Dynamic economies need power supplies that can rapidly adjust to changing demand. Renewable power supplies are not well suited for that role. With the economy rapidly bouncing back from the crushing shutdowns instigated by America’s blue state governors, energy demand is soaring. The demand requires power that can easily step into the gap. The best option for suppliers so far has been coal. The Wall Street Journal reports:
Coal use is surging in some of the world’s largest economies as electricity demand rebounds from the pandemic, illustrating the challenges to countries looking to wean themselves off the dirty but reliable fossil fuel.
Coal was in decline for years in many countries, but its use is now picking up in the U.S., China and Europe despite growing pressure from governments, investors and environmentalists to curb carbon emissions. The leading reason for the uptick—which has pushed coal prices to multiyear highs—is rising power demand as economies reopen rapidly from pandemic hibernation.
While analysts and executives say the resurgence of coal is likely to be short-lived, it shows the world’s continued dependence on fossil fuels until renewable-energy capacity grows further and storage technologies improve.
Countries have spent billions adding renewable-power capacity at record rates, but solar and wind projects generate electricity only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing, and can’t be ramped up when demand rises. Those limitations mean the world is still reliant on fossil fuels, especially when there is a surge in electricity demand. Analysts say this will remain the case until more renewable capacity is added, along with storage such as batteries.
“It’s difficult to get off coal because of security of supply. At the end of the day you need to keep the lights on,” said Kathryn Porter, founder of energy consulting firm Watt-Logic. “When governments are faced with the choice of not supplying electricity, or using coal, they will use coal.”
The need for more coal is arising as economies recover. The global economy is expected to expand this year at the fastest pace since 1980, according to the International Monetary Fund, as advanced economies spend aggressively to counter the impact of Covid-19 and related lockdowns. The IMF said in April that it expects the world economy to grow 6% this year, after contracting in 2020.
In the U.S., improving economic conditions are forecast to boost retail electricity sales in the commercial and industrial sectors by 2% this year, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Coal supplied 23% of U.S. electricity production from the start of the year through mid-June, up from 17% in the same period of 2020, according to a Wood Mackenzie analysis of preliminary EIA data. The consulting firm attributes the rise to the economic recovery along with higher natural-gas prices, which have prompted some to turn to coal instead.
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