With electricity poised to potentially replace gasoline as the fuel that powers tomorrow’s automobiles, the question of where that power comes from is an important one. If the majority of the world’s electricity continues to come from coal, replacing internal combustion engines with lithium ion batteries will, in essence, just mean replacing one carbon-spewing combustible with another—though most research on the subject shows that EVs are still significantly cleaner.
But a new study calls into question whether coal will still be cheapest available source of energy by the time electric vehicles start making a major dent in the auto market. Could a looming shortage force our hand in replacing coal with nuclear energy and renewables?
In recent years, peak oil theory has received a lot of attention—and not just from the commodities gurus and conspiracy theorists who have been shouting warnings from the rooftops for decades. With global energy demand rising and countries like China and India on the cusp providing the world with billions of new consumers seeking something similar to the energy-thirsty “American way of life,” even the mainstream media has been known to throw the term out there from time to time. In fact, it’s possible that the consensus on peak oil has shifted in the last decade from a question of “if,” to one of “when.”
What hasn’t gotten as much attention in recent years though is the global supply of another fossil fuel that mankind relies upon to power its prosperity: Coal. About half of the electricity used in the United States comes from the burning of coal, and in other countries that number is often much higher. China relies on the fuel for more than 70 percent of its energy. But with international demand for coal expected to rise by nearly 50 percent by 2030, exactly how much of this finite resource is left to mine, and how long will it be until global production peaks?
According to a study by Tadeusz Patzek of the University of Texas and Gregory Croft of Berkeley, that day is a lot closer than anyone would imagine. Patzek and Croft are warning that after 2011, global production rates for coal will begin to decline—sinking to 1990 levels by 2037 and dropping to half of peak production by 2047. The paper also projects a corresponding decrease in emissions from coal, by an average of 2 percent per year.
Peak coal isn’t a new concept by any stretch, in fact it dates back to M. King Hubbert, the founder of peak oil theory. Using the same model he correctly used to forecast the decline of American oil production back in 1956, Hubbert predicted that global coal production would reach its apex in 2150. Since then, other researchers have placed the event closer and closer to the present day, with a 2007 study by the Energy Watch Group claiming that China will only be able to sustain its production trajectory until 2015.
Natural Cap and Trade?
So does this mean that the push to limit our emissions from coal is less dire than we might have thought? Patzek and Croft seem to think so, saying that the “current focus on carbon capture and geological sequestration may be misplaced. Instead, the global community should be devoting its attention to conservation and increasing efficiency of electrical power generation from coal.”
Still, most global warming experts warn that decreasing the amount of carbon that enters the atmosphere is an essential task that must be undertaken immediately if governments want to mitigate the effects of climate change. Waiting for global coal production to decline on its own might be the path of least resistance—and more satisfying to believers in the divine wisdom of the free market. But why focus on increasing the efficiency of coal when renewable energies are the only long-term solution to a looming problem that threatens to significantly alter the environment, destabilize world economies, or both?