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At the very same time that U.S. electricity producers are slashing their use of coal for economic and environmental reasons, countries around the world are dramatically increasing their use of the fuel. A look at coal and electricity demand in locations from Hanoi, Vietnam to Dusseldorf, Germany shows that the rest of the world is not going beyond coal. In fact, just the opposite is happening.

Between 2001 and 2010, U.S. coal consumption fell by 5 percent. But over that same time period, global coal consumption soared by 47 percent, or the equivalent of 23 million barrels of oil per day. Put another way, over the past decade or so, global coal consumption increased by about the same amount as the growth in oil, natural gas, and nuclear combined.

Coal use is soaring because demand for electricity is soaring. Between 1990 and 2010, global electricity production increased by about 450 terawatt-hours per year. That’s the equivalent of adding one Brazil (which used 485 terawatt-hours of electricity in 2010) to the electricity sector every year. And the International Energy Agency expects global electricity use to continue growing by about oneBrazil per year through 2035.

Perhaps the best example of growing electricity demand can be seen in Vietnam. Between 2001 and 2010, electricity use and coal use in the country increased by 227 percent and 175 percent, respectively. And more coal is on the way. Last September, Virginia-based AES Corp. finalized a deal to build a $1.5 billion, 1,200-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Vietnam’s Quang Ninh province.

Or consider China, which uses more than three times as much coal as the United States. About 70,000 megawatts of new coal-fired electric generation capacity will likely come online in Chinaover the next two years. And the world’s most populous country has plans to build another 270,000 megawatts of coal-fired capacity. Over the next two decades, India will likely add another 72,000 megawatts of coal-fired capacity. For comparison, the total of all U.S. coal-fired electric capacity is about 317,000 megawatts, and that capacity is declining as generators switch to natural gas, which, in some regions of the country, is now cheaper than coal.

But we needn’t look only at developing countries. Germany may lead the world in solar-photovoltaic capacity with some 25,000 megawatts of installed panels, but RWE, the German utility, will soon begin operating the world’s largest lignite-burning power plant, a new 2,100-megawatt facility located south of Dusseldorf. Over the next two years or so, Germany will add 8,400 megawatts of new coal-fired generation capacity. And another 5,500 megawatts of coal-fired capacity is awaiting approval.

In fact, thanks to the slumping European economy, electricity producers in the region are already ramping up their use of coal. On May 8, Reuters reported that German utilities are likely to produce about 12 percent more electricity from coal this year than they did in 2011 thanks to abundance of cheap permits issued under the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme.

The punch line is obvious: The EPA might outlaw future coal-fired power plants in the United States, but the rest of the world hasn’t quit burning coal, and it won’t.


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