On President Trump’s inauguration day, the White House’s official website was changed to reflect his support for fossil fuels. In the same week, China pledged 360 billion dollars to the renewable energy sector by 2020. The two countries’ positions are almost contrary to those from a few years ago, but they do not herald either resurgence or jeopardy for the coal industry. Instead, the phasing out of coal as an energy source is likely to continue.
It is no secret that the United States (U.S.) President Donald J. Trump is a staunch supporter of America’s coal industry. Coal was an integral part of his campaign promises and the new president pledged to “revive the coal industry,” holding rallies for Pennsylvania coal miners. As it states on the White House website, “clean coal technology” is the future the new U.S. administration sees. However, the traction renewable energy has gained and coal has lost over the past few decades may not prove negligible.
Taking a reverse course, on March 14, 2011, China released its Twelfth Five-Year Guideline, or the Twelfth Plan (12FYP), which focuses on improving and modernizing many aspects of Chinese industry, including energy. 12FYP promises less coal consumption while increasing the percentage of renewable energy such as hydroelectricity, nuclear energy, wind, and solar energy. Compared to a few years ago, China has remarkably reversed its position towards green energy. However, its plans and its status quo are often at loggerheads.
The Current Condition of Coal
▲ Donald Trump during his presidential campaign. Provided by Business Insider.
Despite the 12FYP, China remains the world’s leading consumer of coal. According to Enerdata, China consumed 3,732 million metric tons or megatonne (Mt) of coal in 2015 alone. In comparison, the rest of the world consumed 4,017 Mt—a difference of only 3.7 percent. China also leads the world in coal production, having produced over 3,538 Mt in 2015. The 194 Mt discrepancy is filled with coal imports from countries such as the U.S., Australia, and Russia.
This difference is what the Trump administration hopes to use to revitalize the U.S. coal industry. According to the same source, America produced 820 Mt of coal, while consuming 730 Mt in 2015. Of this surplus, more than 57 Mt. were exported. The vision is to ramp up America’s coal production in order to increase exports and revitalize the coal industry. However, that is easier said than done.
Since 2014, China’s coal consumption has declined steadily. According to the 2015 China Energy Statistical Yearbook, coal consumption fell by 2.9 percent in 2014, a further 3.7 percent year over year in 2015. In addition, China’s coal imports dropped by 30 percent that year, reflecting the change in its coal consumption. Amidst these changes, however, China still remains the world’s most prolific coal consumer by a wide margin.
Nevertheless, President Trump’s promises on coal may be difficult to deliver. Even though average global net imports of coal increased in 2015 compared to 2010, the industry’s growth has subsided as the world reaches peak coal. In fact, Goldman Sachs projected last September that coal demand peaked in 2013, the beginning of its continuous decline. Related to M. King Hubbert’s peak oil theory, peak coal is the point “the maximum global coal production rate is reached,” after which “the rate of production will enter a terminal decline.”
Renewable Energy and the End of Coal
▲ A Solar Farm in the Mojave Desert. Provided by Brightsource Energy.
Even in the most optimistic view, a renaissance of the U.S. coal industry is hard to imagine. According to Public Radio International’s correspondent in China, Mary Kay Magistad, the cost of renewable energy has “come down so far, so fast,” that “in some places the price bests coal.” Part of the reason for this steep drop in price, she says, is the large subsidies the Chinese government has been providing its solar companies to help them produce cheaper solar cells.
While the growth of renewable energy may slow during Trump’s presidency, Professor Lee Jae Seung (International Studies) is certain that the U.S. will not make a major move to coal overnight. He believes fears over Trump’s policies are overstated. “It is not just Trump [who supports coal],” he said. “Historically, Republican administrations in general have supported fossil fuels,” he added.
The rise of clean energy is a longer trend, not a short burst. President Trump may negatively affect the driving forces behind renewable energy, but any impact will be unlikely to last past his term as president. “I do not think this trend is something the Trump administration can reverse,” said Professor Lee. “A strong wind may shift the wave but it will not change the current,” he added.
What Does It All Mean for Korea?
Korea lags far behind in renewable energy. According to the 2016 Global Energy Statistical Yearbook, only 2.1 percent of its energy was renewable, and only 0.87 percent was wind and solar. Korea is last in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) for renewable energy production and places ninth in global coal consumption and fourth in coal imports. Additionally, in 2016, coal power plant capacity in Korea grew by 32.2 percent for a total of 34,997 megawatts (MW).
In 2015 the Korean government pledged to increase its renewable energy percentage to 11 percent by 2035— five years later than its previous goal of 2030. According to Professor Lee, this goal “has not been scientifically vetted,” and the goal may ultimately be at best an optimistic dream. South Korea operates ten coal power plants, and is constructing six more. When completed, the capacity of the new plants will exceed 9,600 MW. In comparison, the total wattage of renewable plants being built amounts to a total of 2120 MW.
Be that as it may, the age of hydrocarbons is clearly beginning to pass. In 2011, Iceland achieved 100 percent renewable energy production. In 2014, Scotland generated enough renewable energy to power 164 percent of its households. Benjamin Sovacool, the director of the Danish Center for Energy Technology, believes that the next energy revolution is due within one or two decades. The days of coal may not be over, but they are numbered.