The end of cheap coal

The end of cheap coal worldwide might be less than ten years away, according to a comment article published in the U.K. science journal Nature.

The end of cheap coal worldwide might be less than ten years away, according to a comment article published in the U.K. science journal Nature.  A lack of supply from overestimation and a sharp rise in demand from developing nations led by China, write the authors, challenge “the idea that coal is destined to stay cheap for decades to come.”

Lawrence Berkeley U.S. National Laboratory senior scientist David Fridley penned the article with co-author Richard Heinberg, both of the Post-Carbon Institute in California.  They pointed to several recent studies that suggest that ‘peak coal,’ the time when coal production has topped and will only drop lower, may be just a few years away.

Leading the demand side is China, which since 2000 has grown its coal demand by 3.8 percent each year. China gets 80 percent of its electricity from about half of its total coal; 16 percent is used to coke its iron and steel industries, the remainder used as heat by its people and for other industries like cement.

China leads in future coal consuption, World Energy Outlook 2010, The International Energy Agency

The United States has the largest reserves of recoverable coal with 237 billion tonnes, followed by Russia (157) and China (115), write the authors.  They add that for many countries, higher quality coal is being depleted most quickly, leaving that of lower quality making the bulk of reserves.

“Better data on global coal supplies is long overdue and energy policies that assume a bottomless coal pit need rethinking urgently,” the authors write. “We believe it is unlikely that world energy supplies can continue to meet projected demand beyond 2020.”

David Rutledge says world coal estimates are too high

Policy makers should plan for higher fossil fuel prices, they added, and to “make maximum possible investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy infrastructure,” such as solar and wind.  These actions could help countries, write the Nature comment article authors, prepare for the end of cheap coal.

Jorge Salazar