A joint report released Wednesday by the U.S.-based Global Energy Monitor (GEM) and Helsinki-based Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) found China built over three times as much coal-fired electrical power capacity in 2020 as the rest of the world combined.
As Voice of America News (VOA) delicately observed, this tremendous surge of coal-burning power plants, which are ostensibly one of the worst sources of global warming emissions, would seem to “undermine” China’s loudly declared “short-term climate goals” and Chinese dictator Xi Jinping’s promises to make his country “carbon-neutral” by 2060.
The GEM/CREA report found China’s coal power capacity grew by a net 28.8 gigawatts. China built coal plants at such a frantic pace, to provide cheap power for its swelling industrial capacity, that some of its coal plants might never repay their construction and maintenance costs:
China approved the construction of a further 36.9 GW of coal-fired capacity last year, three times more than a year earlier, bringing the total under construction to 88.1 GW. It now has 247 GW of coal power under development, enough to supply the whole of Germany.
A team of central government environmental inspectors delivered a scathing assessment of China’s energy regulator last Friday, accusing officials of planning failures and focusing too much on guaranteeing energy supply.
The NEA had allowed plants to be built in already polluted regions, while projects in less sensitive “coal-power bases” had not gone ahead, they said.
China has been criticized for pursuing an energy-intensive post-COVID recovery based on heavy industry and construction, and experts say new coal plants could end up becoming heavily-indebted “stranded assets.”
“The runaway expansion of coal-fired power is driven by electricity companies’ and local governments’ interest in maximizing investment spending, more than a real need for new capacity,” CREA lead analyst Lauri Myllyvirta judged.
Myllyvirta co-authored an essay in March that expressed similar confusion about China plowing ahead with coal power construction even though it already has “overcapacity” in its energy sector, over half of its coal power firms have trouble turning a profit, most of its existing plants are running at half capacity, and every “five-year plan” featuring rampant coal power growth makes Beijing’s promise of carbon neutrality in 40 years look more unrealistic.
The earlier essay speculated that China’s coal power industry was essentially running on autopilot, cranking out new plants years after the economic rationale for their construction collapsed because Beijing’s central planners do not respond quickly to market forces:
China’s economic system is based on abundant and cheap capital being made available to the state-owned sector with little concern for economic viability, as long as the investments made are broadly aligned with the five-year plans.
This system can mobilize vast amounts of resources, but is prone to over-investment, as companies and local governments use capacity expansion to boost GDP and gain market share. The planning machinery limits overcapacity with control policies – with varying levels of success.
Wired quoted Carnegie Mellon University economist Lee Branstetter making the exact opposite argument in November 2019: China is cranking out coal plants because the controls were decentralized in 2014, encouraging faster power plant construction to meet China’s surging energy needs.
“On the surface it sounds great: You’re decentralizing the permit process and making it simpler. But unfortunately for China, this opened the floodgates and resulted in an explosion of coal power plant construction,” Branstetter said, noting that deregulation came on the heels of 1990s energy policies that virtually guaranteed profits for power plants with extensive government subsidies.
All of these explanations stumble around the fact that China is an authoritarian dictatorship, and its absolute rulers are very well aware that coal power plants are under construction at a rampant pace, even as Xi and other top officials sing the praises of globalist climate change agreements.
Chinese officials have been sharply, even cruelly, restricting the use of coal by rural communities even as they burn gigantic amounts of coal in their power plants. Villagers complain about being forced to switch to unaffordable power sources, or simply being left to freeze without coal to burn. A viral video in December showed Chinese officials pouring cement into the little bedside stoves employed by humble villagers to stay warm in the winter. This level of heartless micromanagement is difficult to square with the notion of a government that cannot stop building huge coal-fired power plants because bureaucrats decided it would be a good idea ten years ago.
China is now well into the second “five-year plan” during which it indisputably knew it had to begin dramatically scaling coal power back to meet its nominal climate goals, but it tripled power plant construction instead. The response from the international climate change community has been little more than a few furrowed brows and awkward mutters about how those carbon-neutral promises from Beijing are beginning to look a tad improbable. The alternative explanation is that Beijing knows exactly what it is doing, and it has industrial ambitions for the future that will require all of the cheap and dirty power capacity it seems determined to build.