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Sunday, 11 July 21
Coal use is surging in some of the world’s largest economies as electricity demand rebounds from the pandemic, illustrating the challenges to countries looking to wean themselves off the dirty but reliable fossil fuel.
Coal was in decline for years in many countries, but its use is now picking up in the U.S., China and Europe despite growing pressure from governments, investors and environmentalists to curb carbon emissions. The leading reason for the uptick—which has pushed coal prices to multiyear highs—is rising power demand as economies reopen rapidly from pandemic hibernation.
While analysts and executives say the resurgence of coal is likely to be short-lived, it shows the world’s continued dependence on fossil fuels until renewable-energy capacity grows further and storage technologies improve.
Countries have spent billions adding renewable-power capacity at record rates, but solar and wind projects generate electricity only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, and can’t be ramped up when demand rises. Those limitations mean the world is still reliant on fossil fuels, especially when there is a surge in electricity demand. Analysts say this will remain the case until more renewable capacity is added, along with storage such as batteries.
“It’s difficult to get off coal because of security of supply. At the end of the day you need to keep the lights on,” said Kathryn Porter, founder of energy consulting firm Watt-Logic. “When governments are faced with the choice of not supplying electricity, or using coal, they will use coal.”
The need for more coal is arising as economies recover. The global economy is expected to expand this year at the fastest pace since 1980, according to the International Monetary Fund, as advanced economies spend aggressively to counter the impact of Covid-19 and related lockdowns. The IMF said in April that it expects the world economy to grow 6% this year, after contracting in 2020.
In the U.S., improving economic conditions are forecast to boost retail electricity sales in the commercial and industrial sectors by 2% this year, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Coal supplied 23% of U.S. electricity production from the start of the year through mid-June, up from 17% in the same period of 2020, according to a Wood Mackenzie analysis of preliminary EIA data. The consulting firm attributes the rise to the economic recovery along with higher natural-gas prices, which have prompted some to turn to coal instead.
For Southern Co., an Atlanta-based power company that provides electricity and natural gas in the South and Midwest, coal accounted for 22% of its generation mix during the first quarter, up from 17% last year. The company said the uptick reflected an increase in electricity demand and natural-gas prices, as well as colder temperatures.
Credit-ratings firm Moody’s Investors Service expects U.S. coal consumption to increase by as much as 10% in 2021, boosting revenue for coal producers, though it still views the industry as one in decline as the power sector shifts toward renewable energy.
The two largest U.S. coal producers, Peabody Energy Corp. and Arch Resources Inc., each reported higher first-quarter demand for thermal coal, used in electricity generation.
“While we may see a temporary improvement in thermal coal demand due to accelerating economic growth, longer term we expect domestic and global thermal markets to remain challenged,” Arch Resources said in an April regulatory filing.
Most big global mining companies have continued to shed coal assets even as prices rally.
In Europe, coal use has risen this year in some countries, including Germany and France, according to consulting firm Energy Aspects. Its data showed the trend emerging in recent weeks in the U.K., which plans to phase out all coal power by 2024.
With electricity demand growing, European coal use also has been boosted by a shortage of gas supplies after a long, cold winter drained storage sites in the region. That in turn has boosted natural-gas prices, increasing the appeal of coal for some power producers.
In the U.K., which has shunned coal for renewable power in recent years, demand for electricity is such that the grid operator has issued six notices since November warning that the system could need more power. May 2016 had been the last time such a note was issued.
China is also feeling the pinch. There have been recent power outages in the country’s southern provinces because of growing power consumption, heat waves and a late rainy season that has hindered hydropower facilities, according to the National Development and Reform Commission.
For the first five months of 2021, China’s largely coal-fired thermal-power generation was up 16% from a year earlier, said the NDRC, which is the government’s economic-planning agency.
In May, plants in Guangdong, China’s manufacturing hub in the Southeast, were asked to curb power use and suspend operations for hours, or in some cases days. Under the NDRC’s guidance, the province stopped curtailing power usage from June 5 and instead has received electricity supplies from surrounding provinces.
Some analysts say the surge in coal demand is unique to the pandemic. They also note that the rise is off a low base after an exceptional fall in demand last year amid lower electricity use and cheap natural gas.
Other analysts and executives, though, say the resurgence of coal shows the challenge of curbing the use of fossil fuels for electricity generation even as renewables gain traction. The International Energy Agency forecasts renewables will surpass coal in global electricity generation by 2025 and account for 33% of the mix.
Initially, most grids can accommodate some solar and wind capacity and cope with the fact their output is dependent on the weather and time of day, sometimes using gas and coal power as backup. But as the percentage of electricity generation from renewables increases, the need for solutions to that intermittency grows.
Potential solutions include batteries that could store power over the seasons, as well as fleets of electric vehicles charging at times when renewable power is available, said Chris Kimmett, power director at grid-stability specialist Reactive Technologies Ltd.
“But we’re not there yet, which is why you see the immediate default to coal-fired power stations,” Mr. Kimmett said.
Some analysts say the problems caused by spikes in demand could be exacerbated as sectors that previously didn’t run on electricity, such as vehicles, make the switch before there is enough low-carbon power generation available.
For instance, in Norway, where sales of electric vehicles surpass those of cars with combustion engines, power consumption from electric transport is forecast to double to 2% of total demand in the next three years, according to consulting firm Volue ASA.
The rise in coal-fired power generation “reinforces the message to every government that we need to speed up the transition,” said Jonathan Cole, head of offshore wind at Spanish utility Iberdrola SA.
“Electricity demand will continue to rise as we electrify more areas of the economy, and it is unthinkable that coal can be part of the mix going forward,” he said.
Source: The Wall Street Journal

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