What is the largest source of fuel energy during the 19th century industrial revolution, just before oil reigns supreme? Coal. What is expected to be the future leading source of fuel energy? Surprisingly, it would again be back to coal.
Our industrial civilization is founded on coal, wrote George Orwell over 70 years ago. It was the case 200 years ago, and apparently, it will again be within 20 years time. Coal usage will overtake oil as the largest fuel in the global energy mix by 2035, said the International Energy Agency (IEA) Wednesday in London.
Asia has been responsible for over two-thirds of the growth in global energy demand over the past two decades. As, above all, China and India race towards prosperity, they will burn coal in huge volumes instead of using the more expensive oil.
There are several factors at present that appear to favor coal over oil:
The physical availability of resources: Coal reserves are abundant. At current production levels, proven coal reserves are estimated to last 165 years. In contrast, proven oil and gas reserves are equivalent to around 41 and 67 years respectively.
The technologies required to make good use of them: There has been significant progress in technologies required to extract & utilize coal profitably & cleanly. The main technological avenues have successfully pursued the abilities to:
clean coal, reducing the ash content of coal by over 50%, leading to much lower particulate emissions, reducing SO2 emissions and improved efficiency
increase the coal efficiency of power generation (notably via Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle systems, of which there are many variants)
improve carbon capture and storage of coal.
- The geo-political maze: Coal reserves are widely spread over the world. Coal is mined in over 100 countries worldwide. The top five producers are China, the USA, India, Australia and South Africa. By contrast, over 68% of world’s conventional oil and 67% of gas reserves are concentrated in the Middle East and Russia, with the constant talks of using oil as weapon.
There are disadvantages though: coal is very polluting. Coal generates considerably more pollutants than oil & gas, some-more, waste from coal-washing and underground leakage contaminated water and degraded soil.
China leads the world in coal production, and the Chinese are also the world’s largest consumers of coal. 80% of their electricity is derived from coal-fired power plants. India lumbers behind China, with 70% of its electricity coming from coal. Both nations face a similar dilemma; their explosive economic growth demands exponential increase of energy usage every year.
Oil, as we know, is getting a bit expensive, and don’t tell China and India to start going clean energy like Europe and North America, their billion population simply cannot afford those yet. Beside, environmental-sensitive Europe doesn’t look financially healthy now ain’t it? Nuclear can be a great alternative but too many of them pose a security risks in events of terrorist attacks, negligence or natural disasters.
Across Asia, from Bangladesh to the Philippines, the drive for coal as energy usage seems unstoppable. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar generation do not offer affordable electricity on a big enough scale. Production of natural gas, which emits less carbon, will boom but not supplant coal. This year alone there are plans to build over 1000 new coal-fired plants globally.
In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster in Japan last year, even nations that have recently reduced their dependence upon coal by using nuclear power are again in the market for coal resources. If Germany actually follows through with its plan to dump its nuclear plants, it will have no alternative energy on a large enough scale apart from coal (Russian natural gas can be another source, but that would make Germany dependence on Russia)
Japan itself, if it is to abandon nuclear energy, will need to increase its coal consumption from just under 30% of total energy usage to around 50%.
China consumes so much coal that it needs to import them, in fact, in 2011, China overtook Japan as the world’s largest importer of coal. The good news for China though, is that two of the worlds two biggest coal exporters are just in its backyard: Australia and Indonesia. And even better, right in their front yard, Mongolia is developing what is now the worlds biggest untapped coal deposit.The bad news is that China’s own reserves may be depleting more rapidly than they would like them to be.
The United States of America is the Saudi Arabia of coal, with its reserves accounted for 23% of the world’s total.
The IEA report came after oil giant BP put out its own estimation of world’s energy usage. BPs latest long-term energy outlook stated that demand for BPs main product, oil and other liquid fuels, is forecast to continue rising to 103.5 million barrels per day in 2030 (consumption in 2012 is estimated to be just over 90 million bpd according to the latest International Energy Agency projection) But at just 0.8% growth per year between 2010 and 2030, oil is set to be the slowest growing major energy source.
Natural gas, with its lower carbon emissions and growing abundance in stable regions like the U.S., will continue to gain in popularity. In 2010, natural gas accounted for 24% of global energy consumption, compared with oils 34% and coal’s 27%. In 2030 however, the two are forecast to be almost neck and neck. Gas should have 26% of the pie by then, with oil at 28%.
But the perhaps surprising winner over the next decade is coal. BP, just like the IEA, sees coal overtaking oil in terms of its share of the worlds energy mix usage. Demands for coal will come strongly from Asia, where China and India continue to rely on it to fuel their economic development. To them, while coal exacerbates pollution problems, domestic reserves and the cheap cost make it hard to resist in the short term.