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Electricity generated by coal ‘may never reach 2018 peak again’

The amount of electricity generated by coal power plants has fallen temporarily during the Covid-19 pandemic, but researchers from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) believe this trend could continue long after the disease has been brought under control.

Their findings suggest the pandemic has opened a window of opportunity to continue the trend of decreasing the use of coal, which is the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. If governments support the right climate policy measures, power sector emissions could decline more rapidly than previously thought, they added.

“Coal has been hit harder by the corona crisis than other power sources - and the reason is simple,” explained lead author Christoph Bertram.

“If demand for electricity drops, coal plants are usually switched off first. This is because the process of burning fuels constantly runs up costs.

“The plant operators have to pay for each single ton of coal. In contrast, renewable power sources such as wind and solar plants, once built, have significantly lower running costs - and keep on operating even if the demand is reduced.”

Fossil fuels were partly squeezed out of the electricity generation mix in 2020 and global carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector decreased by around 7 per cent.

The UK even saw electricity generation from renewables overtaking fossil fuels for the first time in 2020.

The PIK researchers studied major energy markets like India, the USA and European countries, and found that while monthly electricity demand declined by only around 20 per cent compared to 2019, the monthly CO2 emissions decreased by up to 50 per cent.

The researchers estimate that it’s likely that emissions will not reach the all-time high seen in 2018 again.

“Due to the ongoing crisis, we expect that 2021 electricity demand will be at about 2019’s levels, which, given ongoing investments into low-carbon generation means lower fossil generation than in that year,” said co-author Gunnar Luderer.

“As long as this clean electricity generation growth exceeds increases in electricity demand, CO2 emissions from the power sector will decline. Only if we saw unusually high demand for electricity, along with surprisingly few additions of renewable power plants from 2022 to 2024 and beyond, would fossil fuel generation rebound to pre-pandemic levels.”

While the power sector has seen a dynamic transformation process even before the advent of Covid-19, the pandemic has weakened the market position of coal-fired power generation and illustrated its vulnerability.

“Our research shows that investing in fossil-fueled power is not only environmentally irresponsible - it is economically very risky,” said co-author Ottmar Edenhofer.

“In the end, it will certainly take carbon pricing to cut emissions at the required pace and stabilise our climate. Yet the impacts of the corona crisis on the power generation sector have put political leaders in a unique position. Along with additional policies such as eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels and increasing investments in wind and solar power, it is now easier than ever before to put an end to high-carbon electricity.”

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