What Next for Coal?

What next for coal?
October 2019

On November 9, 2016, many coal companies threw a party. As a candidate, Donald Trump repeatedly told cheering crowds he would “stop the war on coal,” bring back coal mining jobs and revitalize communities in the Midwest and Appalachia that depended on coal mines. Shares of mining and associated equipment and transport companies soared overnight. The late Chris Cline, once described as the “last coal tycoon,” was so pleased that he immediately contributed a million dollars to the inaugural celebration for Trump.

The party’s over.

Production of coal in the US in 2019 is forecast to be the lowest in 40 years, and has fallen 30% since 2010. Bankruptcies of previously celebrating companies are coming almost monthly. In May of this year, Cloud Peak Energy — one of the largest US coal miners, declared bankruptcy; its mines shipped 50 million tons of coal in 2018. In the recently concluded bankruptcy auction, lenders to Cloud Peak will get $16m in cash… for their over $300m in outstanding debts. In July, another large producer, Blackjewel, also filed. Large mines in the Powder River Basin and the Eastern US were closed. Two more large producers, Arch Coal and Peabody Energy, agreed in June to consolidate their seven mines as a strategy to remain in business. All of this 2019 activity comes on the heel of the October 2018 bankruptcy filing of Westmoreland Coal, the largest independent coal producer in the US: there being no bidders at auction, creditors holding $1.4 billion in claims have been left to try operate the company’s assets themselves to try and recover some cash.

The problem for the mines is the departure of customers, especially in the power industry. In the same US where Trump pledged to bring back coal, no one is investing either in coal-fired plants or coal mines. But plenty of these are closing, accounting for almost half of all coal-fired power plant closures worldwide. And as reported in September by Energy and Environment News, the size of the closed electricity plants is increasing (And Now the Really Big Coal Plants Begin to Close). Navajo Generating Station, which closed the first of three of its units in late September, will be one of the largest carbon emitters to ever close in American history. It will join the Bruce Mansfield plant in Pennsylvania and the Paradise plant in Kentucky as plants that have emitted over 100 million tons of carbon dioxide since 2010 and that will have shut down. Multi-state western utility PacifiCorp announced last week that it would close large power-fired plants in Montana, Colorado and Wyoming – in one case two decades ahead of schedule. In the Southeast US, the picture is the same as in the West: a report this week from IEEFA (Coal-Fired Generation in Freefall across Southeast US) notes a net decline of 48 since 2008 in the number of coal-fired generating plants in the region, with the share of coal generation dropping from 48% to 28% during that period.

The White House narrative on coal was, and continues to be, about regulation. But what happened to coal was not regulation – it was technology. First came the new technologies for drilling for natural gas (commonly lumped under “fracking,” but in practice a much broader set of technology breakthroughs, especially related to imaging of underground deposits), which increasingly made new coal-fired electricity generation uncompetitive with gas-fired electricity. Natural gas plants could also be turned on and off far faster than coal-fired electricity generators, meaning that gas rather than coal was in demand to act as “peak capacity,” when hourly demand from consumers would be above average and need to be closely matched by production. Then came the technology breakthroughs that drove down wind and solar generation costs, enabling electricity from new wind and solar plants to come in at costs less than half that from new coal plants. With new technology also sending energy storage costs plummeting, it will only get worse for coal.

Outside the US, the story for coal is similar: many country-level variants, especially in Asia, but the direction is the same. A report from Global Energy Monitor noted that the number of coal plants on which construction has begun each year has fallen by 84% since 2015, and 39% just in 2018, while the number of completed plants has dropped by more than half since 2015. Infrastructure Ideas’ series on the energy transition in Asia outlined how key policy choices under consideration may affect demand in many of the handful of countries where possible new coal generation is concentrated, namely India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan. A study by Carbon Tracker estimated that nearly half of China’s existing coal power fleet is losing money, and that it will become more expensive to operate coal in China than to build new renewables by 2021. A report issued in March by Energy Innovation and Vibrant Clean Energy claimed that replacing 74% of US coal plants with wind and solar power would immediately reduce power costs, at times cutting the cost almost in half. According to the analysis, by 2025, over 85% of coal plants could be at risk of cheaper replacement by renewables. Carbon Tracker came up with similar in a November global analysis of 6,685 coal plants. This found that it is today cheaper to build new renewable generation than to run 35% of coal-fired plants worldwide. By 2030, that increases dramatically, with renewables beating out 96% of today’s existing and planned coal-fired generation. Exceptions remain only in markets with extremely low fuel costs, where coal is cheap and plentiful, or with uncertain policies for renewables, like Russia.

For coal-based power companies, there is no longer much of a future in planning and building new plants. Revenues are declining as a number of existing plants are retired as they reach end-of-life, as we keep seeing in the US. With prices of electricity from natural gas-fired plants remaining low, and prices from new wind and solar plants continuing to fall, more existing coal-fired plants are becoming economically uncompetitive, and either running at low capacity or also being closed, though their technical end-of-life may still be several years away. So the future looks increasingly unprofitable.

There may, however, be an unexpected silver lining. Coal-based power producers may well have another big potential revenue stream out there. Just not the one anyone has been foreseeing, or one that has been there before. That potential source of new revenue? Getting paid to take plants offline. Sound odd? Indeed. There are, however, two big building blocks towards this possible future.

1) There’s a lot of coal left to retire, even with fairly high current retirement levels. China has more than 1 million Megawatts, or 1,000 Gigawatts, of capacity operating or under construction, while the US has over 250 Gigawatts left and the EU has over 150 GWs. And key policy choices in some Asian countries may lead to yet more build-out for a time.

2) Political pressure for action is going to get very high. New data on the pace of climate change and GHG emissions levels is unidirectionally alarming. Every new review of climate change finds it to be proceeding faster than previously expected, and emissions levels remain well-above scenarios for lower levels of temperature rise. With every passing year, potential mitigation plans will become more and more aggressive, calling for faster and deeper cuts in emissions.

Faster and deeper cuts in global GHG emissions are highly unlikely to be achievable without early retirement of the large existing coal-fired fleet. And changing economics do not always translate rapidly into retirement of existing producers. Which makes it likely that at some point, in the not too distant future, closing existing plants faster than they would close on their own will become a top public policy priority. Closing existing plants might be done by political fiat, or, it could be done by paying coal-fired plants to go away. It may well prove that paying them could be a faster way to achieve closure, avoiding drawn-out litigation around contractual rights.

For coal executives, the best hope for offset continued revenue decreases may well be to hope for the creation of a publicly-funded “close coal plants now” funds. It does sound odd, but it may well be their best bet. And in the US, which political party is most likely to favor using increased public funding to achieve a policy objective? It’s not the current occupants of the White House.

Difficult to conceive, but it may come to be: coal executives for… Democrats?

Infrastructure Ideas will explore these plant retirement issues in its next two posts of this series: The Coming Decommissioning Wave, and Blue Coal?

Capital Punishment

Capital Punishment (or, so long, Jakarta)
September 2019

During the last week of August, President Joko Widodo announced that Indonesia would develop a new capital city in Borneo, and move government offices there from Jakarta, Indonesia’s historic capital. The combination of Jakarta’s own sinking – as it pumps so much water from its underground aquifer that part of the city is subsiding a foot a year – and a rising Java Sea, has spelled the end for one of Asia’s largest cities (Jakarta is sinking so fast, it may wind up underwater). This big decision will have immense repercussions – and Indonesia may well prove to be a trendsetter.

Who’s Next?
Jakarta may be the first capital to be relocated as a consequence of climate change, but it will have company soon. For those looking at Jakarta as an aberration, let’s look at two things. First, nearly two-thirds of the world’s major cities are on a coast: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Mumbai, Shenzen, Singapore, Stockholm, Barcelona, New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Montevideo, Dar Es Salaam, Capetown, Algiers, and a list way too long to continue. Second, expectations for sea level rise. For those who don’t look at this issue often, well, fasten your seat belts. At the time of the Paris Climate Summit in 2015, expectations for sea level rise to 2100 tended to see 3 feet as a maximum, with rise in subsequent centuries depending on emissions. By the end of 2017, two years later, 3 feet was beginning to be seen as a minimum sea level rise for the century, rather than a maximum. NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), supposedly an authority, projects 8 feet. Maximum potential sea level rise by 2100 in some studies, in the lifetime of most of today’s younger generation? 20 feet.

Twenty feet higher shorelines sound far more threatening than three feet. Which will be right? Well, unfortunately, it’s very hard to tell. And the projections are changing rapidly. Part of the answer depends on GHG emission scenarios in the future. But a very big part of the answer depends on how fast ice melts where it locks up water in glaciers. A key problem in looking ahead, as well-framed by David Wallace-Wells in his excellent book, The Uninhabitable Earth, is that the break-up of ice represents an entirely new physics, never observed in human history and still poorly understood. When we look at what is actually happening with ice melt, it paints a grim picture. A new study in 2018 found that the melt rate of the great Antarctic ice sheet tripled from 1992 to 2017, a pace which makes 20 feet by century-end is no longer out of the question. The Greenland ice sheet alone is losing almost a billion tons of ice every day. And in 2017 it was discovered that two glaciers of the East Antarctic sheet were losing 18 billion tons of ice a year; if/when both go, scientists expect 16 feet just from the two glaciers. Sound bad? Projections are getting worse, quickly. Melt of the two Antarctic ice sheets – parts of which are visibly melting far faster than had been anticipated only a few years ago — could raise sea level by 200 feet. And as science journalist Peter Brannen noted, the last time the earth was 4 degrees warmer, sea level was 260 feet higher.

How threatening all this is also depends on expectations of time. 2100 sounds very far away, even though a substantial portion of people alive today will be alive then. Sea level rise, in most people’s understanding, will be very slow, and there will have been plenty of time to “solve” the problem. However… The other piece we’re learning about in terms of ice melt is, well, it can happen not so slowly. As noted by Bill McKibben in his latest book, Falter, in the distant past, sea levels often rose and fell with breathtaking speed. 14,000 years ago, at the end of the Ice Age, huge amounts of ice thawed, raising the sea level by sixty feet, with 13 feet perhaps having come in a single century. Last month, Scientific American highlighted a study which articulated the direction in which projections are clearly heading:

Scientists have been underestimating the pace of climate change. It was reported recently that in the one place where it was carefully measured, the underwater melting that is driving disintegration of ice sheets and glaciers is occurring far faster than predicted by theory—as much as two orders of magnitude faster—throwing current model projections of sea level rise further in doubt. When new observations of the climate system have provided more or better data, or permitted us to reevaluate old ones, the findings for ice extent, sea level rise and ocean temperature have generally been worse than earlier prevailing views.

For those who have lived or traveled in the American northwest, the recent understanding of the glacial floods which shaped the basin of the Columbia River has some sobering resonance. Geologists now understand that the mechanics of that ice melt, when the glaciers of then Lake Missoula were thawing, were such that melt built-up behind a wall of ice, and when that plug let go, water rushed out of the melted glacier down the valley in a wall estimated to be… 2,000 feet high – enough water fast enough to have emptied the equivalent of Lake Michigan in two days.

So, if you worry about 4-8 feet rise in sea levels, things could be a lot worse! And even 4-8 feet, while it may be very aggressive compared to other projections, means that as much as 5% of the world’s population will be flooded every single year.

The move
What is Indonesia doing, then? How will the change of location of the capital work? Much remains unclear, but announced plans call for construction of the first phase of the new city to begin in 2021 and to be finished by 2024. The entire city, targeted for completion in 2045, will occupy about 495,000 acres of land, twice the size of New York City. The proposed location in Borneo is near the relatively underdeveloped cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda. President Widodo noted that moving the country’s capital will be a mammoth and expensive undertaking. Estimated cost, according to the planning agency: US$34 billion. Chances of that being the final cost? Very low.

To fund this move, the Government has flagged some interesting ideas. Which, somewhat strangely, rely heavily on leaving Jakarta itself (the city, not the “capital”) where it is and selling land there to the private sector. This envisions a national capital move somewhat like those to Brasilia, or Abuja, where “just government” moves. A Finance Ministry official said the leasing of government-owned land and properties in Jakarta to private companies could help it raise 1/3 of the amount needed to develop the new capital site. On top of that private companies could be given a property such as a ministerial building in Jakarta in exchange for building a similar facility in the new capital, and government-owned land and properties in Jakarta could be sold to private companies. In fact, the Government has announced that it will spend more (!) money “rejuvenating” Jakarta than it plans to spend on the new capital. This includes US$22 billion for the development of public transport such as the extension of the Jakarta mass rapid transit and light rail transit network, $6B for delivering clean water to all city residents, and $5B for flood mitigation.

Homeowners across the world affected by rising seas, or at this stage just by increased flooding from extreme weather events, have been faced by the “stay or move” dilemma driving Indonesia’s move of its capital. Most respond to this choice with “stay”, at least initially, and many residents of Jakarta are in that camp. It is very expensive for homeowners to respond with a “stay and move” approach, as Indonesia has for now announced. Chances are pretty good that it will prove too expensive for Indonesia. And, given how projections for sea level rise are getting worse, the appearance of there being a choice may be illusory. We’d give pretty strong odds that not much will be happening in Jakarta by the end of the century (one model shows 95% of north Jakarta underwater by 2050). Yet this same dilemma is coming soon to a city near you. A late 2018 report stated Los Angeles would need to spend at least $6B to avoid slipping into the sea. Last month Wired reported the cost of protecting US cities from sea level rise at over $400 Billion. Even in the wealthy USA, it’s not clear where this kind of money might come from. Voters of high-income San Francisco approved a $425 million climate change protection bond — to pay for only 1/4 of the costs of fortifying a seawall. China may find the money to fortify Shanghai and Shenzen, and Singapore may also figure it out. But for capitals of low-to-mid income Emerging Markets, like Indonesia, where the money comes from will be a huge issue — soon. And without money to fund the “stay” option, or with “stay” being perhaps at best a delay in the inevitable “move,” chances are pretty good that a much higher percentage of affected low-to-mid income than OECD country capitals will move – or drown…

Infrastructure implications
The infrastructure implications of moving a capital city are, of course, major. It’s not just people who need to be moved, but power plants, ports and airports, which are also affected by sea level rise. Then new roads, water and sanitation fixed infrastructure will be needed wherever the new capital is located. Each part of that infrastructure is likely be somewhat different. Thermal power plants, often located near demand center capital cities, may have somewhat lower moving costs – the assets can be moved and used in a new location, or it may in any case be cheaper to replace them with lower-cost renewables, depending on the situation. Ports may stay put, as they’re by definition a coastal asset, so costs will relate more to raising of facilities, and so be lower than greenfield assets. Airports likely will need to be rebuilt as greenfield near the new capital, so will have the same higher price tag as roads, water and sanitation. To some extent, urban transport infrastructure in a newly designed city may benefit from new mobility technologies which have arisen in the last few years — though it is unclear whether benefits would be mostly from increased access and user convenience, or also in terms of lower capital costs. Water and sanitation will probably be more expensive than earlier investments, as both coastal and inland cities are likely to need flood management investments from more intense rainfall events. But even without numbers, or more precision, one can tell that moving a capital is going to be an expensive proposition.

Adaptation to climate change will have very large implications for infrastructure. Many more coastal cities will be faced with the kind of decision Jakarta has made. If they “stay,” there will be significant new infrastructure to protect themselves against sea level rise, and spending to protect (or in some cases “move”) existing infrastructure. And as seas continue to rise, the decision points and spending needs will keep recurring. If they “move,” then like “new Jakarta,” there will be massive spending for infrastructure in their new location. Some cities may, of course, do nothing. In which case, future refugee movements may well dwarf those which are already stirring politics in so many countries.

Asia’s Energy Transformation: India

Asia’s Energy Transformation: India
August 2019

This is the fourth in a series on the ongoing, large-scale transformation of energy use in Asia. Previous columns have focused on Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia. As we noted in earlier installments of the series, Asia is the most important global market for energy consumption, investment, and greenhouse-gas emissions. And it is a region undergoing a large-scale energy transition, whose unclear evolution has more importance to the future of both climate change and energy investments than that of any other region.

With over 1.3 billion people, India is the world’s second most populated country, and accounts for about 18% of all the people who live on earth. Somewhere around 2024 India will become the most populated of all. Yet it consumes only about 5% of the electricity produced globally. About 200 million people in India live without electricity, and about twice as many have access for less than six hours a day. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, elected in 2014, has made it a priority to change this, and provide universal electrification in India. Plans provide for roughly a tripling of the country’s electricity generation over the next two decades, a central plank to India’s development and poverty-reduction efforts. Good.

When Prime Minister Modi took office, 2/3 of all power produced in India was generated from coal. Were the plan to triple power generation to succeed the same profile of where power comes from, it would imply adding more greenhouse gas emissions annually than the amount produced annually by the United States. Bad. So Modi has also proposed an unprecedented ramp-up in renewable energy generation. India’s ability to raise electricity availability is critical to development and poverty reduction, yet how it does so will also have a crucial impact on the global environment. So India’s energy challenge is one in which both India and the rest of the world have a huge stake.

The good news is that so far, India’s bet on renewable energy has succeeded far better than most observers expected. Five years ago, when Modi was elected, India’s total renewable energy production capacity was 34 GW, about 10% of its power capacity, mostly consisting of hydropower, with solar capacity at a tiny 1.5 GW. Today renewable energy capacity stands at 80 GW, with essentially all the growth having come from solar and wind farms. This has vaulted India up to 5th globally in renewable energy production, behind China, the USA, Brazil, and Germany, and 4th (ahead of Brazil) if hydropower is excluded. The country’s well-publicized 2022 renewable energy target (just three years from now) is 175 GW, more than double current capacity – and about equal to current combined wind and solar capacity of the USA, or to the world’s total generation capacity from wind and solar power a short decade ago. Doubling wind and solar capacity in three years would seem nearly impossible – except for the fact that this is exactly what India has done over the previous three years.

A big part of this success story, as has been the case in other countries bringing on stream large amount of solar and wind power, has been rapid price decreases. As renewable auctions got underway in Brazil, South Africa, and other places, driving costs down by 75% in 3-4 years in several countries, India seemed like it would be on the outside looking in at the renewables boom. With high foreign exchange risks, government bureaucracy, and loss-making state-owned electricity distribution companies, analysts initially thought India would find it hard to bring solar costs down below $0.10/KwH – double what some countries were seeing, and well above the cost of alternative ways to raise electricity production, mainly through coal. Yet India managed to become a part of the global solar boom, with prices dropping almost monthly for three years. The cheapest prices offered for generating solar have come down to $0.036/KwH (still double world lows – see And Prices Keep Falling), or about half of what power from a greenfield coal-fired plant could be expected to cost.

In a country as large as India, with states as politically diverse as it has, it is unsurprising that adoption of renewables has varied widely across the country. Rajasthan and Gujarat have two of the largest solar programs and the lowest prices. Tamil Nadu’s late 2017 solar auctions brought signed offtake agreements at $0.054/KwH, compared to previous capacity additions there at $0.12. Renewables there are set to account for 35% of total generation capacity in the state. Karnataka and Telangana each added 2 GW in 2018. Several states, however, have no solar generation at all. The government of one state, Andhra Pradesh (AP), has managed to be good news and bad news all in one. On the one hand AP announced a very large short-term target of installing 18 Gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022, almost 20% of the total national target for the period, and tripling AP renewable capacity. Good news. On the other hand, in May newly elected AP Chief Minister Jaganmohan Reddy called for retrospective renegotiations and cancellation of existing contracts for wind, solar and storage contracts in the state. Bad news. At issue is that prices for renewable capacity contracted in the previous 5-6 years are now much higher than prices based on rapidly advancing technology. Not that previously contracted prices are particularly high in AP – tariffs being contested are in the range of 5-8 cents/KwH. These are still attractive prices relative to power generation costs in many countries. The AP problem, however, which is not unique to AP, is that a combination of gross inefficiencies in the state-owned power distribution companies (India has the highest grid losses of any country in Asia, at an average of 25%) and subsidized prices for some consumers means that state-owned distribution companies are virtually bankrupt, and the new Chief Minister seeks to squeeze improvements any way he can. Andhra Pradesh Southern Power Distribution Company (APSPDL) and Andhra Pradesh Eastern Power Distribution Company (APEPDCL), have lost $220m together in the last year. You can see the political logic driving him, but the cost in lawsuits, and the driving away of operators from AP – reducing competition for future capacity bids – is likely to be a very steep price for breaking contracts. As India looks to achieve its 175 GW target for renewable capacity by 2022, and equally ambitious capacity growth targets beyond this, the roadblocks that have stymied even faster growth will have to be overcome.

Roadblock #1 to faster renewable growth in India is the coal lobby. This consists of many actors, the most powerful of which is Coal India Limited, who among other things provides significant tax revenue and employment in India’s poorest states. Indian Railways transports most coal and over-charge for coal transport to subsidize passenger prices. And even as Modi’s government sets highly aggressive targets for the growth of renewable energy, it has continued to declare in parallel that it will build more coal plants on a large scale. Roadblock #2 remains the credit risk of state-run off-takers. India’s distribution companies collectively lose hundreds of billions of dollars a year – despite the fact that new power sources are getting rapidly cheaper. Most would be bankrupt if not haphazardly propped up by governments. It’s a very large-scale problem: A new World Bank report titled, “In the Dark: How Much Do Power Sector Distortions Cost South Asia,” says India’s power sector inefficiencies cost the economy about 4% of GDP a year. And it’s a big problem for new renewables producers whose financial future depends on their off-takers being able to pay their bills. Roadblock #3 is predictability, along with India’s tradition of economic statism. One example is attempts to renegotiate contracts for political purposes, as seen above in the case of Andhra Pradesh. Another is the attempt to force government-owned firms into the picture. That until recently solar and wind auctions in India had functioned as they have everywhere else, with private sector firms being the bidders to provide new capacity, has run against some of India’s economic traditions. Especially in infrastructure, India’s history is one of state control. This June, India tried to turn the clock back in this direction with an auction for 1.8 GW of new solar capacity… which was only open to state-run firms. Though it seemed a shock to the organizers, it was not a shock to anyone else when the auction was undersubscribed by 2/3, drawing bids for just over half a Gigawatt. Very few state-owned companies (leaving aside partially state-owned exceptions such as Italy’s ENEL or France’s EDF) are nimble enough to keep moving down the production cost curve as aggressively as private producers have done this last decade.

These are pretty big roadblocks. In spite of the historic growth of solar capacity, many observers still believe coal will continue to dominate power in India (see Coal is King in India – and Will Remain So, from Brookings). India is the third-largest coal-fired generation producer globally, behind only China and the USA. Even at the impressive level of 80GW, renewables account for only 40% of the electricity generating capacity that coal-fired power does. And when generation factors are accounted for (meaning how often wind and solar plants are producing actual electricity), coal produces still 7 times the power that renewables do in the county. In 2015, India had plans for adding another 100 GW of coal-fired power generation over 5 years, which briefly became (as China’s announced programs shifted) the largest single-country pipeline in the world for new-build coal capacity. Nonetheless, the coal lobby has a big problem of its own. While formerly expensive solar is getting cheap, formerly cheap coal is getting expensive. Since 2007, bid prices to provide new coal-fired have essentially doubled, from as low as $0.036/KwH to $0.07 by 2013. The average price for coal-fired power on Indian exchanges in 2018 hovered around 7 cents/KwH. And while new renewable PPAs are price-fixed without inflation (meaning real prices on the contracts will actually decline over time), coal power is subject to inflation in the price of coal and other operating costs. Transport inefficiencies, disruptions in imported coal supply (as many coal mines cease to operate due to declining or unpredictable demand), and problems in the domestic mining sector have contributed to the rise, and decline in prices is unlikely. Some new coal plants are being commissioned (about 3 GW in 2018), though decommissioned older capacity means net coal generation is no longer growing. At least for now. This compares with net additions of thermal generation capacity of 20 GW annually from 2012-2016. And four years into the announced plan to add 100 GW of new coal-fired power from 2015 to 2020, only about 10% of this has been built. Plans still call for another 90 GW of new plants by 2026. Let’s see. Either way, the consequences of the next set of procurement decisions will be very large.

As the political power of coal and the economic gains of renewables square off, the future direction of energy in India may depend in large part on developments in energy storage (see Fortune India — Why Storage is the Next Big Thing). The issue with solar and wind is of course their intermittent nature. This is a manageable issue when intermittent power accounts for a small share of total electricity on a grid. Though that share is growing in India, the technical weaknesses of India’s transmission grids means problems occur at lower penetration levels of intermittent power, and Indians are naturally loath to see more country-wide blackouts as the monster experienced in 2012. Therefore the potential value of energy storage, enabling renewable energy to be released to the grid at times when wind is not blowing or sun is not shining, is even higher in India than in other places. As a forthcoming Infrastructure Ideas column will review, battery storage costs continue to plunge worldwide, and storage + renewables projects are beginning to replace even relatively cheap gas-fired capacity in the US and elsewhere. The Government issued its first large-scale tenders for storage in March 2019, and states are beginning to follow suit. The cabinet has approved a National Mission on Transformative Mobility and Battery Storage, which aims also to manufacture batteries on a large scale domestically. With India’s world-class engineering skills, one should expect energy storage built in India to be cost-competitive with storage projects in the US and Europe.

Compared to the ongoing energy transition in other countries, the above snapshot may seem to be missing a third player: natural gas-fired electricity generation. In the US, gas has played the largest role in recent energy shifts, and it is playing a big role in new capacity plans in China, the Middle East, and Latin America. It is also a key question mark for Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Indonesia. For India, there is less to talk about. Sure, India is building both gas import terminals and new gas-fired plans. There are offshore gas reserves, as there are for Bangladesh. But the scale, relative to the massive existing coal fleet and the massive renewable plans, is hardly worth talking about. It could become a bigger factor in the equation for India, but only if (a) the government allows prices for domestically produced gas to come closer to international prices, and (b) it also supports investment in transporting gas throughout the country.

Hydropower will also play some role, though the better hydro sites in India have already been developed, and recent dam-building history is filled with cost overruns, social displacement and construction problems, so it’s hard to see this as more than a minor actor. In Eastern India, imports of hydro-produced power from Bhutan, and maybe gas-fired power from Bangladesh, may play a regionally more important role. But on the large scale of large India, this is not where the main battle will play out.

Keep an eye on India. The development and living standards of hundreds of millions depend on continued economic progress there. As does the extent to which the planet will get hotter. High stakes. And a Top 3 coal power going against a Top 3 renewables plan – the stuff of Bollywood epics for years to come…


Asia’s Energy Transformation: Bangladesh

Asia’s Energy Transformation: Bangladesh

This is the second in an Infrastructure Ideas series looking at the way energy use is changing in Asia’s major economies, and the momentous choices facing policy-makers there today. Following the previous post covering Pakistan, this post features the world’s 8th most-populous nation – and the country with one of the five biggest project pipelines for new coal-fired generation: Bangladesh.

Bangladesh, known as East Pakistan from 1949 to 1972, is the most densely populated country in the world. Its energy profile has many similarities with that of Pakistan: both countries have enjoyed significant domestic natural gas resources, which played a major role in the development of the countries’ power grids – Bangladesh’s even more than Pakistan’s. Both Pakistan and Bangladesh are relatively low-income, and have among the lowest per capita levels of energy consumption in the world, and among the highest aspirational rates of growth for future energy consumption (Bangladesh’s growth rate has been in the 6-7% per annum range). Both countries subsidized consumption of domestic natural gas resources by keeping prices well below those prevailing internationally, and in part as a result reserves have been in decline and the ability to keep supplying gas-fired power plants is now in question. Both countries have largely untapped domestic coal reserves, generally of low quality, and coal enjoys a major role in future energy planning in both. Bangladesh and Pakistan are also late-comers to renewable energy (leaving aside Pakistan’s large hydropower capacity), with Pakistan having turned somewhat earlier to initial wind and solar power auctions.

Critically, both countries face a similar fork in their energy roads: build substantial new coal-fired electricity generation capacity – potentially making them among the 3 or 4 largest builders of new coal plants in the world – or encourage large-scale development of wind and solar power. The policy choices these two countries make will have major implications for their economies and people, as well as for global climate.

Thinking about growth is essential for understanding Bangladesh’s energy choices. The country’s total power generation capacity in 2015 was only 10 Gigawatts: more than 40 countries produce more electricity than this, while only 7 have more people than Bangladesh. And this is after roughly doubling Bangladesh’s capacity in the last decade. Bangladesh’s energy policy calls for raising power capacity by 2030 to 30 Gigawatts – triple the amount of electricity produced today. That’s growth! Bangladesh needs this much power, both to make up for its very low current consumption, and to support the high growth rate of its economy.

The issue for the country is that its current sources of energy cannot keep up with existing capacity, let alone this projected tripling. Today three-quarters of electricity in Bangladesh is supplied by natural gas, and Bangladesh is running out of it. Reserves are projected to be exhausted somewhere around 2029. Taking advantage of the changes in the natural gas industry – which in the last decade have made it an internationally traded commodity – Bangladesh has begun to invest in import terminals to bring external natural gas into the country. This makes plenty of sense as policy. However, the new imported gas is likely to be needed entirely to substitute for declining domestic gas sources, and is unlikely to be a major source of new capacity. Concerned as well as it is by today’s over-reliance on gas, Bangladesh’s government has focused on diversifying energy sources, which again makes sense. The question is how best to do this.

The Government of Bangladesh’s stated energy plans have for years focused on one principal answer: develop coal. While coal produces less than 500 MW of electricity in Bangladesh today, government projections have shown 2030 capacity as high as 20 Gigawatts – essentially all the planned increase in electricity production for the country. A 20 Gigawatt coal-fired pipeline would place Bangladesh – which is not in the 40 largest power producers today – 5th in the world in new coal-fired capacity: after only China, India, Vietnam and Indonesia. Bangladesh also has an important friend ready to support this policy choice: China. Bangladesh is a country of focus for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and for Chinese financing generally. IEEFA has reported that Bangladesh has the most proposed coal-fired capacity and funding offered from China of any other country, totaling $7 billion for 14 Gigawatt of capacity (somewhere between 1/3 and ½ of total estimated costs for these projects).

Aside from China, support for coal-fired development draws from two other major sources: one, an outdated sense of economics, and two, perceived greater profitability. Bangladesh has been worrying about running out of natural gas and needing new energy sources for over a decade; during most of this time, coal has been accepted as the lowest-cost alternative, and still today many planners and onlookers think of it that way. Given the historical subsidy for domestic gas, electricity has been relatively cheap for Bangladeshis, and politicians are wary of new capacity forcing a sharp increase in prices. This sense of coal’s cheapness has fallen out of tune with today’s realities, but opinions have been slow to adapt. Coal-fired plants are also, universally, very large projects. Very large projects also, universally, give the greatest opportunities for large profits – regrettably often of the corrupt kind: it is much easier to get rich skimming off a mega-project than from dozens of small-to-mid-size renewable projects. Coal-based electricity also means large-scale domestic coal mining, with similar opportunities.

The big drawback for a coal-based plan for Bangladesh is economic reality. The perception of coal’s cheapness does not match its real costs (and here we only mean economic cost, without speaking of externalities like emissions). Developing Bangladesh’s coal mines will be very expensive, and very large greenfield projects also come with very large risks of delays and cost overruns. Transporting the coal to power plants can also be expensive. Importing coal also has high transport costs, as Bangladesh has virtually none of the needed import infrastructure it would require to feed several coal-fired plants. So coal feedstock is not likely to prove very cheap. A best case, looking costs in neighboring India, is that Bangladesh would produce coal-fired electricity at $0.08/ kilowatt hour – about the average retail price for electricity in the country today. More likely, with all the required ancillary infrastructure, large-scale coal power would cost at least $0.10/ kilowatt hour.

By contrast, auctions almost everywhere for wind and solar power are seeing prices at $0.07/kilowatt hour – even at $0.03/kilowatt hour in a handful of countries. Prices for generation continue to drop. Prices for energy storage, required to make intermittent wind and solar power available around-the-clock, are also dropping fast. The economics of wind and solar will increasingly be better than those of large-scale coal.

The problem for Bangladesh and its policy-makers today is that successful auctions for large-scale wind or solar power require significant planning. Planning is required not only for the new generation plants, but also for associated storage, and for upgrading the transmission grid to deal with large amounts of intermittent power supply. The planning is made trickier due to the lack of available land in Bangladesh, unlike in Pakistan. While Bangladesh has some excellent people resources in its ministries and administration, it doesn’t have a great many of them. One dead-end answer being looked at has been to have the government be the one to build solar plants: this has not worked anywhere outside China (excluding China, wind and solar generation is nearly 100% privately owned), including countries with much more public execution capacity than Bangladesh.
Still, this looks like a better set of problems to have to solve than those associated with coal.

These are big decisions for Bangladesh. Get it wrong and power prices will go up, with attendant political risks. Do nothing, and the economy will strangle for lack of power. Do coal, and the climate equation for everyone gets worse.

Lately, there are positive signs that Bangladesh is making the needed course correction. The Bangladesh Power Development Board’s 2016 Annual Report noted an expected eleven new coal-fired plants to be commissioned in the next five years. Its 2018 Report has this down to three, of which one – the Rampal project – has already seen repeated delays. Gas-fired projects are moving forward closer to the expected rate, with the GE and Mitsubishi joint venture with Bangladesh’s Summit Group – signed in July 2018 to establish five power plants along with gas import facilities – slated to become the country’s largest private investment on record. But wind and solar will be needed to fill the gap and help Bangladesh keep up with growth. Another country to watch for big decisions.

Renewable Energy as 2019 begins: Winners and Losers

Renewable Energy as 2019 begins: Winner and Losers

Renewable energy continued in 2018 as the largest segment of infrastructure financing globally. Utility-scale wind and solar, and rooftop solar new capacity installations grew again. The days of double-digit industry growth in capacity, however, seem to be past, and with falling costs the total capital going to renewables is clearly at a plateau. There’s good news and bad news for different parties, and in this column infrastructure ideas offers a guide to the winners and losers of the moment.

The numbers for 2018
Based on just-released figures from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the fastest to estimate year-end numbers, “clean-energy investment” was down 8% from 2017, yet nonetheless, at $332 billion, over $300 billion for the fifth straight year. Within those numbers, investment in all segments were up except for two: small scale-hydro, and solar power generation – the latter seeming counter-intuitive but we’ll unpack it below. Onshore wind investment rose slightly, 2% to $101 billion, while offshore wind came into its own for the first time, recording $28 billion in investment. Bio-mass, waste-to-energy, biofuels and geothermal were all up from 2017, yet together accounting for only about 3% of total investment. Investment in solar, interestingly, fell from $160 billion to $131 billion. Two big factors seem to be have driven the plunge: one visible everywhere, with the cost per unit of new solar capacity continuing to fall be double-digits in 2018, and overall capacity installed still grew from 2017 though the costs of this declined; the other factor being visible mostly in China, where big policy changes led to a 32% fall in new renewables investment in the world’s largest solar market. India’s market, arguably the fastest-growing market in the world from 2015-2017 for new solar financings, also cooled off, with clean energy (mostly solar) financings falling from $13 billion to $11 billion.


1. Investors looking for RE assets. For investment funds and others who built up capacity to finance renewable energy, assets are increasingly there. The $300 billion in new financing in 2018 means renewables continue to be the biggest game in town, with over $2 trillion having been invested in these sectors in the past decade. And while the overall global market may have been slightly negative, the sharp slowdown in China obscures good growth outside of China: non-Chinese investment in wind and solar increased over 20%, and the non-Chinese share of the global RE market went from 45% to 60%. Given how relatively closed the Chinese market has been to external investment, this means the effective pool of investable RE assets has grown significantly.

2. Offshore wind in OECD. Offshore wind, a curiosity only a few years ago, is at $28 billion now the fourth largest segment of clean energy – after onshore wind, utility solar and rooftop solar. It dwarfs other clean energy segments such as geothermal, biomass and small hydro. For many infrastructure funds, offshore wind has another attraction: large average project size. So while there remain a limited number of offshore assets, and they are all limited to either OECD markets or China, this is clearly now a legitimate and important sub-market.

3. Policy-makers. The continued declines in the costs of solar, and to an extent onshore wind capacity, are great news for energy sector policy-makers. In particular, energy sector policy-makers in developing countries – whose task is to address insufficient power capacity and/or high-cost electricity systems – have now at their disposal the means to increase power availability and to sharply cut the average generation costs of power in their economies. Wind and solar power at below 6 to 7 cents a kilowatt/hour – or even below 3 cents are a number of markets are achieving – means new capacity at less than half the average tariff in many developing countries. And everywhere, policy-makers concerned over greenhouse gas emissions and looking to meet “green” policy mandates have well-established options for their electric systems.

4. Solar plus storage advocates. Not yet in the numbers but worth a flag. While new capacity of solar-plus-storage systems account for less than 1% of total 2018 investment, and does not show up in global clean energy numbers yet, one can see this is just around the corner. With energy storage costs plummeting as fast as solar panel costs did a decade ago, we are already beginning to see the first solar-plus-storage tenders emerge with costs competitive with or bettering the costs of new thermal power capacity. Look for this segment to be bigger than biofuels or geothermal within the next 1-2 years, and larger than the offshore wind segment within 5-10 years.


1. Investors looking for RE assets. If the big loser sounds like the big winner, that’s because they are one and the same. There are indeed more and more renewable energy assets available in which to invest, and a greater share of these is “market,” as the non-China share of this segment is where growth is concentrated. At the same time, though, price and risk of RE assets are an increasing concern for investors. Solar power-purchase agreements (PPAs) are increasingly being priced so low that making money has become an increasingly tricky proposition. Or put another way, the benefits of falling RE costs are being largely apportioned to consumers (and policy-makers), leaving thin margins to compensate providers of capital. And at the same time, many markets are seeing shorter PPAs being offered, meaning new solar and wind farms have shorter periods of guaranteed returns, and face the prospect of yet lower-priced competitors when the guaranteed-return periods come to an end. And more investors are coming late to the party, further pressuring returns. Assets are there for investors, but making good returns from them will require being smart.

2. China RE portfolios. If you had financed wind and solar assets in China during the past decade – and if those assets were not being curtailed by the Chinese grid (a big “if”) – things were not too bad through 2017. Not only has China been by far the world’s largest renewable energy market for several years, it’s also paid some of the highest prices for renewable-generated power through Feed-in Tariffs. The kind of wind and solar auctions which have been so effective at driving down the cost of new capacity in Brazil, India and South Africa, among other markets, have come late to China. But with the big policy changes enacted in 2018, China was more disrupted than any other market. Going forward it will be a new game, with China adopting the auction approach – post the 2018 disruptions, this is likely to be good news all around: cheaper RE power across China, increasingly competitive with existing coal-fired capacity and less likely to be curtailed. It will mean, however, a new approach to the Chinese market.

3. Thermal power. New RE capacity additions were more than double the roughly 70-80 GW of new thermal power capacity added worldwide in 2018. Even with the growth of natural-gas fired capacity in the US and China, thermal power is becoming a shrinking market for operators and investors. And this is with continued historically-low natural gas prices, in the $3-5 mmbtu range. Driving this shrinkage is the combination of declining cost-competitiveness of thermal power, as technology improvements are unable to drive down costs as fast they are declining in renewables and energy storage, and policy preferences in many markets. It’s not going to get any better, though natural gas – especially in combined-cycle plants, is increasingly outcompeting coal-fired generation.

4. Small hydro. In the days of early enthusiasm for renewables, hydropower enjoyed a boost in popularity, riding on the same wave propelling new technologies. Small run-of-the-river hydropower plants especially, seen as more environmentally-friendly than large dam-reliant hydropower, began to attract considerable interest from operators and investors. The 2018 numbers show that small hydro has been left far behind by its former renewable peers, wind and solar. At only $1.7 billion, about ½ of 1% of all clean energy investments, and one of the only categories declining in 2018, it looks like the lost stepchild.

5. Proponents of a 1.5-degree limit. For those concerned about climate change, and especially those wanting to see the world on a course to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, 2018 was not a good year. Yes, renewable energy capacity is growing, and new investments are almost double those in fossil fuel-based power generation. But even with this, the penetration level of renewables in the overall share of power generation is too low for a 1.5-degree warming scenario. Given that the rate of increase of renewable generation has slowed, it becomes harder to see climate mitigation efforts relying just on the economics of new generation facilities. So expect, therefore, both to see escalating effects of global warming – more extreme weather events, more calls for climate adaptation investments – and growing odds of a major discontinuity in energy policies down the road. One good bet: growing interest in funding decommissioning of fossil-fuel generation – watch this space for a forthcoming analysis of the topic.