Is coal too relaxed as renewables gear up for Asia fight?

By Reuters/Clyde Russell    June 13, 2017 | 04:38 pm GMT+7

The message from the coal industry was that they are still the cheapest.

When it comes to electrifying Asia the conventional wisdom has been that cheap beats green, meaning coal will continue to dominate the region's new power generation as renewables such as solar and wind can't compete.

However, there are increasing signs that this may not be the case anymore, at least not in every country in Asia, as renewable energy sources rapidly become cheaper and achieve the utility scale needed to ensure reliable generation.

The old and new paradigms were the focus at a high-level, invitation-only forum in Singapore last week, organized by the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (KAPSARC).

The representatives of the coal industry, as well as some respected industry analysts, presented a fairly bullish outlook for the period up to 2030, pointing to a strong pipeline of projects in both traditional coal buyers such as Japan, China and India, as well as new entrants such as Vietnam and the Philippines.

On the other side, energy and climate academics and representatives of think tanks pointed to the increasing cost-competitiveness of renewable power, mounting political and community pressure for cleaner energy and the potential disruptive influence of newer technologies such as battery storage.

Overall, the message from the coal industry was that they are still the cheapest, will be for some time and are therefore not going anywhere.

The word from the academics and energy policy specialists was that the coal industry is too comfortable and is largely unaware that it is actually now in an existential fight, and the forces arrayed against it are motivated and increasingly effective.

President Donald Trump's decision to pull the United States out of the Paris agreement on limiting carbon pollution hasn't been replicated across Asia, with top emitters China and India pledging to meet their commitments under the deal.

It's also becoming clearer that the forces pushing for increased use of renewables are moving to target countries planning to boost the use of coal.

The tactics are varied and include lobbying governments and industry, trying to restrict financing for coal-fired plants, public awareness campaigns and grassroots activism.

Up to now the efforts of the environmental lobby have largely been focused on developed countries, but they are now switching targets to include nations like Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, all of which are planning new coal generation.

Rapid advances in technology, such as battery storage, can also disrupt coal's advance in Asia, and this is likely to be a factor when banks, utilities and governments are deciding whether to spend billions of dollars on a new coal-fired plant that has a lifespan of at least 25 years.

Coal storm clouds gather

The evidence seems to be that while coal use in Asia is likely to rise in coming years as plants already under construction are commissioned, the longer-term outlook is becoming far less clear.

The amount of coal-fired generation capacity that started construction around the world in 2016 was 63.06 gigawatts (GW), 62 percent lower that in 2015, according to a March paper by environmental groups Coalswarm, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace.

The paper also identified a 164 percent jump in the amount of coal-fired capacity put on hold in 2016 from the prior year, although the actual amount of coal capacity operating globally actually rose 3 percent to 1,964 GW.

Breaking the data down by countries in Asia showed that China has 145.5 GW under construction, but 441.7 GW on hold, while India has 48.2 GW being built and 82.5 GW on hold.

Among emerging coal importers, Vietnam had 15.2 GW under construction and 2.8 GW on hold, Malaysia had 3.6 GW being built and the Philippines had 4.5 GW under construction and 0.9 GW on hold.

The coal industry would point to the fact that as of January this year some 272.9 GW of coal power is being built, while the environmental lobby may fire back that 607.4 GW is on hold.

One of the coal miners present at the KAPSARC forum said that his company was fielding numerous inquiries from utilities across Southeast Asia trying to lock in long-term supply deals for newly-built coal-fired plants.

But the miners also did express some caution about the outlook for seaborne imports to China and India, the world's two biggest importers.

China is trying to limit coal use in order to improve air quality in major cities and India's government has stated that it wants coal imports to drop to zero.

While India's aim of zero imports is fanciful, it's possible that it could drop down to a figure closer to 100 million tons a year, which would be sufficient to meet its needs for coking coal used to make steel, as well as thermal coal for coastal power plants that were designed to run on imported fuel.

This would be a drop of more than 100 million tons from the record 206 million India imported in 2015, and well below the 194.6 million last year.

A drop of such magnitude would likely outweigh any potential increase in seaborne imports by newer consumers in Southeat Asia.

The future of India's demand for imported coal is far from certain, but the trend seems to be clearer, and that's for lower imports.

India's ambitious targets for renewable energy may also crimp its need for more coal-fired power plants in coming years, and the record low prices achieved at recent market auctions for solar power supply show that coal has a fight on its hands.

Coal-fired power is still about half the price of liquefied natural gas in most Asian markets, meaning a U.S.-style natural gas revolution is unlikely in power generation.

But the rapid rise of renewables, coupled with an increasing focus on cleaner energy means that many Asian countries are likely to face a choice they haven't had before.

They can now be cheap and green, whereas before they could either be cheap or green.