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Coal’s Staying Power
Megan Sever

Coal Hotspots: Finding the Fuel Print Exclusive

In the 1700s, the steam engine forever changed the world, and specifically humans’ use of a peculiar black substance that burns — coal. Although people had used coal since at least the Bronze Age, it had never been as widely used until the steam engine was invented. With this invention came the Industrial Revolution, alongside a burgeoning coal industry.

Photograph is copyright of Stuart Jennings, Montana State University.

Britain got a head start on the world in terms of industrialization with its abundant coal and the knowledge of how to mine it. Continental Europe and the United States soon followed suit. The new face of coal in America was that of coal-fired locomotives and steamships puffing clouds of black smoke.

With its relative abundance compared with other fuels, especially in the East nearest the major cities, coal also grew in usage in residential stoves in the United States, as well as across the Atlantic. Coal was a big industry, employing people and providing energy to heat homes and fuel transportation, industry and wars. By 1884, coal also fueled the first electrical power plant.

Even as oil and natural gas were discovered and becoming popular, the coal industry continued to power the industrialized world through World War II. Then, in 1952, the Great Smog hit London. Enshrouding the city in smoke from the ubiquitous use of coal, the event led to the deaths of 4,000 people due to respiratory and cardiovascular complications. The Great Smog ushered in a new era for coal across the industrialized world — one of pollutant regulations and a turn toward other sources of energy.

Even though coal may no longer be running locomotives and steam engines, its use is still prevalent — essentially driving the modern electricity infrastructure. In the United States today, 92 percent of the coal consumed goes to electric power generation, and that number is about 70 percent worldwide.

As the global demand for energy increases, so too does the world’s demand for coal, says Bob Milici of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Reston, Va. With this market pressure, people are increasingly taking a look at coal and the ways in which it should be used, as well as looking at global shifts in production and consumption.

Coal is the world’s most abundant fossil fuel. Estimates suggest that the world’s economically recoverable coal reserves equal more than 1 trillion tons, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The world’s coal resources may be far larger, though estimates vary widely on amounts, says Bill Watson, an analyst with EIA.

In 2003, the world used 5.4 billion short tons of coal. And EIA projects coal consumption to increase further, nearly doubling by 2030. Still, the world has enough coal reserves to last at least 200 years, if not far longer, Watson says — projections indicate that coal reserves will outlast oil reserves and possibly also natural gas reserves, he says.

Coal deposits are widely distributed worldwide, but 67 percent of recoverable reserves are located in just four countries: Russia, China, India and the United States, which by itself holds more than one-quarter of the world’s coal reserves (see sidebar, in print). Those four countries also account for 63 percent of the world’s coal production and most of the world’s coal consumption, Watson says, largely because coal is primarily used locally rather than traded due to high transportation costs.

Over the next 25 years, Chinese and Indian economic growth will rule the coal market, with EIA estimating that 70 to 80 percent of the projected increase in global coal consumption will occur in these two countries alone. Most of that coal will come from the countries’ own vast reserves, Watson says. Still, he says, the expectation is that both countries, and China especially, will supplement their supplies by continuing to import coal, due to the need for specific coal types, such as metallurgical coal (which is used for making steel and iron ore). U.S. demand will continue to grow as well, though not at the frenetic pace exhibited by China and India.

As a result of increased global demand, the world’s economically recoverable coal reserves are gradually declining, but “there’s probably still a lot out there” yet to be discovered or harvested, says James Luppens, a geologist at USGS in Reston, Va. Few countries have great assessments of their resources, including the United States, which is currently undertaking such an assessment, says Luppens, who is leading the USGS assessment project.

Because coal is still cheaper per unit energy than oil or natural gas, it will continue to be an important resource globally, says Ian Duncan, associate director of the environmental research program at the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas in Austin. The primary use of coal in the near future will still be electrical power generation, but the way that power is generated might be changing, he says.

Coal is converted to energy the same way today as it was 2,000 years ago — simply burned, Duncan says. But that’s not particularly clean even with “scrubbers” that block sulfurous oxide and nitrous oxide from being emitted, he says, and it’s not particularly efficient, with current power plants only harnessing 37 percent of coal’s energy during production. In an era with the Kyoto Protocol and repeated calls for reducing emissions to slow global warming, traditional coal plants just aren’t going to get it done, he says. So researchers are looking at the other ways to convert coal to energy, such as converting the coal to liquid fuel or gas, he says (see story, this issue). They’re also looking to find other energy sources associated with coal — namely the methane that lies in coal seams (see story, this issue).

The greatest potential may come from coal gasification, which has “huge potential for making relatively clean power — near zero-emissions,” Duncan says. So there is a lot of research going into that area, as well as making coal plants more efficient. Right now, Watson says, “it’s a race between competing technologies — gasification versus more efficient pulverizing [traditional] plants — and it’s a toss-up which will win.”

Whatever technologies “win,” as economies around the world continue to grow, and other energy source prices remain high, coal production, consumption and prices will all continue to rise, Duncan says, despite continuing concerns about pollution from coal-fired power plants, particularly in developing countries. China is on track to add more than 500 coal-fired power plants over the next decade, with India adding several hundred as well. Meanwhile, dozens of new permit applications for coal power plants have been requested in the United States, he says. Whether they’ll get built, however, remains to be seen, he says.

Sever is a staff writer for Geotimes.

Additional Reading:
"Climate Change and the Potential of Coal Gasification," Geotimes, September 2006 Print Exclusive
"Coalbed Gas Enters the Energy Mix," Geotimes, September 2006 Print Exclusive

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