The great Mark Twain passed away when the power grid was in its relative infancy, but one of his most popular quips could be justly paraphrased here. The death of coal is greatly exaggerated.
Yes, it’s been in decline due to health and carbon emissions concerns in the western world, but coal made a bit of a comeback in the second quarter this year—only slightly in the U.S. and more dramatically in the developing world, according to reports.
The biggest leap for the traditional power generation resource was in India, where the import of thermal coal rose more than 14 percent year over year, according to Reuters. The import of 43.4 million metric tons of power was a big lift and contradicted two previous years of declines, according to the story quoting data from Dubai-based coal trader American Fuels & Natural Resources.
India has 197 GW of coal-fired installed capacity as of March, according to reports, more than double what it was a decade earlier and more than 60 percent of the nation’s total generation mix. The nation’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has vowed to guide India toward greater renewables adoption, but must also get reliable power to much of a population still without it.
In the U.S., coal production rose in June to 62.75 million short tons, the highest monthly figure of the year, according to the Energy Information Administration data released this week. The total, however, was nearly 4 million short tons lighter than production in June 2017.
Even so, coal exports by U.S. miners saw a significant increase to nearly 21 million tons in May and June combined, six million tons better than the same two months of last year.
U.S. coal consumption continues to decline as power generators move to historically cheap natural gas and renewable resources. Dominion Energy’s Virginia unit, for instance, announced earlier this week it was aiming for an additional 3,000 MW in wind and solar by 2022.
Natural gas began rising above coal for predominance in the U.S. electricity generation mix in 2015 and has solidified that position despite some recent drops due to ever higher renewables adoption nationwide. The EIA reported earlier this year that the generation from fossil fuels declined last year, mostly due to 6.3 GW of coal-fired generation and 4 GW of gas-fired being retired in 2017.
The Trump Administration Energy Department has said it is worried about the impact of coal and nuclear plant retirements on grid resiliency and has advocated for pricing supports. Most of the industry and other regulators so far have rejected the idea of market intervention.
Developing nations are taking the opposite track from the western leaders such as the U.S. and Europe toward coal. They love it, want it, need it. Pakistan, Africa and India are growing the fossil mix, which creates a more globally diverse market for steam turbine manufacturers, including in China.
And no doubt coal looms large in China. Coal supplies about 62 percent of energy needs in the world’s most populous nation, according to various reports, making it clearly the biggest global market for thermal coal.
China is working to create more efficient coal-fired generation technologies and also exporting those projects to other nations such as Kenya, according to the Institute for Energy Research in an April report.
China is dominating the coal-fired generation growth in Africa, financing some half of more than 100 units planned, under construction or completed on the continent, according to the IER. This represents form 42.5 GW of potential capacity addition and would exponentially change the African generation mix in coal’s favor.
Coal-fired and other turbine technologies and developments remains a big part of the content at the POWER-GEN International Conference December 4-6 in Orlando, Florida. Click here for more information on POWER-GEN.
(Rod Walton is content editor for Power Engineering. He can be reached at [email protected]).