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  May 21st, 2018 | Written by

A Tale of Three Coal Markets

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  • Deep regional ties give coal an outsized role in US energy politics.
  • Coal makes up 15 percent of the total US energy mix and 30 percent of the electric power mix.
  • The power sector accounts for about 90 percent of coal use in the US.

The United States, China, and India together constitute about 70 percent of global coal consumption and 64 percent of global coal production. Each country is an important contributor to the global coal supply and demand picture and yet each stands at a very different stage in its relationship with coal.

The history of coal in the United States is predicated on a long-term decline in its share of the electricity fuel mix, but deep regional socioeconomic ties give the fuel an outsized role in national energy politics. Coal makes up 15 percent of the total US energy mix and 30 percent of the electric power mix while the power sector accounts for about 90 percent of coal use in the United States. Over the years, electricity demand has flattened thanks to strong efficiency gains. Moreover, the abundance of inexpensive natural gas and rapid decline in renewable energy costs have significantly diminished the competitiveness of coal-fired power generation. Unlike in China and India, the US coal fleet is in contraction as a wave of retirements is underway, with little evidence of reversal, indicating that the current downturn appears structural and not cyclical. After a recent period of decline and bankruptcy for the US industry, a political movement to revitalize the coal sector has emerged from the current presidential administration. Notwithstanding the renewed political support, however, the regulatory uncertainty clouds a future pathway for a coal power resurgence. The notion of economic and energy security benefits long associated with the use of coal has effectively disappeared in one of the largest producer and consumer markets for coal in the world.

China is far and away the largest coal consumer and has built coal-fired power generation capacity at an unprecedented rate over the past couple of decades. As it enters a new phase of development, China seeks to reduce the role of coal in its economy both to mitigate the environmental impacts of coal production and use but also to harness its domestic power consumption to drive its competitive advantage in things like solar, wind, and nuclear power generation. China has concrete targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ambitious plans, such as a nationwide emissions trading system, that can influence the pace and scope of shift in its power supply mix. Despite these government targets and the ongoing industrial structural reform that can reduce coal’s dominance in the electric power sector, the trajectory for coal use remains significantly subject to the future of state-owned enterprises and economic liberalization.

In contrast to the United States and China, India is a fast-growing market for coal where economic development and universal energy access goals often override concerns about environmental pollution and climate change. India also sees enormous opportunity in renewable energy development—for the positive environmental attributes, the potential commercial opportunities, and the ability to lessen reliance on imported sources of energy like oil, gas, and coal. The Indian central and state governments have set up ambitious policies to foster a greater share of renewable energy in the electric power mix. The growth in renewable power-generation capacity shows early indications that renewables as an indigenous resource have the potential to challenge not only coal’s economic advantage but also its energy security value propositions as an indigenous resource, warranting close attention for some potentially valuable lessons for power-sector management in other developing economies where renewables increasingly beat out coal. How India will calibrate its desire to phase out coal imports despite the quantitative and qualitative issues its domestic supply has is another issue with major implications for both global coal markets and the future of its power supply mix, particularly solar and wind.

Even as each market navigates a unique set of circumstances surrounding the role of coal-fired power generation, the availability of midstream infrastructure looms large as a universally important determinant of the competitiveness of coal resources, and thus the fuel hierarchy. Railways are the dominant mode for transporting coal in China and the capacity constraints continue to intensify, disadvantaging domestic resources to imports. Midstream is also a major topic in the United States, where a lack of west coast export terminals limits the US ability to take advantage of continued demand growth in Asia.

Low utilization rates also reflect the headwinds facing coal-fired power generation in all three countries. For example, US coal-fired power generation experienced a 20 percent decrease in coal fleet utilization rates and a 12 percent decrease in the generation capacity from 2015 to 2016. Also, while China is expected to add another 200 GW of new coal-power capacity by 2020, the utilization rate of 47.5 percent for the thermal power fleet in 2016 indicates a complex nexus between capacity investment and power demand in the country, where the capacity growth does not give a solid indication of electric power output or fuel consumption.

The local air pollution and climate implications of coal-fired power generation in each country also depend on the age of their fleet and capital stock turnover. The perceived future direction of coal in each country impacts the willingness of investors to upgrade or build new, more efficient plants. Whereas the ever-weakening coal-power demand in the United States is diminishing investor appetite for new coal plants with higher efficiency, lower emissions (HELE) technology, the capacity expansion in China is enabling the modernization of its fleet that includes more HELE plants. The pace and scope of modernization for India’s coal fleet, which is much younger yet remains low efficiency and high emissions today, will be an important indicator for its future emissions profile.

Lastly, various noneconomic forces at play can generate a tension between the needs of a changing electricity market and the political-economic pressures of expanding coal-power capacity. The coal sector enjoys a powerful narrative on its socioeconomic benefits like jobs and tax revenues for coal-mining communities, but enabled by technology advancements, the emerging focus on values like flexibility in the power sector has elevated attributes of many alternative sources of electricity, including renewables and natural gas in the United States. Likewise, the Chinese expansion of coal capacity appears to be misaligned not only with the projected level of power demand growth but also with government efforts to expand alternative sources of electricity, thus raising the risk of stranded or severely underutilized coal plant assets.

Jane Nakano is a senior fellow and Sarah Ladislaw is director and senior fellow at CSIS’s Energy and National Security Program. The full report “A Tale of Three Coal Markets” can be downloaded here.