Reality Check: Unstoppable Coal

  • Date: 14/06/10

As the new BP Statistical Review shows, coal, which last year’s report pointed out was the fastest-growing source of energy, was the only major source of fossil fuel energy that didn’t fall last year. It remained flat, while oil and natural gas consumption fell; total primary energy consumption was down 1.1 per cent.

Coal is highly polluting, but also reasonably a cheap and geographically distributed source of energy. Analyst/economist/blogger Gregor MacDonald has written a lot about the world’s increasing use of coal in recent years.

We’ve put together a chart showing that coal – as a proportion of primary energy consumption — is reaching levels not seen for several decades. Since 1971, to be precise:

In fact, as Gregor points out, oil’s share is falling:

Most of it is used for electricity, but with oil production becoming ever more difficult and expensive, the rise of coal raises a somewhat uncomfortable prospect if one believes that demand for transport liquids is relatively inflexible. Transport liquids are also rather difficult to substitute for, in contrast to electricity.

And there does appear to be growing interest in converting coal to liquid fuel (coal-to-liquids  or CTL). South Africa is the only existing scale producer of CTL,according to the World Coal Institute.  But China is very keen, declaiming its leadership in the field with six projects under development. There are projects planned in Australia and the US.

In the US, a pro-CTL group touts the fuel as a way of improving US energy security. But as environmental group the Natural Resources Defense Fund points out, CTL involves almost double the emissions of conventional oil-derived transport fuel.

Financial Times, 14 June 2010

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