Source: Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis
Fossil-fuel advocates have a favorite rejoinder to those who predict a global shift to renewable energy: Coal has never been more popular.
It’s a decent argument because it happens to be true. While coal-fired power has declined by nearly a quarter in Europe and almost 40 percent in North America over the past decade, the change has been overwhelmed by a 63 percent increase in Asia.
That makes ambitions to prevent more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming seem all but out of reach. Making matters worse, there’s a further 236 gigawatts of plants under construction worldwide, according to the Global Coal Plant Tracker, an online database operated by climate activist groups. Put together, that’s enough to add another quarter to the current fleet of turbines.
The tide may finally be turning, though. Final investment decisions, or FIDs, for coal plants have fallen by about three-quarters over the past three years, from about 88GW over the course of 2015 to around 22GW in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency’s latest world investment report released this week.
The full significance of that figure isn’t apparent until you compare it to the pace at which plants are shutting down. Some 30GW of generators were retired last year, so more capacity was closed in 2018 than was approved – almost certainly the first time this has happened in a generation, and possibly the first time since the 19th century. When FIDs drop to zero, the 140-year era of coal plant construction will finally be over.
“This is a sneak preview of where we’ll be in three to four years time,” said Tim Buckley, director of energy finance studies at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a research group that favors energy transition. “If closures stay where they are, we’re at peak by 2021.”