Coal Fired Power Dying – Not So Fast – Part One – Introduction

Posted on Sat 05/29/2021 by

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By Anton Lang ~

How often have we heard that coal fired power is going extinct, becoming obsolete, a dying enterprise, a stranded asset?

Is that really true?

Well, no it isn’t true at all, and it’s more complex than just saying that.

We all know now that China, and to a lesser extent, India, are still moving ahead with coal fired power, and not just on a small scale, but on a huge scale. Now, China are also implementing, as part of their ‘Belt and Road’ Plan, the advancement of coal fired power in other Countries, nearly all of them Countries classified as still developing by the U.N. and what are sometimes euphemistically referred to as ‘Third World Countries’.

I have been writing about electrical power generation in all its forms now for more than thirteen years. One of the first things I found when I started was that China was constructing new coal fired power plants in huge numbers, opening up a new coal fired power plant every seven to ten days across that vast Country that is China. In those last 13 years, that construction rate has barely changed. Foremost among those plants in China that were being commissioned and delivering power to the Chinese grid were the new technology UltraSuperCritical (and from now on, I will refer to these by their acronym USC) and in recent years these new tech plants are being referred to by a newer acronym, HELE. (High Efficiency Low Emissions) One of these USC coal fired plants in China is shown in the image below, and this should forever dispel the idea that coal fired plants are dirty. For perspective on the size of this Unit, note the men in the image. This is the Turbine Hall at the Waigaoqiao No. 3 plant, and as you can see, there is a second Unit in the background. Each Unit has a 1000MW generator. (As with all images on this Post, each image can be seen on a larger scale if you click on the image, and it then opens on a new tab and at the larger size)

Steam turbine/Generator Units at the ultra-supercritical Waigaoqiao No. 3 (Shanghai) (photo courtesy of IEA CCC)

These USC plants are two levels of technology higher than the coal fired plants that are already in operation in most of the already Developed Countries around the World. Those technology levels are as follows:

Sub Critical, Critical, SuperCritical, UltraSuperCritical, and recently, Advanced UltraSuperCritical.

Those older coal fired plants have been in operation now since the end of the Second World War, and are classified as Sub Critical and Critical, and here, what that term ‘Critical’ refers to is the steam which drives the turbine, which in turn, drives the generator. Most of the large scale plants with a Nameplate of 2000MW plus are in that Critical level of technology, and these were the plants constructed in their vast numbers in the 1970s and 1980s, and they had a lifespan of 50 years, and most of those plants have now reached their end of life time.

The U.S. started constructing those coal fired plants after the War, and construction just ramped up and up, so that Country can be used as the best example of what happened during that time, but in those already developed Counties in The West, this construction followed what was happening in the U.S. only to a lesser degree.

In the very early days, those sub critical plants were opened up across the U.S. and because the technology was still only relatively young, those plants were small, ranging in Nameplate size from 2MW, 5MW, 10WM, 20MW, 50MW and some bigger ones up to 100MW. These were single Unit plants supplying small areas. They were in the main, plants with high CO2 emissions, and were far less efficient than plants which came later, from all the levels of technology higher. The largest Capacity sub critical Units were 300MW in output, and these were more efficient than the smaller Units, (100MW and less) as the technology, even for sub Critical Units developed.

As Critical plant technology developed, the Nameplate size for individual Units rose to 400MW, 500MW and 660MW. What then happened now was that large scale plants began opening up, plants with four Units, and a total Nameplate of 2000MW and higher. These four Unit plants could then supply much much larger areas. As these larger plants came into operation, then those older plants up from 2MW up to 50MW, and to a slightly lesser extent, those 100MW plants began to close, now not needed, as power transmission infrastructure was also constructed bringing those large amounts of power to an ever widening area. The first ones to close were those much smaller Units from 2MW to 20MW, and they closed in their droves as those larger plants came into being.

Now we are at the point in time when even those huge 2000MW plus power plants have reached their use by dates after 50 years, and in many cases, more than that. What happened recently in the U.S. was that the availability of Natural Gas became more widespread, and there were advances in Natural Gas fired power plant technology. So, those coal fired power plants closed in their droves as Natural Gas fired plants replaced them almost to the extent that the total generated power from the new Natural Gas fired plants is only a little less that the generated power once delivered from the now closed coal fired plants.

So, this gives the impression that coal fired power might indeed have reached the end of its life when you look at the data and see that while coal fired power once delivered 50% of all generated power, that is now down to just 20% and is still falling. That can actually be shown in the image below. This image is from the U.S. database at the EIA, and I included it in the recently (last week) Updated Post The Benefits That Coal Fired Power Gave Us. (that Post is at this link) This image shows the sources of power generation in the U.S. and is current up until the end of 2020.

At the Post I linked to above, it shows this same graph, with a link to the original graph at the EIA site. From that graph you can see how power consumption has increased. Now, you might think that it is a natural thing, for power consumption to increase in line with the increase in population, but in the U.S. population has only a little more than doubled in that time since the start of these power generation figures in 1949, but actual power consumption has increased by a factor of FIFTEEN. That huge increase in power consumption was used mainly in the Industrial sector, as Industry ramped up considerably, and only in 1993 did that Industrial sector consumption fall to second place, now passed by consumption in the Residential sector, and now in 2020, Industry is in a pretty distant third place, with both the other sectors of consumption higher than Industry. (Commerce is that other sector of the three sectors) During those years, it was coal fired power which delivered those huge amounts of constant and reliable power to Industry.

The upper line on the graph here, the blue line shows coal fired power generation. As recently as 2008, coal fired power was delivering half of all the generated power. Then, those plants began to close, nearly all of them between 45 and 50 years old, those large scale sub Critical and Critical plants. In fact, in 2008/9, the average age of EVERY coal fired plant in the US was 48 years, so there were many plants older than the 50 year projected life span. So, as they closed, and from that graph, it looked like coal fired power generation ‘fell off the cliff’. At the same time, there was large increase in Natural Gas fired power, the second line on the graph, the green coloured line, and that has now surpassed the power generated from coal fired power.

This graph goes part of the way towards dispelling the myth that renewable power sources can replace coal fired power, which they cannot do. Those huge amounts of power are required constantly, 24 hours of every day, year round. You can also see that yellow line there, and that shows Nuclear power generation. There have been very few new Nuclear plants opened in decades, and yet, the generated power from Nuclear power plants has continued to rise. Those ‘big three’, Coal Fired Power, Natural Gas, and Nuclear power plants deliver 80% of all generated power in the U.S.

So, just looking at this image, you might get the impression that coal fired power is indeed becoming extinct, having lost 60% of what it was formerly delivering.

Because of the many advances in power generation during that time, far and away the largest manufacturers of the equipment needed for those coal fired plants were U.S. Companies, with GE being the largest of them.

So now, with the impression that coal fired power is dying, then Companies like GE, and the other power generating equipment manufacturers spread across the Globe, might be thought of as soon going out of business, with what was their largest customer, coal fired power for so many decades, now supposedly becoming extinct. They might move in the direction of renewable power equipment manufacture, and in fact, they have moved in that direction.

However, they are still moving forward with coal fired power equipment, and in fact at the same pace as they always have. As the technology has improved, these coal fired power equipment manufacturers have also moved forwards as well, in fact leading the way in coal fired power technology.

If coal fired power is supposedly becoming extinct, it’s hard to believe that huge Companies would still be investing what would amount to billions of dollars in coal fired power technology, in equipment specifically designed in fact for coal fired power, when, if those huge investments were to become ‘stranded assets’, then they would be losing those billions of dollars.

In fact, it is GE that has made the most recent advance in coal fired technology, Advanced UltraSuperCritical coal fired power.

There is still a Worldwide market for coal fired power, and while the U.S. is supposedly moving out of coal fired power for its power generation needs, those other Countries are now moving into it, and in much the same manner as the U.S. ramped up its power generation in those early years, then these other Countries are doing exactly the same thing. Only now, they have access to the most recent technology. China has been doing this now for many years, and is probably now the World Leader in power plant construction when it comes to coal fired power.

The technology has advanced, and is still advancing, and because of that, coal fired power has a future, and is not anywhere even close to becoming extinct.

In the next three Posts, I will deal with these advances in coal fired power, and show you the continuing future for coal fired power.

In Part Two, I will show how these advances are leading to reduced emissions of Carbon Dioxide from coal fired power plants. In Part Three I will detail coal fired power in China, and in Part Four, I will show you the most recent advance in coal fired power technology, Advanced USC, SteamH, developed by GE, and now in use in new construction coal fired plants.

Coal Fired Power generation does have a future, and it looks like it will be quite a long future.

Link to Part Two – Coal Fired Power Dying – Not So Fast – Part Two – Electrical Power Generation In China

Link to Part Three – Coal Fired Power Dying – Not So Fast – Part Three – Coal Fired Power In China

Link to Part Three – Coal Fired Power Dying – Not So Fast – Part Three – SteamH, The Future For Coal Fired Power

Anton Lang uses the screen name of TonyfromOz, and he writes at this site, PA Pundits International on topics related to electrical power generation, from all sources, concentrating mainly on Renewable Power, and how the two most favoured methods of renewable power generation, Wind Power and all versions of Solar Power, fail comprehensively to deliver levels of power required to replace traditional power generation. His Bio is at this link.