As early as the mid-1990s energy forecasters warned about the demise of cheap oil. But was the world overlooking a potentially larger problem: the end of cheap coal?
In a comment article in the Nov. 18 issue of Nature, Richard Heinberg and David Fridley of the Post-Carbon Institute in California argue that growing demand for coal—particularly in China, where it is needed for steel making.—cannot be met by global coal reserves because estimates of the amount of easily retrievable coal are outdated and optimistic.
“Energy policies relying on cheap coal have no future,” the authors conclude.
China, the world’s biggest producer and consumer of coal, has coal resources of 187 billion metric tons, second to the U.S., according to data collected in the 2000-10 national resource survey by China’s Ministry of Land and Resources. That’s about 62 years’ worth of coal, according to Heinberg and Fridley.
But the duo are skeptical of that claim, and say that coal is often more scarce and more difficult to retrieve than current estimates. Although India, which almost doubled purchases of energy coal for its power stations last year, has found that there are more coal reserves than it previously thought, ” the overwhelming global trend, as revealed by national coal surveys over the past few decades, is for the size of countries’ estimated reserves to shrink as geologists uncover restrictions,” Heinberg and Fridley said.
Regarding China, the pair point out that “more than 90% of China’s coal comes from underground mines that can be as much as 1,000 meters deep. We strongly suspect that the current reserves figures are too optimistic. The coal is certainly there, but—like the majority of coal in the world—most of it is probably destined to stay put.”
They add that “coal consumption is accelerating fast. This renders meaningless reserves-lifetime figures calculated on the basis of flat demand.”
What does that all mean? To Heinberg and Fridley, peak coal “may be only years” away. “Nations should immediately begin to plan for higher fossil-fuel prices to make maximum possible investments in energy efficiency and renewable-energy infrastructure,” they recommend, before ending on a pessimistic note. “Even then the world will have to accept a slowdown in economic growth.”