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Reality check: Global emissions from coal plants

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A man walks towards a ferry as the Wujing coal-electricity power station is seen across the Huangpu River in the Minhang district of Shanghai. Getty Images photo

From the Canadian Energy Centre

By Ven Venkatachalam

Coal remains the primary fuel for global electricity generation, particularly in Asian countries

High energy prices, inflation, war, and the ongoing economic recovery from the pandemic has highlighted the general worldwide demand for electricity, particularly in Asia and Europe. The growing demand for electricity on these two continents has led some electricity producing plants to rely increasingly heavily on coal as a power source.

The electricity sector accounts for 34 per cent of the world’s energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. In this Fact Sheet, we detail recent trends in electricity production and demand across the globe as well as CO2 emissions from the electricity sector worldwide.

Carbon dioxide emissions from the world’s top ten emitters between 2000 and 2022

A total of 38.2 gigatonnes (Gt) of energy-related CO2 was emitted globally in 2022, an increase of 53 per cent from 2000. However, the increase is not consistent for all countries; between 2000 and 2023, CO2 emissions trends diverged. Emissions from China, India, and Indonesia more than doubled in the last two decades, whereas emissions for other countries remained relatively consistent or even declined.

In 2022, Canada’s total energy-related CO2 emissions were 0.62 Gt, or 1.6 per cent of the global total. That compares to emissions of 0.64 Gt in South Korea, 1.09 Gt in Japan, 2.8 Gt in India, 5.0 Gt in the United States, and 13.0 Gt in China (see Figure 1).

Sources: IEA World Energy Statistics database and Enerdata

Demand for electricity and sources of emissions

Global domestic electricity consumption increased from 13,188 terawatt-hours (TWh) in 2000 to 25,681 TWh in 2022 and estimates are that global demand for electricity will rise to 35,000 TWh by 2040.¹

That is a jump of 94 per cent, or 12,492 TWh, between 2000 and 2022. During the same period, electricity consumption in Asia rose a whopping 280 per cent. In Africa the demand for electricity increased by 90 per cent (see Figure 2). Coal remains the world’s largest source of fuel for electricity generation, with approximately 10,317 terawatt-hours of electricity generated by coal-fired plants in 2022 (see Figure 3).


1. The IEA’s Electricity Market Report 2022 states that nearly all of the increase is attributable to growing electricity consumption in developing countries across southeast Asia and Africa.
Sources: IEA World Energy Statistics database and Enerdata

 

Sources: IEA World Energy Statistics database and Enerdata

In recent years, electricity generated from the combustion of coal declined in Canada, the United States, Europe, and Africa. However, electricity generated from coal combustion has continued to grow in China, India, and other parts of Asia.

Between 2000 and 2022, the share of coal-powered electricity generation in Asia increased from 49.8 to 56. 3 per cent, while in Canada it decreased from 19.4 per cent to less than 5 per cent.

Sources: IEA World Energy Statistics database and Enerdata

Source of emissions in the electricity sector

The electricity sector accounts for 34 per cent of the carbon dioxide emitted across the world. The sector emitted 13.05 gigatonnes of CO2 in 2022, an increase of 5.01 Gt from 2000. In Asia, between 2000 and 2022, CO2 emissions from the electricity sector increased from 2.5 Gt to 8.3 Gt and the sector’s share of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions increased from just over 32 per cent to well over 40 per cent (see Figure 5).

Sources: IEA World Energy Statistics database and Enerdata

Coal burned to generate electricity accounts for the majority of the CO2 emitted in power generation. In 2022, coal-fired electricity\ generation accounted for 9.89 Gt, or nearly 76 per cent of the worldwide CO2 emissions from the electricity sector. The share was even higher in Asia where 92 per cent of emissions from the electricity sector come from coal combustion. Asian coal-fired plants accounted for 7.62 Gt of the total 8.26 Gt of emissions from the sector on that continent (see Figure 6).

Sources: IEA World Energy Statistics database and Enerdata

Conclusion

The global electricity sector, and particularly the sector in Asia, is a major source of CO2 emissions. Relative to Canada’s existing carbon emissions, emissions from the coal-fired power plants worldwide will make any reductions in Canada’s carbon emissions and resulting job losses, higher taxes, and higher costs for consumers and businesses—meaningless.

As 56 per cent of the electricity in Asia is generated by coal-fired plants, a transition from coal- to gas-fired electricity generation in the region could lead to significant reductions in CO2 emissions, reducing emissions by 50 per cent on average. The corollary is that there is a potential market in Asia for natural gas extracted in and exported from Canada. Canada has an opportunity to play a useful and meaningful role in reducing CO2 emissions from the electricity sector by encouraging and contributing to the global natural gas market.


Notes

This CEC Fact Sheet was compiled by Ven Venkatachalam at the Canadian Energy Centre (www.canadianenergycentre.ca). The author and the Canadian Energy Centre would like to thank and acknowledge the assistance of an anonymous reviewer in reviewing the data and research for this Fact Sheet.

References (live as of November 2, 2023)

Canadian Energy Centre (November 7, 2022), Canadian LNG has massive opportunity in Asia: report <https://tinyurl.com/2p9525j6>; Enerdata (2022), Power Plant Tracker database <https://bit.ly/3xfgOdF>; IEA (2022), Electricity Market Report – January 2022 <https://bit.ly/3M0723j> IEA (Undated), World Energy Statistics Database <https://tinyurl.com/ytz789m4>

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Canadian Energy Centre

Hubs are the future of carbon capture and storage: Why Alberta is an ideal place to make it happen

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From the Canadian Energy Centre

By Deborah Jaremko

Alberta Carbon Trunk Line a ‘perfect example’ of a successful carbon capture and storage hub in action

Call it a CCS highway – a shared transportation and storage network that enables multiple industrial users to reduce emissions faster. 

So-called “hubs” or networks are becoming the leading development strategy for carbon capture and storage (CCS) as the world moves faster to fight climate change, according to the Global CCS Institute.  

Alberta, with its large industrial operations and more CO2 storage capacity than Norway, Korea, India, and double the entire Middle East, is an early leader in CCS hub development.  

“For Alberta, the concept of CCS hubs makes a lot of sense because you have many industry players that are trying to reduce their emissions, paired with beautiful geological opportunities beneath,” says Beth (Hardy) Valiaho, vice-president with the International CCS Knowledge Centre in Regina, Saskatchewan. 

Jarad Daniels, CEO of the Melbourne, Australia-based Global CCS Institute, says that historically, CCS would be a single project integrating a CO2 capture plant with dedicated CO2 compression, pipeline and storage systems.  

“Networks, where each entity typically operates only part of the full CCS value chain provide several benefits,” he says. 

“They reduce costs and commercial risk by allowing each company to remain focused on their core business.” 

The institute, which released its annual global status of CCS report in November, is now tracking more than 100 CCS hubs in development around the world. 

Alberta already has one, and Valiaho says it is a “perfect example” of what she likens to on and off-ramps on a CO2 highway.   

The Alberta Carbon Trunk Line (ACTL) went into service in 2020 as a shared pipeline taking CO2 captured at two facilities in the Edmonton region to permanent underground storage in a depleted oil field.  

Map of the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line system. Courtesy Enhance Energy

So far ACTL has transported more than four million tonnes of CO2 to storage that would have otherwise been emitted to the atmosphere – the equivalent emissions of approximately 900,000 cars.  

ACTL was constructed with a “build it and they will come” mentality, Valiaho says. It has enough capacity to transport 14.6 million tonnes of CO2 per year but only uses 1.6 million tonnes of space per year today. 

The future-in-mind plan is working. A $1.6 billion net zero hydrogen complex being built by Air Products near Edmonton will have an on-ramp to ACTL when it is up and running later this year.  

Air Products will supply hydrogen to a new renewable diesel production plant being built by Imperial Oil. Three million tonnes of CO2 per year are to be captured at the complex and transported for storage by the ACTL Edmonton Connector.  

Hub projects like this are important globally, Daniels says, as CCS operations need to dramatically increase from 50 million tonnes of storage per year today to one billion tonnes by 2030 and 10 billion tonnes by 2050 

“It’s clear the development of CCS networks and hubs is critical for achieving the multiple gigatonne levels of deployment all the climate math says is required by mid-century,” he says. 

Valiaho says Alberta is an encouraging jurisdiction to develop CCS hubs in part because the government owns the geological pore space where the CO2 is stored, rather than developers having to navigate dealing with multiple resource owners.  

“Alberta is a model for the world, and the fact that the government has declared crown ownership of the pore space is very interesting to a lot of international jurisdictions,” she says.  

There are 26 CCS storage project proposals under evaluation in Alberta that could be used as shared storage hubs in the future, including the project proposed by the Pathways Alliance of oil sands producers.  

If just six of these projects proceed, the Global CCS Institute says they could store a combined 50 million tonnes of CO2 per year, or the equivalent emissions of more than 11 million cars. 

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Alberta

Oil sands technology competition to generate low emissions carbon fibre moves into final phase

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Bryan Helfenbaum, associate vice-president of clean energy with Alberta Innovates, holds a hockey stick made with carbon fibre derived from oil sands bitumen. Photo by Dave Chidley for the Canadian Energy Centre

From the Canadian Energy Centre

By Will Gibson and Deborah Jaremko

Study found carbon fibre made from oil sands bitumen has 69 per cent lower emissions than conventional sources

Having spent most of a long and distinguished academic career working with metals, Weixing Chen became fascinated by the potential of repurposing a heavy hydrocarbon from Alberta’s oil sands into a high-value product for a low-carbon economy. 

The product is carbon fibre – thin as human hair but four times stronger than steel – and research has shown producing it from oil sands bitumen generates lower greenhouse gas emissions than today’s sources.  

“This is a great opportunity for me to challenge myself moving forward to develop this technology that will benefit society,” says Chen, a chemical and material engineering professor at the University of Alberta.  

His team at Edmonton-based Thread Innovations is one of five receiving a total $15 million in funding in the final round of the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge, announced in December. 

Great potential for carbon fibre 

With its light weight and high strength, today carbon fibre is used in products like aircraft and spacecraft parts, racing car bodies, bicycles, hockey sticks and golf clubs. 

It has great potential, but its use is limited by cost. Carbon fibre averages $10 to $12 per pound, compared to less than $1 per pound for steel.   

Part of the Alberta competition is that the carbon fibre derived from oil sands bitumen must cost 50 per cent less than current carbon fibre products.  

This would unlock new markets for carbon fibre, says Byran Helfenbaum, associate vice-president of clean energy for Alberta Innovates, which is funding the challenge along with Emissions Reduction Alberta.  

“At the end of this phase, the intention is the technology is at a point where a company could make a funding decision for if not a commercial project, then at least a commercial demonstration project,” he says. 

“It’s really to get it out of the lab and start hitting the key specifications, identifying the existing and new markets, and pumping out prototypes that can be tested.  We have already generated our first two prototypes, a truck side mirror and a hockey stick, but we need to go bigger and faster and test a wide range of market opportunities.” 

Long-term need for carbon-based products 

The future is likely to be full of carbon fibre products, Helfenbaum says. 

“This ‘low-carbon future’ is a misnomer. When we say low-carbon future, what we mean is let’s keep carbon out of the atmosphere. Carbon is still going to be around us in solid form, and probably in increasingly higher amounts,” he says.  

“We’re going to have 10 billion people on the planet by mid-century. They need energy, but they also need stuff. They need housing, infrastructure, and consumer goods. And most of that stuff is or can be made of pure carbon.” 

Lower emissions from oil sands carbon fibre 

Most carbon fibre today is generated from a chemical compound called polyacrylonitrile (PAN), which is derived from a component of natural gas. 

recent study by researchers at the University of Alberta found that life cycle emissions from carbon fibre derived from oil sands bitumen are 69 per cent lower than PAN-based product.  

It’s the high carbon content of oil sands bitumen that provides the benefit, Helfenbaum says.  

“The heaviest fraction of bitumen takes more energy to break down to be turned into fuels. But that same fraction can be used to produce carbon fibre with fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the current PAN process,” he says. 

“If we are successful in reducing its cost, then it can be deployed into new markets that will further reduce carbon emissions, such as lightening passenger vehicles and improving the longevity of concrete infrastructure.” 

Adding value while reducing emissions 

The Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge is part of Alberta Innovates’ broader Bitumen Beyond Combustion  research program. The work considers opportunities to use bitumen to create value-added products other than fuels like gasoline and diesel.   

“From an economic perspective, the Bitumen Beyond Combustion program could triple the value of a barrel of bitumen,” Helfenbaum says.  

“Carbon fibre is among the most valuable of those products, but it’s not the only one. This is potentially in the tens of billions of dollars a year of gross revenue opportunity, so this is transformational.” 

It also presents environmental benefits.  

“Eighty per cent of the emissions associated with petroleum happen at combustion of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel so by diverting into these products, that becomes carbon that is sequestered forever and doesn’t get into the atmosphere,” he says.  

Pathway to commercial production 

Winners of the grand challenge will have a credible pathway to manufacturing 2,000 tonnes or more of carbon fibre per year. The challenge is scheduled to end in summer 2026.  

Thread Innovations is building a new facility to produce samples for potential buyers and demonstrate the ability to scale up production. This phase will also focus on improving characteristics of the carbon fibre produced by their technology to build commercial demand. 

“Our target is to complete the current project and then establish a commercialization plan in 2025,” says Chen.  

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