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INTERVIEW - Except in China, coal loses in new power plants

OSLO (Reuters) - China is the big exception to a clear global shift away from the use of high-polluting coal in new power plants towards natural gas and renewable energies, a leading environmentalist said on Friday.

A general view of the Gevra coalmines in Chhattisgarh, Asia's largest opencast coalmine, November 21, 2009. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri/Files

China has overtaken the United States as the top emitter of greenhouse gases in recent years, partly as it opens ever more coal-fired power plants to underpin fast economic growth. Coal emits large amounts of carbon dioxide when burnt.

“Excluding China, the global power plant market has been phasing out coal since the late 1990s,” said Sven Teske, renewable energy director for Greenpeace and a member of the U.N. panel of climate scientists.

“The growth is in gas power plants and renewables, especially wind,” he said of a study he made of electricity generation plants opened since 1970. He said it showed an unexpectedly strong shift from coal in most regions.

From 2000-2008, 20 percent of new power plant capacity added worldwide was renewable energies and 50 percent gas and oil. Coal accounted for 28 percent, dominated by China, with nuclear on two percent, he said.

Excluding China, coal’s share of new power plants in the period was just 11 percent while gas and oil had 63 percent, renewables 23 percent and nuclear 3 percent. Greenpeace favours an energy “revolution” towards renewable energies.

The U.N. panel is meeting in Abu Dhabi to edit a report about renewable energies, such as solar, wind, hydro and geothermal power. A draft predicts sharp growth in coming years and declining costs, aided by technological breakthroughs.

Teske declined to comment on the draft.

His study showed that developed nations had electrified their economies from 1970-90 with coal, gas and hydro-power and that gas-fired power plants started to get the upper hand in the 1990s.

He said there were hopes that emerging economies such as India might not follow China’s lead by turning to coal. China is also adding renewable energies, but more slowly than coal.

“Wind and especially solar could take off in India,” he said. Small solar projects make it easier to get electricity to rural areas, compared to big coal-fired power plants that require costly power lines to reach villages.

He said that some governments wrongly portrayed future energy choices as between coal or nuclear power.

“We have two different realities. One is the reality of policy-makers who talk of coal or nuclear. The other reality is that the majority of countries except China are going towards gas and renewables,” he said.

(Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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