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Early Coal Retirement: How about a Global Auction

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By Philippe Benoit, Chandra Shekhar Sinha

· 6 min read

Report after report highlights that we can only achieve the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions required by the climate goals of the Paris Agreement if much of the existing coal power generation capacity is retired early. To this end, one concept that deserves greater consideration is conducting an auction for early retirement of coal power plants worldwide: a global coal retirement auction. This article sets out the broad outlines of how this global auction might operate.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated that there are over 8,500 coal power plants in the world, with over 2,100 GWs of capacity. Although these plants are concentrated in a limited number of countries (notably China, followed by India and the U.S.), there are coal plants running in over 100 countries with over 2,000 owners.

These plants generate about 10 gigatons of CO2 emissions per year, nearly 30% of the global total. This level of emissions from coal is incompatible with either the “well below 2oC” or the more ambitious ”1.5oC” temperature targets set out in the Paris Agreement.

Accordingly, climate/development organizations, like the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the World Bank, the IEA and RMI, are exploring programs to effect the early retirement of these coal plants.

But closing these plants presents two important challenges. First, retiring these plants removes electricity production that many countries rely upon for their economic development … production that would need to be replaced with preferably low-carbon sources. Second, owners are generally unwilling to shutter revenue-generating plants and want financial compensation for the returns they would forego from the premature retirement of their asset. This article addresses this second constraint.

There are various regulatory mechanisms that can be used to push early retirement, such as mandating closure of plants or imposing a carbon tax or other cost that makes operating the plant uneconomic.

A completely different tack is to entice closures by paying the owners to do so. This is the premise of, for example, the ADB’s innovative Energy Transition Mechanism.

But what’s a fair price? Perhaps, however, that’s not the right question. Rather, at what price are the owners willing to shutter their plants? Given that there are more than 8,500 coal power plants operating with different technical and revenue characteristics, and over 2,000 plant owners in diverse financial situations following distinctive corporate strategies (including numerous state-owned enterprises), the answer will vary.

A technique that has been used in this type of context of multiple actors is an “auction”. While in the traditional context, a seller looks to get the highest price from multiple possible buyers through an auction, in this case, we have a buyer that is interested in paying the lowest price to different plant owners (i.e., the sellers) for the retirement of their coal plants.

This is referred to as a “reverse auction”. This tool has been used to acquire new power production, including renewables, at low prices, and specifically in the climate context to attract cost-effective investments that reduce methane emissions.

The reverse auction mechanism could be used to solicit proposals from coal power plant owners as to the price at which they would be willing to close their plant. Conceptually, this could be done on the basis of MWs of installed power generation capacity. Under the auction, an interested coal plant owner would offer to sell — more specifically, to shutter — their MWs of plant capacity by a fixed time at a proposed price.

Importantly, the climate benefit sought by the auction is not from the decommissioning of MWs of capacity itself, but rather from the GHG emissions that would be avoided by retiring that capacity. Accordingly, for any coal retirement tender, it will be necessary to estimate the level of emissions that would be avoided.

This determination will be based on several factors, including the particular plant’s efficiency, remaining operational life and other technical characteristics, the type of coal used, and the amount of electricity production projected to be foregone through early retirement given the power system’s expected demand for electricity from that plant.

Tenders should include sufficient information to evaluate these items and, by extension, the level of avoided emissions and related climate benefit to be produced from the proposed retirement. This, in turn, will drive how much the auction buyer should be willing to pay for the tender.

Moreover, because it would be largely counter-productive from a climate perspective to pay to retire existing coal plants to see that money used directly (or indirectly) to build new fossil fuel generation, the tender by the plant owner would need to be accompanied by an undertaking not to reinvest in new fossil fuel generation.

As has been repeatedly explained, CO2 emissions have a global impact that is essentially unaffected by the geographic location of the emitting plant. Given this global nature of emissions, the auction would likewise be conducted at a worldwide level as a global auction. From India to Indonesia, from South Africa to South Korea, from Poland to Australia, any plant anywhere would be eligible to participate in the global auction.

Given this scope, an international organization like the United Nations or a multilateral development bank would be well positioned to provide the platform for this auction. One could imagine a system where the auction bidding process sets out eligibility criteria for projects, the methodology for estimating GHG emission reductions, and other key bid-submission parameters.

Significantly, while the bidding process would be managed on an integrated basis, the funding and selection of winners need not be. Rather, a system that allows for the matching of interested coal retirement buyers with individual plant owners could be used.

For example, buyers and their funding could be mobilized on a plant-by-plant basis based on information submitted by the plant owner through the auction process. Indeed, many potential funders have areas of focus that could lead them to be attracted to retiring coal assets only in certain countries (e.g., funders interested in a targeted set of developing countries). The proposed auction structure could accommodate these preferences. Moreover, the global auction could also operate in association with country-specific approaches.

One potential source of funding for coal retirements tendered under the auction is the potentially large amounts of capital to be mobilized through expanded carbon credit mechanisms under development. Tapping into these mechanisms might require establishing defined project eligibility criteria, frameworks for calculating GHG emissions reductions, and associated monitoring and verification systems to enable payments for emission reductions at the time of decommissioning based on a price for emission reduction (“carbon”) credits.

It is also important to recall the first constraint noted earlier, namely that countries, and particularly developing countries, will need more electricity to power further economic and social development. Accordingly, any global auction to retire coal plants needs to be coupled with a program to fund new renewables electricity generation.

Climate change is a global challenge affected by GHG emissions from anywhere. We need to reduce emissions from coal power generation and that requires some program to encourage and entice owners to shutter their plants. A global auction, conducted by the United Nations or a similar international organization, would help to identify opportunities where willing plant owners and interested funders can make a deal.

This article is also published by Inter Press Service. Illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Philippe Benoit is the Managing Director for Global Infrastructure Advisory Services 2050. He also served as Division Head of the IEA's Energy Environment and Energy Efficiency Divisions, and as Energy Sector Manager at the World Bank. In addition, Philippe previously worked as an investment banker and corporate lawyer focusing on energy.

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Chandra Shekhar Sinha is an Adviser in the Climate Change Group at the World Bank. He was a part of the design team for the Prototype Carbon Fund though which carbon finance was established at the World Bank. Previously, he worked at JPMorgan, TERI-India, UNDP, and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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