This paper in Nature shows that if the world including China and India gradually ramp up their commitments to become 1.5°C compatible, then the new coal fired power plants they built recently or are building right now will need to be used at low capacity or for a shorter than usual lifetime than the industrial average of 53% capacity for 40 years. However, that isn’t really anything surprising or unexpected, for instance this NGO report from March 2019 came to the same conclusion. There are some details about the way they did the analysis and the paper that gives a new slant on it all that is illuminating but it doesn't change anything about our prospects for staying within 1.5°C. It helps give an interesting sidelilght on how we need to do it, as India and China rapidly industrialize
Here is my tweet reply which summarizes the main point:
Nice study but consistent with IPCC report. China & India built many coal fired plants for security. As pledges increase they run must them low capacity or retire early. Costs of renewables keep falling as they gain experience and scale up mass production. https://t.co/1E7EPxX9GV— DoomsdayDebunked (@DoomsdayDebunks) July 3, 2019
As I say there, it is not really saying anything different from the IPCC in its big study in 2018 which showed that we can stay within 1.5°C using existing technology. This new study says that the most cost effective way to do the transition would be early retirement of the new fossil fuel fired power stations, and this is exactly what is likely to happen as the pledges are increased.
Once China and India have enough renewables in place to satisfy their power needs they will use the coal fired plants less and less. However until they have this industry up and running and at reasonable cost, they also are building power plants to help their economy industrialize. They need this as security for their people. This is true for other countries as well, but China and India make particularly large contributions to the total.
This phase is probably just about over now. A report earlier this year found that the number of new plants that construction has begun on has fallen by 84% since 2015 and fell by 39% in 2018 alone. The number of completed coal fired pants has dropped by more than half since 2015.
This is because of falling costs of renewables, also because more than 100 financial institutions have blacklisted them, and a result of political action to cut emissions.
It may seem foolish at first, for a country like China or India to build power stations they are not going to need later on. However, if you look into it in more depth, it makes more sense than you might think at first and doesn’t mean they are insincere about aiming to increase their pledges later on.
Renewables are a new technology that is also rapidly reducing in price, with high upfront cost and low running costs. Building coal power stations first, with lower upfront cost and higher running costs helps to ensure you have the capacity you need for your industry right away. This can actually be sensible in that situation, even when you know that you are not likely to use those power stations to capacity. It gives your people power security as they transition to renewables.
They say at the end of the abstract:
On the basis of the asset value per ton of committed emissions, we estimate that the most cost-effective premature infrastructure retirements will be in the electricity and industry sectors, if non-emitting alternative technologies are available and affordable
This is another article I'm writing to support people we help in the Facebook Doomsday Debunked group, that find us because they get scared, sometimes to the point of suicide, by such stories. Do share this with your friends if you find it useful, as they may be panicking too.
You can read the paper for free if you click through to the "new study" link near the start. It is compatible with what everyone else is saying, just a different way of looking at it. It is compatible with the IPCC study and the Nationally Determined contributions.
They show that China and India especially will need to use some of their new power stations that are already built or being built at low power levels, perhaps as low as 20% capacity or for a shorter time, 20 years instead of 40, or they can use carbon capture and storage technology retrofitted (but that is expensive).
Quote from paper about youth of the coal power stations in China:
Overall, the youth of fossil generating units worldwide is striking: 49% of the capacity now in operation worldwide was commissioned after 2004, and this share is 79% and 69% in China and India, respectively. The average age of coal-fired power plants operating in China and India (11.1 and 12.2 years, respectively) is thus much lower than those in the U.S. and the EU28 (39.6 and 32.8 years, respectively; with correspondingly longer remaining lifetimes. The predominance of young Chinese infrastructure (which extends to the industrial and transportation sectors) reflects the scale and speed of the country’s industrialization and urbanization since the turn of the century. As a result, infrastructural inertia is greatest in China, accounting for 41% of all committed emissions (270 Gt CO2; Fig. 1b). In comparison, infrastructure in India, the U.S., and the EU28 represents much smaller commitments: 57 Gt, 57 Gt, and 49 Gt CO2, respectively
They take all the power stations that are being built or already built and assume a 40 year lifetime at 53% capacity. They also assume all cars sold are used for 15 years, and work out how much CO2 they produce. More than half the emissions are from China which has large numbers of newly built or young coal fired plants for the power for its industrial growth - and this means that China is building a fair few power plants that will have to either be retrofitted with carbon capture and storage or need to run for less than 40 years.
However a lot of them are likely to be used for less than 40 years or run at less than full capacity - because they are rapidly building up a renewables industry too.
The Chinese target of 20% by 2030 is likely to increase to 35% by 2030 and the more they increase that target the less the coal fired power stations can be used. It means they have lots of spare capacity. Countries like to build in spare capacity. If the plant is used for 20% of capacity for 20 years then that's less than a fifth of the CO2 emitted in its lifetime and it is then easily 1.5 C compatible. This is their key figure on that, the black star shows their assumption of 40 years lifetime and 53% capacity.
They explain that for existing structures, the total emissions range from 226 Gt CO2 for 20 years and 20% up to 1479 Gt at 60 years and 80%. If you include committed structures they range from 263 to 1906 Gt.
This compares with the IPCC carbon budget of 420 to 580 Gt CO2 (for probability level 50 - 66 percent).
Notice how if they run the power stations for only 20 years or run at only 20% capacity then they are 1.5 C compatible.
If they do both hen they are well within 1.5 C compatible.
At the lower end of this range, as they remark, then they might not be able to get back the capital costs of the power station.
This may seem at first glance a foolish thing for India and China to do, to build so many power stations that they are not going to use fully. However, actually it’s a shrewd move in the situation of a rapidly industrializing nation. It is
- A safety net. They now they have that spare capacity. If they can ramp up their pledges, they never use it, but they can do those increased pledges, from a point of security that they know that their people will not run out of power for their industry.
- They need time to build up the technological capability to construct so many renewable based power stations so quickly, at low cost, and at an industrial scale. China particularly has built a vast industry almost from nothing in just a few years. They are already selling low price solar panels throughout Asia. You need to give them a few more years to fulfill its potential.
- You need to learn from your mistakes before you roll out a technology on a vast scale over all of China or all of India.
- You need to build in peaking power - especially as renewables increase to 100%. This is power that can respond rapidly, such as pumped hydro. If there is excess power the water is pumped up into the dam, if it is in need it is used to run the turbines and generate power. You can also use molten salt. Also once there is a large scale use of electrical vehicles, the batteries can be used to earn money while the cars are in idle by buying electricity from the grid at low cost when the grid has a surplus, and selling it back at higher cost when there is a deficit.
- You need to build long range HVDC transmission lines to help with fluctuations of power. For instance in the US, the wind power peaks at night but offshore wind power peaks in daytime. You also need to these cables to transmit the peaking power from hydro dams sometimes over great distances to the cities, or from solar panels in deserts that may also be located far from cities.
- There is a risk factor, or at least, a perceived risk factor with renewables because it is a new technology - it is natural for them to want experience with a few pilot and early plants first before rolling them out by the thousand. Meanwhile they have many decades of experience of coal fired plants and know they work well.
- The renewables have a higher up front cost - and then often very low to minimal running cost. India especially has many poor people who don’t have the capital available to add solar panels to their houses, even if it would save them money long term (this is partly why the Green Climate Fund can make a big difference to developing countries)
- Prices of renewables are going down constantly - by building them later then they cost less to build than the older power stations, and so also have a faster payback time. You are talking here about them perhaps costing half the price a few years later, so it is a significant factor.
- Partly it’s because they have limitations on top down control of what’s happening in the country. Even China doesn’t just tell people what to do. They have directives, incentives, regulations but it’s individuals who decide to build a power station or install solar panels.
China have already committed to peak emissions before 2030 and to achieve 20% renewables by then. They are expected to increase this commitment to 35% in the near future. If we are going to have a 1.5 C compatible future, then China absolutely has to increase their pledge much more. Eventually they need to pledge to something like 45% reductions by 2030.
If they do that, then it will mean a large proportion of their coal fired plants have to either be used at low capacity or be closed by then. I would think they would be more likely to run them at low capacity rather than close them because the multiple redundancy is a safety measure and keeps jobs going etc. Then start to close them from 2030 onwards. It's all well possible.
They are already building so many power stations they are likely to run at low capacity even with 20% renewables.
It’s the same for India. India actually has a moratorium on new coal fired power stations, but it has many in early stages of planning that they are still going to build. But at the same time they are pushing forward with renewables. Many of their fossil fuel power stations are likely to be used at much less than full capacity.
They say this in the paper, focusing on early retirement:
This analysis suggests that efforts to reduce committed emissions might cost-effectively target early retirement of electricity and industry infrastructure—despite their often powerful influence on policy and institutions—if non-emitting alternative technologies are affordable: the magnitude of commitments in these sectors is large and a single dollar of asset value is related to >10 kg of future CO2 emissions. Industry and electricity sectors in China represent especially prime targets for unlocking future emissions: nearly half (46%) of these sectors’ committed emissions are associated with Chinese infrastructure
Both China and India are taking measures to stop the construction of new power plants with China even mothballing ones that are already under construction.
India especially permitted less than 3 GW of construction in 2018 compared to an average of 13 TW from 2013 to 2017 and added more solar and wind power capacity in 2017 and in 2018 than thermal power. China mothballed many plants in construction phase, though it’s not clear what is going to happen to those long term, it may still build them.
China gave permits for only 5 GW of new coal capacity green lighted for construction in 2018, a new low.
The earlier report I mentioned came to the same conclusion as this paper, using the same average rate and lifetime, 52.8% capacity and 40 years:
So, it does seem that the days of rapid expansion of coal fired power stations may be over, though it’s possible it continues for a while longer in China. If it does, it’s still likely that those new power stations get under utilized or retired early, especially as renewables come down in cost and are able to produce power more competitively with coal.
For example, 74% of the US coal fired plants (211 gigawatts) according to one estimate are producing electricity more expensive than wind or solar.
Today, local wind and solar could replace approximately 74 percent of the U.S. coal fleet at an immediate savings to customers. By 2025, this number grows to 86 percent of the coal fleet.
With figures like that, and the costs of renewables going down, then coal fired plants can become less and less used just because of the expense of the electricity.
They can also build new power stations with carbon capture and storage or retrofit like this power station in the US. This is existing technology but expensive (perhaps it will go down with more use). This one partly pays for itself by using the captured CO2 to enhance extraction of gas from another field - so it is contributing to fossil fuel extraction, but we do still have to do that, until all cars are electric and all power stations are renewable - so you shouldn’t criticize a carbon capture and storage system for reducing the cost of fossil fuel extraction. Eventually the same infrastructure can be used to just store the CO2 without any fossil fuel extraction.
They can also use carbon capture and utilization. This is a growing technology.
The COSIA Carbon XPRIZE Challenge is a competition to convert CO2 into products with highest net value from either a coal or gas power plant. In April 2018, ten finalists were given $5 million each to demonstrate their technologies large scale in the real world. The winn&er gets a $7.5 million grand prize announced in March 2020.Click to watch on YouTube
Five of the ten are focused on carbon minerallization technology. One of them is a team from Aberdeen that hopes to use CO2 capture to make the entire concrete industry carbon negative. The Carbon Capture Machine precipitates it into calcium and magnesium carbonates (much like stalactites in caves) as a carbon negative replacement for ground calcium carbonate (GCC) which is needed for concrete. If this works on a commercial scale it can decarbonize the concrete industry, or 6% of the world’s annual CO2 emissions. If they can make it commercially viable, GCC has a market value of $20 billion.
Carbon Upcycling makes new CO2ncrete from CO2 and chemicals, competing directly with the $400 billion concrete industry - in places like California with a carbon tax and mandate for low carbon building materials.
CarbonCure Technologies injects CO2 into wet concrete while it is being mixed. They are already in commercial use with 100 installations across the US, retrofitting concrete plants for free then charging a licensing fee. It may take up to 20 years to be used on scale for reinforced concrete, because that’s needed as a durability testing period.
For more on this see Between a Rock and Hard Place: Commercializing CO2 Through Mineralization
(I’ve also added this section as an annotation to the out of date Wikipedia article: annotated Carbon mineralization )
See also my
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