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), are actually in favor of those renewable tax credits. So all in all, despite heavy lobby and a future president who made this industry a central point of his campaign, coal seems doomed. Hopefully, that gap will be filled by sustainable sources and not natural gas.

smoke coal

Finland plans to completely ban coal use by 2030. Decision soon to come in front of Parliament

smoke coal

Credit: Pixabay

Like all Nordic countries, Finland’s energy strategy is heavily geared towards non-fossil fuel sources. To meet its ambitious target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80–95% from the level of 1990 by 2050, the nation is proposing to completely ban all coal use by 2030. The plan has been rummaged by Finnish officials for some time but it’s only now that a call to action is being formulated, according to Olli Rehn (Centre), the Minister of Economic Affairs.

Coal and coal-derived energy will be completely barred from the Finnish market

Besides meeting its Paris Agreement pledge, Finland has many reasons to shift towards non-fossil fuels. The country is reliant on gas imports from Russia with which it has a strained diplomatic relationship. Considering coal, its current plants are already very old and many are on track to be de-commissioned. Besides, coal isn’t that crucial for the Finns as it is.

Coal supplies only 8% percent of the country’s heat and electricity demand. By 2030, considering the current state of affairs, Finland will only generate 1% of its energy from coal by 2030. Some Finnish officials want to go a step further and outright ban its use. To pass such a decision, the nation’s Parliament has to approve it in a reunion that’s expected to take place in March 2017.

Coal is in big trouble all around the world with many once prosperous companies facing bankruptcy. Other nations and provinces have also taken a stance against coal, which is the dirtiest source of fossil fuel energy. The UK announced it would phase out coal by 2025, Denmark said it wants to be completely fossil-free by 2050, and elsewhere the U.S. state of Oregon and the province of Ontario, Canada, are also considering similar measures to come into force by 2035.

If approved, the Finnish coal ban would be unique. In countries such as France or the UK where coal will be phased out, there will still be some leeway that will allow the trading the coal for instance. With a ban in place, not only will be Finnish utilities barred from producing energy from coal, it will also be illegal to import electricity that is made from it — that’s an entirely radical approach, but one that has a lot of positive environmental implications.

“Basically, coal would disappear from the Finnish market,” says Peter Lund, a researcher at Aalto University, and chair of the energy programme at the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council.

Finnish energy representatives tied with coal interests were quick to show their dismay.

“The discussion about prohibiting the use of coal under law is inexplicable. Such an effort would not succeed without offering substantial compensation [to energy producers]. I fail to understand how the central administration can spend so recklessly and be so unappreciative of the situation in the energy markets,” Jukka Leskelä, the managing director of Finnish Energy, told the Helsinki Times.

Finland’s renewable energy share in the mix has been steadily climbing in the past decade, from 18.2 percent in 1990 to 27.1 percent in 2010. While there are have been significant investments made in wind energy, the country is still lagging behind neighbors like Denmark or Norway. Just 1GW of wind energy capacity was in place in 2015.

The bulk of Finland’s energy is hydro, followed by biomass. About 80 percent of the country’s bioenergy comes from its forests which cover about 75 percent of Finland’s land area. Most of this biomass comes from trees grown specifically for this purpose and leftovers from the timber industry such as black liquor, wood residues, and wood chips.

Riku Huttunen, Director General of the Energy Department of Finland’s Ministry of Economics and Employment, told IEEE Spectrum that Finland has a surplus of trees and an expected increase in biomass use is not an issue. Not everyone is convinced, though.

Lund argues that following the complete decommissioning of coal in the country, Finland will gear towards adding more nuclear energy atop of the current four reactors.

Finland has also the highest energy use per capita in the European Union due to the intensive industry and cold climate. A marked improvement will be seen once planned measures for energy efficiency like smart grids and infrastructure are set in place.

Whatever may be the case, it’s clear that coal is facing a drastic decline worldwide. The likely ban of coal in Finland might be the first, but certainly not the last. Expect similar announcements from other countries in the future.

A coal mining monument in Colorado. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A CEO’s pay is enough to train all the company’s laid-off coal miners for jobs in sustainable energy

A coal mining monument in Colorado. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A coal mining monument in Colorado. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The coal industry in the United States is at its all-time low. In 2014, demand for coal peaked for the first time and has since plummeted. Meanwhile, coal companies are tanking. For instance, Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest coal company, sold stocks below $1 in 2015 when they used to be $72 in 2011.

Thousands are being laid off, but somehow the top execs are getting a raise, as ZME Science previously reported, despite the companies they ran lost 58% of their value on average between 2010 and 2014.

A number of factors have dragged down the coal industry. Increased competition from natural gas (thanks to the fracking boom) decreased demand and stricter environmental regulations have all hurt the industry. Since 2011, the coal sector as a whole has lost 94 percent of its value according to a Bloomberg analysis.

Meanwhile, the sustainable energy industry is growing in great leaps, adding jobs 20 times faster than the US average. In China, more people work in renewable energy than in oil & gas, and the United States isn’t lagging too far behind in light of the hundreds of thousands of layoffs following the barrel’s meltdown.

The energy industry is up for a massive paradigm shift, one that’s happening fast but was always predictable. Burning fuel that’s been trapped in the ground for millions of years is not only harmful and expensive on so many levels, it’s also freaking primitive.

Critics, however, say that this transition is bad for the economy because a lot of people will lose their jobs. Well, that’s what they said when tractors displaced plows or when cars made horse and buggies obsolete. Get with the times, folks — it’s called progress.

Aside from the obvious arithmetic that says a displaced industry loses jobs only to leave room for another to add jobs, these people who’ve lost or will lose their jobs working in coal or oil&gas can repurpose their skills to join the ranks of the renewable energy sector. And this is a lot easier than it might sound, provided there’s a will to do it.

In a new study published in Energy Economics, researchers at Michigan Technological University and Oregon State University found a minimal amount of money is enough to train coal workers to help them switch from a dying to a booming industry, the sustainable energy one.

Over the next 15 years, the researchers calculated that it will cost between $180 million (best-case scenario) to $1.8 billion (worst-case scenario) for the vast majority of the current people employed in the coal industry to switch. The worst-case scenario basically assumes that all of the workforce currently employed by coal will transition to clean tech. The best-case scenario assumes that all workers whose professions don’t depend on coal, such as electricians or accountants, will find jobs in another industry.

Perhaps the most startling finding was that the salary of a CEO was more than enough money to re-purpose the skills of all the company’s employees. They came to the conclusion after averaging the training costs for coal workers. fFirst, they combed through statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to identify all the coal industry positions, the skill sets required for each and the yearly salary. Then, they determined the closest equivalent position in clean tech for each coal position and evaluated the costs.

“For example, an operations engineer in the coal industry could retrain to be a manufacturing technician in solar and expect about a 10 percent salary increase. Similarly, explosive workers, ordinance handlers, and blasters in the coal industry could use their sophisticated safety experience and obtain additional training to become commercial solar technicians and earn about 11 percent more on average,” wrote Joshua Pearce, the study’s co-author and associate professor of materials science and engineering at Michigan Technological University.

The researchers identified four scenarios under which this transition can be funded:

  • Coal Employees Self-fund Retraining. “In this status-quo scenario coal employees must shoulder the entire burden of retaining themselves when their employer closes the mine or power plant and no policy intervention is necessary.”
  • Policies Promoting Coal Industry Paying for Employee Retraining. “In the second scenario, the coal industry is either mandated to pay for their employee retraining or chooses to do so on their own.”
  • Individual States Policies to Provide “Coal to Solar” Transition Programs. ” Implementation of the retraining could take several forms: i) scholarships, education vouchers and grants for coal employees to State universities, colleges and community colleges, ii) subsidized expansion of solar industry training such as the workshops and classes provided by entities like SEI, iii) State sponsored free courses and certificates for PV positions, and iv) no, low-interest or subsidized loans for education and retraining.” 
  • U.S. Federal Government Policy to Fund the Coal to Solar Transition. “In this scenario the U.S. federal government funds the coal to solar transition alone.”

Green Tech Media reports that the CEO of Consol Energy earned $12 million in 2012, while the top executives of Arch Coal, which has filed for bankruptcy, collectively netted $29 million. In both cases, these cash handouts would’ve been enough to re-train the thousands of employees they laid off, as the researchers found only 5 percent of a coal company’s typical revenue would be enough to fund the retraining of their former works (scenario #2).

“If they’re going to use energy alternatives, why can’t they bring a solar panel plant here, or train us even to install them in the field?” said Bob Wilson, a former coal miner for Emerald Mine, which closed down after Alpha Natural Resources filed bankruptcy. “Coal miners are some of the most versatile people here on the planet. We’ve all run equipment, done welding, fabricating. We’ve built million-dollar belt drives from the ground up. We can do this stuff with a little bit of help.”

“Where’s our bailout? It’s not a handout to get our houses re-built,” said Wilson. “We just need the help to get a good-paying job. We just need unemployment extended for two years, so these people can train for a good job. That’s all we’re asking for.”


It’s not just big oil – big coal is funding climate change denial too

It’s a reveal which unfortunately surprises no one.

A mining technician oversees a coal export terminal at Peabody Energy.

We knew that oil companies are investing into making it seem like climate change isn’t happening. ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, knew about climate change since the 70s, and yet they swept it all under the rug. In total, five big oil companies spent $114m obstructing climate news in 2015 alone, and 9 out of 10 top climate change deniers are linked with Exxon Mobil. But the coal industry doesn’t want to be left aside either.

Peabody Energy, America’s and the world’s biggest coal company, has also put money into at least two dozen groups to deny climate change and oppose environmental regulations. Known for their public rejection of climate science and refusing to believe that climate change is happening, Peabody has vehemently denied funding climate change denial groups. However, the truth was revealed during the discussions for bankruptcy the company was having.

“These groups collectively are the heart and soul of climate denial,” said Kert Davies, founder of the Climate Investigation Center, who has spent 20 years tracking funding for climate denial. “It’s the broadest list I have seen of one company funding so many nodes in the denial machine.”

Notably, among their main beneficiaries, Peabody had Willie Soon, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Soon has been funded almost entirely by the fossil fuel industry, receiving a whopping $1.2 million to publish climate change denial research. According to leaked documents, the papers were simply “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe a testimony he prepared for Congress.

Peabody refused to comment on this matter.

“While we wouldn’t comment on alliances with particular organizations, Peabody has a track record of advancing responsible energy and environmental policies, and we support organizations that advocate sustainable mining, energy access and clean coal solutions, in line with our company’s leadership in these areas,” Vic Svec, Peabody’s senior vice-president for global investor and corporate relations, wrote in an email to The Guardian.

Longannet Power Station. Image: Alan Murray-Rust // licensed for re-use.

After 115 years of history, Scotland closes its very last coal-fired plant

The largest and last coal-fired plant in operation in Scotland was officially shut down, marking an end for an 115-years-long history of burning coal in the country.

Longannet Power Station. Image: Alan Murray-Rust // licensed for re-use.

Longannet Power Station. Image: Alan Murray-Rust // licensed for re-use.

Officials, journalists and former workers crowded the control room of the Longannet power station to say their goodbyes. Over the decades, the plant has served Scotland well and up until its last days it still provided a quarter of all Scottish homes with electricity. It was also responsible for a fifth of the country’s carbon emissions. Regulations, carbon taxes and expensive maintenance prompted Scottish Power, which owns Longannet, to close down the plant. “Ok, here we go,” said one engineer before pressing a big red button that discontinued the turbines.

Taking over from Longannet will be nuclear and gas, helped by the booming renewable energy industry. Home to 5 million people, Scotland generates enough wind power to supply 33% of its residents’ energy needs. It’s growing fast too. While the rest of the UK and much of Europe are slowing down their renewable energy implementation, Scotland doubled its wind power in only one year, as of 2015. The country aims to become 100% renewable energy power by 2020 — that’s only four years from now!

Solar panels are not to be neglected either, although weather conditions largely favor wind turbines. “Sunshine generated more than four-fifths of the electricity and hot water needs of homes fitted with solar panels,” said WWF Scotland.

“Coal has long been the dominant force in Scotland’s electricity generation fleet, but the closure of Longannet signals the end of an era,” Hugh Finlay, generation director at Scottish Power, told the Guardian.

“For a country which virtually invented the Industrial Revolution, this is a hugely significant step, marking the end of coal and the beginning of the end for fossil fuels in Scotland,” Richard Dixon, Director of Friends of the Earth Scotland, said in a statement.

Amber Rudd, the UK’s Secretary of Energy and Climate Change, said last year that Britain will  replace all coal fired plants with gas. All UK coal-fired power plants will shut down by 2025.

via Think Progress.

China will allocate $4.6 bln to shut 4,300 coal mines

The Chinese government seems determined to phase out coal from their economy. According to an official press release, China will allocate 30 billion yuan ($4.56 billion) in funds over the next three years to the closure of small, inefficient mines.

The entrance to a small coal mine in China. Image via Wikipedia.

China is by far the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal in the world. In 2014 the carbon emissions from China made up about 28.8% of the world total, 10.4 billion tons. CO2 emissions. Basically, their economic growth in the past two decades was powered by coal and that has consequences. Air pollution has gotten so bad that a study by the World Bank found that air pollution kills 750,000 people every year in China. Smog is a common occurrence in many large cities, and the past years have witnessed many social uprisings and even riots because of air pollution. But China is taking steps in the right direction.

The country has announced a plan to invest 2.3 trillion yuan ($376 billion) to reduce their carbon footprint, especially targeting the coal industry. Both coal production and consumption peaked in 2013, constantly dropping year after year. Coal production in China was down 3.7% in the first 11 months of 2015 compared to the same period last year and the trend isn’t slowing down. Total raw coal output fell 3.5% in 2015 according to official data.

Now, the official news agency Xinhua announced China will aim to close 4,300 mines and cut annual production capacity by 700 million tonnes over the next three years. They also banned new mine approvals for the next three years, though this will hardly make a dent in the grand scheme of things.

China still has around 11,000 mines in operation, much larger than the ones they want to close now. The total estimated capacity is 5.7 billion tonnes, so there’s still a long way to go.

China’s coal industry is so developed that it can actually undermine global efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and prevent global warming. In 2014 the carbon emissions from China made up about 28.8% of the world total, so any significant move to phase out coal is good news not for China, but for the world.

How coal is formed

Most coal formed approximately 300 million years ago from the remains of trees and other vegetation. These remains were trapped on the bottom of swamps, accumulating layer after layer and creating a dense material called peat. As this peat was buried more and more underground, the high temperatures and pressure transformed it into coal.

Coal Formation

how is coal formed

Image via Pixabay.

Coal is still the largest source of energy for the generation of electricity worldwide, though it’s being phased out in many parts of the world due to its impact on the climate. But if we want to understand the origins of coal, we have to look back much further — to a period called the Carboniferous.

The Carboniferous (after the Latin name of coal) took place approximately 360 to 300 million years ago. Amphibians were the dominant land vertebrates and vast swaths of huge trees covered the singular mega-continent Pangaea. The atmospheric content of oxygen was at its highest level in history: 35%, compared with 21% today; all the conditions were ripe for the formation of massive coal beds.

Coal never formed before the Carboniferous, and very rarely formed after it. Two conditions are regarded as crucial for this event:

  • the emergence of wooden trees with bark; a large quantity of wood was buried in this period because mushrooms and microorganisms hadn’t yet figured out how to decompose trees. After they did, coal formations became much rarer.
  • the lower sea levels; the decrease of the sea level created many swampy environments in what is today North America and Europe. These swamps were vital for coal formation.
coal formation

Coal formation. Image via Kentucky Geological Survey.

As mentioned before, these trees were not decomposed by anything and were preserved. In time, they were buried. As they went deeper and deeper, temperature and pressure started building up and started to transform the coal.

Types of coal

The geological process of changing something under the effect of temperature and pressure is called metamorphism. Coal is generally classified into types based on the grade of metamorphism — the higher the grade of metamorphism, the more energy they contain:

Types of coal. Image via CUNY.

  • peat is generally considered a precursor of coal, but it has been used as a fuel in some areas — most notably in Ireland and Finland. In its dehydrated form, it can help soak up oil spills.
  • lignite is the lowest quality and the first to be formed.
  • sub-bituminous coal is most often used as fuel for steam-electric power generation.
  • bituminous coal is a dense sedimentary rock, generally of a high-quality.
  • steam coal” is a transition type between bituminous and anthracite.
  • anthracite is the highest rank of coal. It’s a hard, glossy rock and highly valued for its properties.
  • graphite is not generally considered a type of coal because it cannot be used for heating. It is most often used in pencils or as a lubricant (when powdered).

Coal can be used in its natural form, or it can be either gasified, liquefied or refined. However, no matter the type of coal or how you use it, coal is a non-renewable resource. In realistic terms, no coal is being formed to restock the resources we are using.

The adverse effects of coal

Coal is one of the main contributors to global warming, and coal mining and its fueling of power stations cause major environmental damage.

Historically, coal mining has been very dangerous. The list of coal mine accidents is long, and even today, accidents are still surprisingly common. Many miners also suffer from coalworker’s pneumoconiosis, colloquially known as “black lung”. But the main problem with coal is its emissions.

In 2008 the World Health Organization (WHO) calculated that coal pollution alone is responsible for one million deaths annually across the world; other organizations have come up with similar figures. According to a US report published in 2004, coal-fired power plants shorten nearly 24,000 lives each year in the US (2,800 from lung cancer). In China, the situation is even more dire as smog is a common occurrence in many major Chinese cities.

Burning coal releases great quantities of carbon dioxide into the air and also releases methane a much more potent greenhouse gas. Methane accounts for 10.5% of greenhouse gas emissions created through human activity. Coal may have allowed the industrial revolution to take place, but if we want to build a sustainable future, we simply have to phase out coal and implement other sources of energy in its stead.

power plant

The 2,440 new coal fired power plants expected by 2030 could destroy 2 degrees warming target


There’s a lot of talk here at COP21 about “decarbonizing”, cutting subsidies and phasing out fossil fuels. The atmosphere at the event is highly optimistic, but back home each country still seems to go ahead as planned with developments of new coal fired plants, which use the most dirty fossil fuel to generate energy. Some 2,440 new coal fired plants are expected to come online by 2030 in eight countries like  India, China, Indonesia and the European Union. Combined with already existing plants, their emissions make averting 2 degrees of warming past industrial levels impossible, and the respective countries’ national pledges aimed at curbing emissions – the so-called INDCs – now sound completely ridiculous.

Recognizing this incongruity, Climate Action Tracker presented a report here at COP21 whose analysis shows that If all coal plants in the pipeline were to be built, by 2030, emissions from coal power would be 400% higher than what is consistent with a 2°C pathway. What’s more, even if these thousands of new plants don’t ever come online, the analysis shows that emissions from present plants would still generate emissions 150% higher that what we’d expect to keep the dangerous threshold at bay.

If all planned new coal plants come live in 2030, together with existing plants these would generate 12 GtCO2. More findings:

  • Planned coal plants threaten the achievement of the INDCs that are only medium or inadequate.
  • All of these countries have an INDC rated by the CAT as “inadequate” or “medium” (i.e. not sufficient to keep warming below 2°C), and have “current policy pathways” that are even less ambitious.
  • Their combined planned new coal capacity (2011 new coal plants, totalling 1210GW) could put them in an even worse situation, adding emissions of around 1.5 GtCO2 to the CAT’s projected currently policy levels.
  • The estimated emissions impact of planned plants that have been announced and pre-permitted – i.e. not under construction or permitted – would be 3.5GtCO2. Cancelling these plants could lead to emissions reductions of 2GtCO2 below current policy levels, bringing countries closer to their proposed INDC levels.

Previously, I was ecstatic to announce that Britain will phase out all unabated coal plants by 2025. This gave me hope that this might inspire others to do the same, especially in the European Union, but even here more than 50 plants are currently scheduled for development. Figures show these new projects alone would emit almost 120m tonnes of CO2 every year.

Most of the new plants considered in the Climate Action Tracker report are planned in developing nations. Climate justice dictates that these countries, like China or India, are entitled to emit greenhouse emissions to catch up and meet the expectations of their citizens. The Indian environmental minister’s statement reflects this:

“My energy consumption is one twelfth that of US and one tenth that of Europe, so don’t you think that my people also have a right to grow and use energy?,” said Prakash Javadekar.

“Should they remain in the dark? Is that humanity? That is why I will need power from all sources. We are increasing our renewable targets tenfold in the next 15 years but we will require coal because it is the need of the hour for my people to grow.”

India has 300 million people living in the dark actually, so it’s natural that they access any kind of energy to meet this stringent demand. The challenge is complex, but what’s pretty clear at this point is that 1) new coal plants in the developed world should be canceled and 2) rich nations should help developing nations access more renewable energy in favor of coal.

To end this post on a positive note, research shows king coal is dying. For the first time, demand has peaked in 2014 and is now steadily falling. In just four years, coal stocks have lost 95% of their value. Thousands of new coal plants might sound disturbing, but most were planed in a time when business was favorable and pressure to cut emissions weren’t that high.

“It is unlikely that all of these planned coal plants are going to be built, especially when low carbon alternatives are reaching price parity. If renewables take off as fast as is currently expected, many of these planned coal plants could be stranded investments or would have to operate under difficult financial circumstances,” said Markus Hagemann of NewClimate Institute.


King coal is dying: demand peaked in 2014 and dropping fast worldwide

A report released by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) found we are beyond the peak of coal consumption and demand. Effectively, the demand for coal has virtually dropped all over the world with few exceptions, most notably India. The news suggests we’re well on our way to leave coal behind for good, and never turn back. Replacing coal are more efficient and environmentally friendly measures, including renewable energy, nuclear and gas.


Coal has been getting fatter and fatter over the past decade, driven by huge demand in China and India. China burns half of the world’s coal and has been responsible for well over half of total CO2 emission growth globally for the past 10 years. But even here, things have had to slow down, given that pollution is a major concern in China. Now, coal demand has not only peaked – it’s trending down on a global level.

Highlights from the report, titled “Carpe Dieam: Eight Signs That Now is the Time to Invest in the Global Energy Market Transformation”:

Coal’s Share of Electricity Generation in Key Countries is Declining. IEEFA sees it happening much more quickly than many analysts.

Demand for Seaborne Thermal Coal Is Declining, and Prices Have Collapsed. IEEFA sees internationally traded coal markets as having likely peaked in 2014 at an estimated 1,113 metric tons. They forecast a further 30 percent decline by 2021, to 762 metric tons. Their outlook is based on the likelihood that China, Western Europe and Japan have already passed peak import demand—all in in 2013-2014—and that India’s demand for thermal coal imports peaked in mid-2015.
The Price of Renewable Energy is Declining. Technology innovation and economies of scale are working together to drive down the capital cost of renewable energy deployments. The cost of solar continues to decline at a double-digit rate annually, and solar is rapidly moving toward grid parity in an increasing number of markets. Rapid cost reductions in battery technology will compound the rate of deployment of distributed-energy solutions, further undermining the commercial returns of existing fossil-fuel assets.

Investment Capital Is Moving Rapidly From Coal Into Renewables. Over the past decade, investors have put US$1.5 trillion into clean energy—mostly solar and wind, and 2014 was a record year. Renewable energy capacity, in the meantime, has grown even faster. These trends have triggered a considerable shift and growing acceptance in the financial market of the structural decline of coal and the demand for raising capacity in low-emissions investments. Key developments on this front include the decision this year by Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global, the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, to divest from the coal sector, and the very recent decision by Allianz, the world’s largest insurance company, to follow Norway’s example. These two decisions combined will affect over $10 billion of investments.
The Coal-Fired Sector Has Been Overbuilt. China has built more coal-fired plants than it can support, India is on a renewable-energy tear, and the U.S. is retiring coal-fired power plants.
Coal Companies Are in Deep Financial Distress. Coal producers are in dire straits from a combination of energy-efficiency gains, eroding electricity demand, conversions to gas-fired power capacity, an expanding buildout of renewable energy projects, and the impact of pollution-control regulation.
● Structural Decline in Coal Demand Is an Increasingly Consensus Call. What was once an outlier point of view—that global coal markets are in decline—has become more mainstream.
Global Banks Are Shifting Their Focus to Renewables. An increasingly sizeable group of financial institutions see the inevitability of rising regulatory pressures, and hence the rising stranded-asset risks of fossil-fuel assets.

Indeed, the fall of king coal becomes increasingly certain. Concerning the financial market, almost $2.6 trillion have been divested so far away from fossil fuels, mostly out of coal companies. Those who preferred to bet on coal got burned – bad. The already tanking industry will face even more serious blows in the coming years as the UK preps to phase out coal fired plants entirely by 2025. The province of Alberta, Canada has pledged the same by 2030. Other countries will likely follow suit later on.

coal plant

UK will shut down all coal plants by 2025, replaces with gas

coal plant

Image: Pixabay

Amber Rudd, the UK’s Secretary of Energy and Climate Change, announced the government’s new plan to generate clean and cheap energy. Rudd says the Britain will add more nuclear power, explore for shale and, most strikingly, replace all coal fired plants with gas.

“One of the greatest and most cost-effective contributions we can make to emission reductions in electricity is by replacing coal fired power stations with gas. We will be launching a consultation in the spring on when to close all unabated coal-fired power stations. Our consultation will set out proposals to close coal by 2025 – and restrict its use from 2023.

If we take this step, we will be one of the first developed countries to deliver on a commitment to take coal off the system.”

“It cannot be satisfactory for an advanced economy like the U.K. to be relying on polluting, carbon-intensive 50-year-old coal-fired power stations,” the minister said in a statement.

Yet 2025 is only ten years away. Not a lot of time, considering what Rudd is effectively suggesting is replacing 20% of its currently energy generation. Elsewhere in the mix,  over 30 percent of British electricity came from natural gas, 25.3 percent from renewables and 21.5 percent from nuclear plants. The bulk of the grunt work in the absence of coal will be made by modern gas-fired plants, supported by more nuclear and renewable energy.

The announcement is well received, considering a week from now world leaders and policy makers will convene at the COP21 U.N. climate summit. Here, a global framework aimed at reducing emissions and curbing global warming will be put in motion. It’s already a certainty – it’s the details that need to be sorted out in Paris. The EU pledge, known as an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), was submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in October. The headline is to reduce domestic EU greenhouse gas emissions by “at least 40%” by 2030, against a 1990 baseline. The EU says this is in line with an existing EU objective to cut emissions by 80-95% in 2050 against 1990 levels.

The UK is a major energy consumer, and scrapping coal in favor a more environmentally friendly solution will definitely help meet the EU pledge. “If you are serious about climate change, the first thing to do is get out of coal,” said Dieter Helm, a professor of energy politics at the University of Oxford. Coal releases the most CO2 emissions per unit of generated energy, along with particle matter (soot) and dangerous compounds like mercury that pose a significant risk to health.

Yet despite this decision, Rudd – and the rest of the government, for that matter –  is doing it all wrong.

UK renewable subsidies, like in most other countries, are paid using household energy bills. The government has imposed a cap on the total amount that could be spent of £7.6bn a year by 2020. Yet, wind and solar farms have been built at such a rate that speding would rise to £9.1 bn. Amber Rudd, the energy minister, announced a series of cuts earlier this summer, including a reduction in the guaranteed price paid for electricity generated by new rooftop solar installations by up to 87 per cent. The effects of the decision are already well felt. The Solar Trade Association (STA) says 27,000 jobs could be at risk as the solar industry’s 3,000 firms face the cuts. Two solar panel companies, including one of the UK’s biggest installers, blamed the cuts when they went into administration with the loss of 1,200 jobs. Meanwhile, fossil fuels have received more subsidies in the form of additional tax breaks.

The coal industry is tanking, while execs are getting a raise


Right now the coal business is arguably living through its most dire days ever. Nearly 300 mines have closed in the past five years, 200 coal-powered plants have been scheduled for closure, and coal corporations are basically ruined. For instance, Peabody Energy, the world’s biggest coal company, sold stocks below $1 when it used to be $72 in 2011. And it could get worse. Alpha Natural Resources, the second biggest coal company in the US, filed for bankruptcy along with other smaller firms. Basically, investors wouldn’t touch coal nowadays not even with a ten-foot pole. Winter is coming, but apparently, coal companies execs aren’t all that stressed. While their employees have had their pays cut and thousands fired, managers and CEO have actually substantially increased their salaries. When the ship sinks, might as well grab what you can, I guess.

The Institute for Policy Studies systematically analyzed the incomes of top execs working at the top 10 coal companies in the country. Execs had their pay increased an average of 8 percent between 2010 and 2014, despite these have been the worst years in their history maybe. Combined, these 10 companies lost 58% of their value.

According to the report’s authors, this unjustified raise is accounted to the fact that stock-based compensation isn’t cutting it out anymore. Prior to 2010, execs were very happy to receive both cash and stock. Now, they just want cash seeing how stocks are becoming worthless overnight. Even so, the lucky ones at least, collectively cashed out over $100 million in stock options in this period, according to the report.  “We’re seeing this move to insulate them from the implosion of the coal sector by handing out more cash,” said Sarah Anderson, the report’s author.


As for oil bosses, they aren’t too far behind and oil is at its lowest in six years. Some key findings from the report:

  • Beating the S&P 500 average: CEOs of these 30 largest fossil fuel companies averaged $14.7 million in total 2014 compensation, over 9 percent more than the S&P 500 CEO average. 
  • Five years, $6 billion: These firms’ management teams have taken home $6 billion over the past five years. That would be enough to weatherize 3.3 million homes or double the $3 billion U.S. pledge to the Green Climate Fund, a new institution to help vulnerable nations address climate change.
  • Short-termism: Most CEO compensation comes in the form of options and stock grants, a pay stream that encourages a fixation on pumping up share prices. Executives at distressed coal companies Peabody and Alpha Natural Resources cashed in stock options worth $47 million and $33 million, respectively, in the four years before their industry began to implode.
  • Buybacks: In 2014, 23 of the top 30 fossil fuel companies spent a combined $38.5 billion on share repurchases. That was six times global corporate spending on research into renewable energy that year.  Buybacks artificially inflate share prices, which, in turn, inflates executives’ stock-based pay. 
  • Pay for non-performance: The top 10 publicly held U.S. coal companies have also been increasing their cash-based executive pay as their share prices have been plummeting. When paychecks grow even as businesses sink, executives have little incentive to shift to a new energy future.
  • Bonus incentives: All 13 oil producers on our list of 30 major U.S. fossil-fuel corporations reward executives for expanding carbon reserves.
  • Retirement security: Top fossil fuel executives have accumulated company-provided retirement assets worth a combined $1.2 billion at the same time their indifference to environmental degradation has been putting the futures of ordinary people at risk.

“You might think that the leaders of coal companies would be made to pay the price for these failures. But in the perverse world of American corporate compensation, they are, in fact, getting a raise,” wrote Tim McDonnell in an article for MotherJones.



I’m not feeling sorry for the fossil companies, don’t get me wrong. The point the report makes, which I’d like to reiterate, is that this whole ship is sinking. Secondly, fossil executives care little about their employees or company for that matter. They don’t have a mission. They don’t want to change the world. They just want to stay fat.