End to cheap coal closer than we thought?

Nov 22, 2010 by Lin Edwards report
coal

(PhysOrg.com) -- A report entitled "The End of Cheap Coal," published in the journal Nature by Richard Heinberg and David Fridley, suggests we may reach peak coal in the next two decades.

The report assumes will remain high in the next two decades, that the rate of oil consumption will level for a few years before dropping, and that governments will make progress towards reaching goals. Even without these assumptions the authors suggest we may soon hit peak because inexpensive sources of coal are rapidly being used up. Their conclusion is that “energy policies relying on cheap coal have no future.”

Most estimates of coal reserves suggest there is plenty to last at least a couple of hundred years, and the authors, who are both Fellows with the Post-Carbon Institute in Santa Rosa, California, do not dispute this, but say using it will become progressively more expensive. They point to the fact that over the last twenty years or so the projected global coal supply has been falling faster than coal is consumed, suggesting the projections are inaccurate. For example, Germany and South Africa have reduced estimates of their recoverable reserves by a third over the last five years, since they have found some reserves previously thought to be economically recoverable are not. The US, with around 25 percent of global coal reserves, last updated its estimates in 1974.

The authors point to the history of getting forecasts wrong, saying that official estimates of oil prices for 2010 issued in the late 1990s were less a third of the current oil price. With both oil and coal the problem is not that we are running out of supplies, but that prices rise and become volatile as we approach peak levels.

Heinberg and Fridley suggest another factor at play is the mismatch between the locations of coal supply and demand. Global demand for cheap coal is fairly steady, but China’s demand is growing so rapidly it is unable to extract its own massive coal reserves fast enough and is increasingly sourcing supplies from Australia, the US, and elsewhere. The export and import of coal increases the prices at both ends.

The authors want the prospect of an end to cheap coal to be considered seriously, especially as many energy decisions are based on the assumption that coal will remain cheap. Their first proposal is that the US coal reserves estimate be updated, along with the estimated costs of extracting the coal. They also urge countries to plan for higher coal prices, and consider the effect higher prices would have on the viability of clean coal technologies.

The International Energy Agency (IEA), which is generally considered a conservative body aligned to the fossil fuel industries, also suggests that if global warming is to be limited to 2°C the demand for coal will need to peak by 2020 and drop to 2003 levels by 2035.

Explore further: NASA gets two last looks at Tropical Cyclone Jack

More information: The end of cheap coal, Richard Heinberg and David Fridley, Nature 468, 367-369 (18 November 2010) doi:10.1038/468367a ; Published online 17 November 2010

Related Stories

European power plants boosting coal use

Apr 24, 2008

High oil and natural gas prices, coupled with increased demand, are driving Europe's return to coal-fired power plants, an industry official says.

US coal peak production: Point and counterpoint

Oct 20, 2009

A timely debate on "United States Coal Peak Production" will enliven the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Portland, Oregon, today. Highly regarded experts David B. Rutledge of the California Institute ...

Coal-to-liquids plant is considered

May 21, 2007

The U.S. Department of Energy has issued a feasibility study for a commercial 50,000-barrel-a-day coal-to-liquids facility in the Illinois coal basin.

Study: Size of U.S. coal reserves in doubt

Jun 21, 2007

U.S. scientists are calling for increased federal support to obtain a more accurate assessment of the extent and location of the nation's coal reserves.

Recommended for you

NASA gets two last looks at Tropical Cyclone Jack

13 hours ago

Tropical Cyclone Jack lost its credentials today, April 22, as it no longer qualified as a tropical cyclone. However, before it weakened, NASA's TRMM satellite took a "second look" at the storm yesterday.

Krypton used to accurately date ancient Antarctic ice

Apr 21, 2014

A team of scientists has successfully identified the age of 120,000-year-old Antarctic ice using radiometric krypton dating – a new technique that may allow them to locate and date ice that is more than ...

Taking the pulse of mountain formation in the Andes

Apr 21, 2014

Scientists have long been trying to understand how the Andes and other broad, high-elevation mountain ranges were formed. New research by Carmala Garzione, a professor of earth and environmental sciences ...

User comments : 33

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

TAz00
3.4 / 5 (5) Nov 22, 2010
Thank goodness
ArtflDgr
2 / 5 (8) Nov 22, 2010
Taz00,
your going to love that future! I hope you were not raised in a single mother family and that your grandparents taught you how to can food, make pultice, produce soap, and all those lame skills the boomers thought they would never need again (little did they realize, or care, that their children will need it).

you can be sure of one thing, those that do have those skills will remember the loudmouths who were so shortsighted. as my grandfather would say, only fools would prance around in celebration of their own destruction at their own hands, and then attack anyone who wont dance with them...
Skeptic_Heretic
4.6 / 5 (9) Nov 22, 2010
your going to love that future! I hope you were not raised in a single mother family and that your grandparents taught you how to can food, make pultice, produce soap, and all those lame skills the boomers thought they would never need again (little did they realize, or care, that their children will need it).
Not sure how old you are, but by the time I was born, nuclear power was developed and mature.
genastropsychicallst
1 / 5 (4) Nov 22, 2010
How expensiver 'the' thought of from it, but on my site I don't write about money. Just biopsychics, Albert.
nada
4.2 / 5 (10) Nov 22, 2010
Here's an idea: Stop breeding like rats!

Less people, less energy.
GSwift7
5 / 5 (4) Nov 22, 2010
These people are complete fanatics. Look up "transition towns" and "post carbon institute".

They are idealists, which isn't a bad thing so to speak, but they are extremely light on science and extremely heavy on rhetoric. So, while this article may sound kinda scientific, I caution readers to consider the source and don't be afraid to question what is presented here. If the propositions have merrit and solid factual support then questions should be welcome.

I hardly think back yard composting and raising chickens in your garage is the solution we need right now.

People like these guys are the reason nuclear power has been blocked in the US for the past 50 years. They are the problem as much as they are a solution.
mrlewish
3 / 5 (2) Nov 22, 2010
Reminds me of the old hunters story. What happens if you have 21 deer and there is only enough food for 20? They ALL starve.
Loodt
1.5 / 5 (8) Nov 22, 2010
There's a lot of coal down South, in Antarctica! Once the stuff is really scares, watch how the penguins gets shoved aside, when they dig for it.

And who can stop and police them? The UK and France with one operational aircraft carrier between them?

China, which will be world's dominant power in the very near future, will just walk in and dig that coal if its national security depends on it!
freethinking
1 / 5 (5) Nov 22, 2010
Could these guys be as Reliable as Al Gore?

http://www.foxnew...support/

ArtflDgr
1 / 5 (4) Nov 22, 2010
yes nuclear power is mature..
but not thorium based, so its not ubiquitous...

anyway, if they are not goin to stagnate us, then why make a storage plaev for a thousand pluse years when less than 50 we would ahve ubiquitous space flight...

unless we wont have any of that...

my reference was that people who are suddenly put into subsistence, even i the US, dont do well as they dont have the cultrual knowlege to do well.

ie. they are domesticated to the point they cant survive well, when their gradnparents would not bat an eye
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (2) Nov 22, 2010
Could these guys be as Reliable as Al Gore?

http://www.foxnew...support/


How about as reliable as the Wegman report against AGCC research.
http://www.usatod...ed_N.htm
SgntZim
not rated yet Nov 22, 2010
To take up Loodts' point. Can anyone with the slightest knowledge of European politics imagine France and the UK sharing an aircraft carrier? Rofl
We'll see how strong China is when we see which countries attend the Nobel Peace prize awards!!
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (1) Nov 23, 2010
Can anyone with the slightest knowledge of European politics imagine France and the UK sharing an aircraft carrier?
They do now, no imagination needed.
http://www.flight...act.html

First exercises begin 1/15/2011. Aside from that they've been doing so in the UN, on US aircraft carriers for a long time. You overstate the bias between the two nations.
wwqq
4 / 5 (2) Nov 23, 2010
Less people, less energy.


Less people, less progress, less urgency => burn just as much coal in slightly longer time and have just as many problems transitioning to the ultimate energy source, nuclear.
dirk_bruere
2.5 / 5 (2) Nov 23, 2010
Yes! The only way we can power our hitech civilization is digging up and setting fire to dead dinosaurs! Anyone who says otherwise is a leftist greenie weenie.
Modernmystic
3.4 / 5 (5) Nov 23, 2010
Yes! The only way we can power our hitech civilization is digging up and setting fire to dead dinosaurs! Anyone who says otherwise is a leftist greenie weenie.


Oh so will the leftist greenie weenie's actually start letting us be a step above a fire culture and allow new nuclear plants to be built without 5,422 lawsuits for each proposed permit??

How about starting with letting us reprocess our waste so we don't have to shove it in a mountain for 10,000 years...
Loodt
1 / 5 (4) Nov 23, 2010
Modernmystic, obviously you are not French - Skeptic Heretic's favourite folk - for they have been doing it for years. It is only the self-opinionated Anglo-Saxons that don't want to reprocess nuclear waste.
Javinator
5 / 5 (3) Nov 23, 2010
yes nuclear power is mature..
but not thorium based, so its not ubiquitous...


Actually the reason that they're not ubiquitous is due to the fear of the public. Thorium reactors would be nice, but would not help with the fear aspect.
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (1) Nov 23, 2010
Modernmystic, obviously you are not French - Skeptic Heretic's favourite folk
Where did you divine this bullshit from?
Jmaximus
5 / 5 (4) Nov 25, 2010
The Post-Carbon Institute is very unrealistic if they expect humanity to abandon it's current standard of living and revert to some elusive preindustrial utopia. Shouldn't they be using scrolls instead of a website to get their message out? I am all for for cleaner greener energy and lifestyles, but I am 100% against their anti-technology message. The solution is to better utilize our resources and energy not to live like some stone age Amish.
ekim
5 / 5 (3) Nov 26, 2010
The Post-Carbon Institute is very unrealistic if they expect humanity to abandon it's current standard of living and revert to some elusive preindustrial utopia. Shouldn't they be using scrolls instead of a website to get their message out? I am all for for cleaner greener energy and lifestyles, but I am 100% against their anti-technology message. The solution is to better utilize our resources and energy not to live like some stone age Amish.

I agree. Technology is the key. Reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is an engineering problem not a social problem.
http://www.scient...-dioxide
With proper investment in the right technologies we won't have to live in the dark ages.
John_balls
2.7 / 5 (3) Nov 28, 2010
If you actually think we will be mining for coal in the U.S. 2 decades from now then I have a bridge to sell you.
In other words I see the usage of coal dropping exponentially over the next 10 years time.
lengould100
5 / 5 (1) Nov 29, 2010
Those hoping that supply is going to restrain fossil fuel use are dreaming.

In-ground gassification of coal is presently feasible and proven. It enables access to coal seams which are a) too deep b) too thinly laid c) too low in quality to mine physically, and that's a LOT more coal than the mineable stuff.

Requires only a low-tech shallow drill rig and an air compressor, and knowledge of how to fabricate and operate those isn't going away any time soon.
lengould100
not rated yet Nov 29, 2010
There's an area in western Canada nearly the size of Texas underlain by 5 separate coal seams, all too deep to mine economically so not counted in any reserve, but its already being drilled to extract the coalbed methane....
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (2) Nov 29, 2010
If you actually think we will be mining for coal in the U.S. 2 decades from now then I have a bridge to sell you.
In other words I see the usage of coal dropping exponentially over the next 10 years time.

I disagree. Coal is and will continue to be, an energy staple for the Indian subcontinent and Africa. We may not use it, but we'll certainly sell it.
GSwift7
not rated yet Nov 29, 2010
Unless there is a BIG breakthrough in some alternative way to generate electricity, or we allow hydroelectric and nuclear plants to be built in record numbers, then our demand for electricity will assure the continued use of coal in the US for a long time. No matter how badly the environmentalists want to see an artificial price increase for coal, it's not going to happen when our energy demands keep increasing.

Stories like this one are more political than scientific. Peak coal is a scare tactic used as a bargaining chip in an attempt to garner support for cap and trade.
ekim
1 / 5 (1) Nov 29, 2010
Unless there is a BIG breakthrough in some alternative way to generate electricity, ...

http://www.generalfusion.com/
Does this count?
The table top reactor works.
The full sized version is four years away.
Commercialization in ten.
Bog_Mire
1 / 5 (1) Nov 30, 2010
isnt csg bad for the groundwater?
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (1) Nov 30, 2010
Unless there is a BIG breakthrough in some alternative way to generate electricity, ...

http://www.generalfusion.com/
Does this count?
The table top reactor works.
The full sized version is four years away.
Commercialization in ten.

Have you gotten more power out than you've put in yet?
GSwift7
not rated yet Nov 30, 2010
Discussion of any potential contender in the energy research race is very esoteric. Unless you're an insider in the field, then it's nearly impossible to get anything more than boiler-plate press release dribble designed to attract funding.

However, fusion as a whole is probably one of the least promising technologies as we stand right now. From what I can see, the 'silver bullet' may actually be on the consumption side of things rather than the production side. Technologies like pizeoelectrics, thermoelectrics, and advanced materials may reduce consumption and have a more global impact in a shorter time frame. Make a cheaper and better air conditioner and everyone will buy them, for example. Make a computer that uses 50% less power (so batteries last twice as long) and everyone will buy them, for another example. Greed may have more potential to save us than you think. It's very motivational.
Bog_Mire
5 / 5 (1) Nov 30, 2010
ask a valid question and get a 1/5? How about a valid answer instead. Though there where scientificos here...
GSwift7
not rated yet Dec 07, 2010
Sorry Bog Mire. I clicked on the wrong post.

That's a complicated question. The intent when they do it is that they study the geography to determine the potential impact before the get started. They hire armies of geologists and the like before they get approval. The EPA makes them jump through hoops for decades, which is a big part of why it's so expensive actually. The environmental lobbyists make sure that even when a resource is found and opened for exploitation, the energy companies have to spend millions to get past all the red tape and law suits.

Anything you do can affect ground water in a good or bad way, and it's hard to predict. Even building a shopping mall can disturb the aquifer underneath. Ironically, one of the biggest threats to ground water is merely from pumping it out. It makes the land sink above which changes the aquifer and can allow sea water to seep in in places near the coast.
Skeptic_Heretic
4 / 5 (1) Dec 07, 2010
That's a complicated question. The intent when they do it is that they study the geography to determine the potential impact before the get started. They hire armies of geologists and the like before they get approval. The EPA makes them jump through hoops for decades, which is a big part of why it's so expensive actually. The environmental lobbyists make sure that even when a resource is found and opened for exploitation, the energy companies have to spend millions to get past all the red tape and law suits.
Or they take the head of the MMS out to dinner once or twice and get a free pass.

Seriously, the red tape is insane, but the skirting of regulation is even worse.

More news stories

Florida is 'Ground Zero' for sea level rise

Warm sunshine and sandy beaches make south Florida and its crown city, Miami, a haven for tourists, but the area is increasingly endangered by sea level rise, experts said Tuesday.

NASA gets two last looks at Tropical Cyclone Jack

Tropical Cyclone Jack lost its credentials today, April 22, as it no longer qualified as a tropical cyclone. However, before it weakened, NASA's TRMM satellite took a "second look" at the storm yesterday.

UV-radiation data to help ecological research

Many research projects study the effects of temperature and precipitation on the global distribution of plant and animal species. However, an important component of climate research, the UV-B radiation, is ...

Mantis shrimp stronger than airplanes

(Phys.org) —Inspired by the fist-like club of a mantis shrimp, a team of researchers led by University of California, Riverside, in collaboration with University of Southern California and Purdue University, ...

Volitional control from optical signals

(Medical Xpress)—In their quest to build better BMIs, or brain-machine-interfaces, researchers have recently begun to look closer at the sub-threshold activity of neurons. The reason for this trend is that ...