Study Warns 'Peak Coal' Could Be Just Years Away

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?

Twin Peaks

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?

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  • JamesDavis

    So why you start building geothermal and hydro power plants now to replace the coal burning power plants?

  • Rick Dworsky

    A legitimate question: Is there ANY combination of alternate energy sources that can maintain global civilization as we have known it? I don’t think so. It is a bit of techno fantasy to believe that we still have enough time… and available fossil fuel energy… and other resources such as copper and rare earth minerals… to smoothly transition EVERYONE who currently enjoys the creature comforts of global civilization – to alternative energy and sustainable lifestyles. Because resources will become increasingly scarce and expensive the poorest will suffer and die… eventually resource scarcity induced poverty will drain the currently lucky into the same miserable fate. It seems we will either all die off from the combination of climate change, toxins, water shortages, deforestation, ocean-icide, soil erosion, famine, epidemics, mass extinction, war and general environmental collapse — or reach a relatively peaceful population equilibrium with our planet. Ultimately there will be a reckoning with our ecological limits, and billions will die off. Windmills can’t save them, but they can help make life more comfortable for the momentarily lucky.

  • ED

    Might be legitimate analysis (though you have a typo somewhere with two “2037” instances, “sinking to 1990 levels by 2037 and dropping to half of peak production by 2037.”)

    These folks’ press release on in the dept of PETROLEUM is scientific sounding one minute, very unscientific and hysterical the next minute by calling others “hysterical” for thinking about the need to limit CO2…they have, in short, an agenda. Peak coal is very real. Whether their numbers are, I don’t know. Even if correct, they miss the boat with their ‘spin’ against action on climate. Why? Simple:

    Yes, peak oil (which I’ve been following for 10 years) and peak coal,
    ceteris paribus, would make CO2 levels lower than otherwise projected
    by IPCC.

    At the same time however, it’s also true that positive feedbacks that
    were either not known just a few years ago, of which were known but
    due to political pressure by China, U.S., Saudi Arabia or others, was
    excluded from IPCC analysis, mean that, ceteris paribus, we can expect
    CO2 and other GHG levels to be HIGHER than IPCC predicted when it
    excluded those considerations.

    So n inconvenient fact is that, all other things are not equal
    (ceteris is not paribus) have to adjust downwards for peak
    oil/peak coal reasons, and you have to adjust upwards, due to omitted
    positive feedbacks which could unleash massive increases in CO2,
    methane etc, in positive feedback from natural system, responding to
    initial actions by humankind.

    Now, it couldn’t possibly be that oil-addicted folks in the
    oil-industry-$$$ linked Texas area, might possibly want to look at
    ONLY the former and NOT the latter, could it?

    “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary
    depends upon his not understanding it.” -Upton Sinclair

  • JamesDavis

    Ed, you are probably the prime example of not wanting to understand what 7 billion people, and probably 4 billion of them driving vehicles is doing to the environment. It is not CO2 that is killing our environment and giving us chronic diseases, it is CO1 (carbon monoxide), the deadly toxin you get from burning fossil fuels. Our trees, if we just start planting them instead of cutting them, can take care of the CO2, but they cannot take care of the CO1 because CO1 causes acid rain that kills the trees, and without the trees, you are not going to be breathing because it is the trees that creates the nitrogen and oxygen that we are so dependent on for life.

    During the Bush administration, CO1 was forgot about because Bush oil, that he convinced people that we are too addicted to to get away from, produces the CO1 and he figured that if he didn’t mention it, people would forget it…and they did.

    We will never hear people like you, Ed, mention CO1 because Bush has blinded and convinced you, and the greatest majority of the Republicans, that CO1 does not exist.

    Geothermal is not an alternative, temporary energy that will be here today and gone tomorrow, …and it can produce all the clean, cheap, and renewable energy the world will need for the next million years. To finance one coal burning power plant or one nuclear power plant, you can build four or five geothermal power plants. So why is everyone down on a power source that is so clean, safe, and cheap as geothermal?

  • Stu

    Nuclear is a waste of time. Do some research and some sums. By the time you mine all the ore, refine it down with the zillian stage process to get enough nuclear fuel to run a reactor on for one year… have used more oil and fossil fuels… mining……refining….transporting…..and building the nuclear reactor……..then what it would take to run a fossil fuel power plant. And you haven’t even dealt with the waste yet. And do you know that no nuclear waste has ever been dealt with…’s all in storage…..waiting for the day when we work out what to do with it……every last little bit of it that we have ever created since splitting the first atom. Now lets think about nuclear fusion……nothing to think about here… doesn’t exist anyway on earth…..and probably never will. It’s been 30 years away ever since they started trying to work out how to do it.

    Solar panels……same thing…….mine the ultra high quality sand…….transport that……refine it……..make silcon…….build plants to make panels…….mine aluminium……billions of tonnes of glass……..blah blah blah……then you have panels that used more energy to create then they will ever put out in their life.

    Wind power……..geothermal……etc etc…….if you study them……they can’t exist without a fossil fuel base. In other words……when the fossil fuels are gone…..all the power from all these sources won’t be enough to keep all the factories and maint opperations going to maintain the base of renewables and have enough power left over for all the other things we use it for.

    Bottom line everyone…….we are going back to the days when your average house used electricity for a fridge……and some lights……and a few other small things and thats it…….and even if we are going to be able to build and maintain that standard of living……we better get cracking cutting our use and building the system now……..if we don’t…….we’ll end up back in the stone age.

    I for one don’t have a problem with what is going to happen. I see our current civilisation breeding stupid useless entitled selfish human trash. We teach everyone that they are special even though they do absolutely noithing to benefit society and don’t even carry their own weight. Each generation of human that live oin this earth will be less intelligent and more irresponsible as long as our current entitlement system and political correctness keep supporting and encouraging this belief that you can get everything for nothing at someone elses expense…..that the world owes you……that crying victim is the way to get everything instead of hard work. These things alone will cause our civilisation to collapse in the end……even without peak oil…..or peak coal…..or climate change.

  • Giant


    So Goethermal is the answer. Please tell me how the planet will be affected when several billion holes are punched into the ground?

    Has anyone studied this? Geothermal is effectively an energy transfer. With enough holes in the ground, it will not be insignificant.


  • Giant


    So Goethermal is the answer. Please tell me how the planet will be affected when several billion holes are punched into the ground?

    Has anyone studied this? Geothermal is effectively an energy transfer. With enough holes in the ground, it will not be insignificant.


  • FamilyGuy

    Ed, I thought the same thing about 2037.

    “…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 2037…”

    Either it’s a typo or the production rates in 2011 are predicted to be double that of 1990?

  • jeremy

    But little kids are so cute!

  • simon@syd

    Technology is going to kill us, or save us. And now we will want to use genetic engineering and nanotechnology (maybe dopey ideas like intentional climate manipulation) to solve our problems. The ‘technologist fantasy’ is here.

  • Spec

    There are very few places where you can use geothermal energy. You need to have a place that has a geothermal vent relatively close to the surface. In most places you would have to drill down a ridiculous distance before you hit really hot temperatures. That is expensive and impractical.

    Hydropower has the same problem . . . most of the good places are already damned up.

    However, that Stu guy is wrong about solar power. They don’t use more up in energy than they will generate during their lifetime. If that was true they would be ridiculously expensive and you would never make you money back with them. But you do make your money back with them.