Satellites Reveal China Is Quietly Building Many New Coal Power Plants

  • Date: 08/08/18
  • China Dialogue

Satellite imagery reveals that many coal-fired power projects that were halted by the Chinese government have quietly restarted.


A coal-fired power station in Ningxia province (Image: Planet Labs)

Analysis by CoalSwarm estimates that 46.7 gigawatts of new and restarted coal-fired power construction is visible based on satellite imagery supplied by Planet Labs. The coal-fired power plants are either generating power or will soon be operational. If all the plants reach completion they would increase China’s coal-fired power capacity by 4%.

One of the biggest issues facing China’s coal sector since 2016 has been too much generating capacity, not too little. So what changed?

Demand for coal-power rebounds

Recently published economic data for the first half of 2018, along with the latest policy adjustments, indicate that China’s power demand is rebounding.

Li Fulong, head of the department of development and planning at the National Energy Administration, said at a press conference on July 30 that coal consumption in China increased about 3.1% in the first half of 2018 compared with the same period last year. The main driver of that was coal-fired power generation. Figures from the National Bureau of Statistics show a leap of 9.4% in electricity use across the same period.

Meanwhile, the arrival of summer has led to temporary electricity shortages in many regions, with reports of power demand outstripping supply in Shandong, Henan, Hunan, Hubei and Zhejiang provinces. In Shandong the shortfall was estimated at three gigawatts.

This has resulted in a loosening of policy-level restrictions on the coal power sector. In May 2018 the National Energy Administration permitted Shaanxi, Hubei, Jiangxi and Anhui to restart construction of coal-fired power stations. Restrictions were also relaxed to some degree in four other provinces.

“A rebound in industrial demand for electricity seems to have shifted attitudes among policy-makers, who are now more accepting of overcapacity,” said Lauri Myllyvirta, energy analyst with Greenpeace.

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