The energy crisis has opened paths as inhospitable as they are difficult to digest. Coal, called for years to disappear from the map to avoid the worst climate change scenario, is on its way to closing a record 2021. The generalized increase in price of all fossil energy sources – especially gas, its natural heir as a supply backup in the electricity system – has caused a brutal increase in their price and a revived interest in various corners of the planet. In a short time he has gone from rhetorical ostracism to the front line.
The trend, which is also contributing to an especially icy start to the cold season in the northern hemisphere, with temperatures lower than usual, has short wings: the advance of renewables is unstoppable, and the obsolescence of coal maintains its valid in the medium term. But the temporary boom couldn’t be more dangerous and untimely, even more so when the success of the energy transition will be measured, in large part, by its ability to turn the page on coal as quickly as possible.
“It is filling the gap left by natural gas, both to avoid supply difficulties and because of its recent price rise,” says Samantha Gross, head of the Department of Energy and Climate Change at the Brookings Institution, one of the great centers of American thinking. However, he rules out that this situation continues over time. “Gas supply and wind power generation will rebound, and prices will normalize,” he predicts. “It is a temporary revival, not a permanent one.”
The still photo of this unexpected resurgence of coal is, in reality, the compendium of many images that, taken apart, would say little, but added together, say everything. And none of them invites tranquility. First stamp: Coal consumption will increase in 2021 in the United States for the first time in seven years (+ 21%) and will contribute almost a quarter of the electricity consumed. Second: while China promises not to finance more thermal power plants that burn this mineral abroad, more coal is emerging from its mines today than ever. Third: despite the fact that his weight in the mix Spanish electricity is already residual —1.8% this year—, the As Pontes (A Coruña) power plant, the most polluting in the country, has returned power to the grid up to three times this year, a path for which the Los Barrios plant (Cádiz) is also being prepared. And fourth: its price on international markets has more than doubled so far this year, after setting all-time highs in October.
Both mining companies and lobbies they feel swollen by the latest events. “The markets have spoken: the coal roars again”, said weeks ago the president of the US extractive employers, Rich Nolan. Their reasons are: in a matter of months they have gone from being several meters out of the game, trying to find solutions to capture the huge amounts of carbon dioxide they emit, to breastfeeding for this revival.
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No matter how conjunctural it ends up being, which it will be, the contrast between the current boom and the trend that should continue to straighten the course of global warming could not be greater. On the facts, the International Energy Agency projects that, after hitting an all-time high for coal-generated electricity this year, demand for the mineral will mark a new peak in 2022. In terms of wants, global consumption of Carbon should fall by 55% by 2030 and by 90% by 2050 to avoid an extreme climate scenario.
“It is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, and the historically high level of electricity generated with coal is a worrying sign of how far the world is from zero emissions,” criticizes the director of the OECD dependent body, Fatih Birol. “Without strong and immediate action by governments to tackle carbon emissions, the options for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will be small, if there still are.”
Despite the exponential increase in voices against it, the weight of this energy in the world electricity matrix remains around 40%, practically at the same levels of, attention, 1973, in the midst of the oil crisis. To a large extent, this percentage responds to its growing importance in emerging Asia, which brings together the most populated countries on the planet. China was the only major world economy in which coal consumption increased even in 2020, the crudest year of the pandemic, and it continues to grow at a rate of 9% this year. And the case of India is, if possible, more worrying: the International Energy Agency forecasts an increase in demand of 12% in 2021.
“Today coal is king, because it is cheaper than any other source of energy,” said Patrick Pouyanné, chief executive of the French oil company Total, in mid-October, ignoring, however, that the cheapest electricity comes from wind and solar. “It is true that the cost of generating renewable energy is zero once the solar panels or windmills are installed, but it is still much cheaper to build coal plants. Especially in Asia, which is where the demand for electricity continues to grow the most, ”says Sareena Patel, principal analyst for coal issues at the IHS Markit consultancy, by email. Hence, he says, the definitive cornering of this fuel is being much more complex than many anticipated.
Its survival, however, is equally striking in two of the largest European countries. In Germany, despite the fact that the new government coalition has promised to eradicate it from the energy matrix in 2030, the burning of this mineral has gone from representing 21% of the electricity generated in the first half of 2020 to 27% up to last June, surpassing wind power as the first source. And in Poland, by far the most problematic case on the Old Continent, it still accounts for almost three-quarters of the total electricity produced. They are the two large moles in a Europe embarked on an accelerated decarbonization process.