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Coal-fired power generation weakened by the pandemic

In a new report from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, researchers are describing how the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the end of fossil fuel power generation. 

The pandemic is responsible for a temporary drop in CO2 emissions, as well as a reduction in coal-fired power generation that may persist beyond the coronavirus outbreak.

A team of economists based in Potsdam and Berlin analyzed the impact of COVID-19 on the energy system and investigated how the demand for electricity haa changed. 

The results of the study suggest that despite the tragedy of the pandemic, it has presented an opportunity to make the trend of decreasing coal use irreversible. According to the researchers, power sector emissions could now decline more rapidly than previously thought with the right climate policy measures.

“Coal has been hit harder by the corona crisis than other power sources – and the reason is simple,” explained study lead author Christoph Bertram. “If demand for electricity drops, coal plants are usually switched off first. This is because the process of burning fuels constantly runs up costs. The plant operators have to pay for each single ton of coal.”

“In contrast, renewable power sources such as wind and solar plants, once built, have significantly lower running costs – and keep on operating even if the demand is reduced.”

As a result, fossil fuels were partially squeezed out of the power generation mix in 2020, and global CO2 emissions from the energy sector decreased by about seven percent. 

Across European countries, India, and the United States, monthly electricity demand declined by up to 20 percent in 2020 compared to 2019. The researchers found that monthly CO2 emissions decreased by up to 50 percent, and they estimate that these emissions will no longer reach the all-time high of 2018. 

“Due to the ongoing crisis, we expect that 2021 electricity demand will be at about 2019’s levels, which, given ongoing investments into low-carbon generation means lower fossil generation than in that year,” explained study co-author Gunnar Luderer. 

“As long as this clean electricity generation growth exceeds increases in electricity demand, CO2 emissions from the power sector will decline. Only if we saw unusually high demand for electricity along with surprisingly few additions of renewable power plants from 2022-2024 and beyond, fossil fuel generation would rebound to pre-pandemic levels.”

The pandemic has weakened the market position of coal-fired power generation and exposed its vulnerability.

“Our research shows that investing in fossil-fueled power is not only environmentally irresponsible – it is economically very risky,” said study co-author Ottmar Edenhofer. 

“In the end, it will certainly take carbon pricing to cut emissions at the required pace and stabilize our climate. Yet the impacts of the corona crisis on the power generation sector have put political leaders in a unique position: Along with additional policies such as eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels and increasing investments in wind and solar power, it is now easier than ever before to put an end to high-carbon electricity.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Climate Change

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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