By David Fickling
Generators RWE AG and Uniper SE are still able to eke out margins by utilizing carbon credits bought in former years when prices were in the region of 5 euros ($5.57) compared to their current 25.93 euros. Eventually, that stockpile will run out. Unless gas gets more expensive or carbon gets cheaper, the German government’s target for ending coal-fired generation by 2038 is likely to come 15 years or so early.
Remarkably, this trend is even sweeping up brown coal, or lignite, a cheap-and-dirty variety that’s been seen as more resilient than Germany’s costlier black coal. Lignite generation in the six months through June fell 28% from a year earlier at RWE, a drop of 9.9 terawatt-hours.
Even regions that were once viewed as the last hopes for coal demand are looking dicier. The pipeline of thermal power projects beginning construction in Southeast Asia has fallen to zero this year everywhere except in Indonesia. Even there, the capacity starting up is just 1,500 megawatts, equivalent to just five or six power plants, according to a report published Wednesday by Global Energy Monitor, a research group in favor of fossil fuel phase-out.
The world has gone through a remarkable energy transition over the past decade, but much of the shift still lies, iceberg-like, beneath the surface. Renewables are cheaper than coal almost everywhere, a prospect that was considered so improbable at the time of the 2006 Stern Review on climate change that it wasn’t treated as a serious possibility beyond a vague hope that research and development might one day flip the script.
The great hope for coal now is not that it will be able to survive in the free market, but that government support will come in to bail out an industry that can’t survive on its own, in the process locking in pollution-related disease and climate emissions for future generations.
It’s not impossible that this bet will work in a few regions — as exemplified by the speech given last week to China’s National Energy Commission by Li Keqiang, in which the premier sang the praises of domestic coal deposits and stepped back from previous promises to accelerate deployment of renewables.
Any industry that harms its consumers, pollutes the planet and depends for its survival on political support is living on borrowed time, though. The declines to coal-fired power on multiple continents are the death throes of a technology that’s rapidly heading towards obsolescence. Humanity will still struggle to reduce our emissions fast enough to avoid devastating climate change — but don’t be surprised if this industry falls even faster than people have dared to hope.