Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Return of the King

King Coal ruled the nineteenth century.  Marx and Engels were on to something when they identified the dark and satanic mills of England as emblematic of a new era.  The ability of coal to provide heat, power steam engines, and forge iron enabled the rise of an industrial society that would forever change the world. 

Coal disappeared from the popular imagination during the twentieth century.  Oil and nuclear power took its place as both the automobile and the atom became symbols of a new world.  However, it is a mistake to regard coal as a relic of the past.  When historians look back at the twenty-first century, a major theme is likely to be the return of coal to its status as king of energy sources.

Of course, coal never went away in the twentieth century.  In absolute terms, its consumption steadily increased.  However, people have much less direct contact with coal these days, and as a result, its visibility has diminished.  The main reason is that most coal in industrialized nations is burnt in electric power plants far away from consumers.  It is easy to forget that coal provides over half the power used in electric devices like laptops, refrigerators, and television sets.

While coal has been a crucial part of the twentieth century, its importance is likely to increase during the twenty-first as a result of two related trends.  The first is the ratio of coal reserves relative to other hydrocarbons.  The second is China and India.  

The first major factor encouraging the rise of coal is supply.  Simply put, there is a lot more coal out there than anything else.  Estimates of global reserves vary from source to source, but are consistent in emphasizing that coal reserves exceed those for oil and natural gas.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that there are 164 years of coal remaining as opposed to 65 years for natural gas.  There is greater controversy in citing oil reserves, but virtually all cite a figure of less than 100 years at current rates of consumption.  Barring unprecedented gains in non-hydrocarbon resources, by the latter half of the twenty-first century, coal will once again be the most widely available and used energy source.

The second factor is China and India.  These countries have three important things in common: huge populations, booming economies, and large coal reserves.  The consequences of this are pretty straightforward.  China and India will consume massive quantities of energy in the twenty-first century, largely through burning coal.  As these nations begin to represent an increasing percentage of global energy use, it will cause a corresponding shift in the make-up of the world's energy mix towards coal.

The increasing use of coal will not be good for the environment.  Most coal in its natural state contains many more impurities, such as sulfur, than oil or natural gas.  Increasing our consumption of coal will mean more carbon dioxide and more particulates in the air.  More than just our mills may be dark and satanic.  

What should we do about this?  First, we need to recognize the trends so that we can act accordingly.  One approach is to invest in clean coal technology.  While "clean coal" may be an oxymoron, there is no doubt that technologies such as stack scrubbers have significantly lessened the environmental impacts of coal-burning power plants.  Whether it is carbon sequestration or other approaches to reducing the environmental impacts of coal burning, we should be investing in them now.  At the same time, we should increase our investments in renewable energy resources to lower the demand for coal.

Once these technologies are developed, it is important that developing nations like China and India get free access to them.  Global warming can only be addressed from an international perspective.  However, many of these technologies, at least initially, are likely to be expensive and beyond the reach of developing nations.  Industrialized nations like the United States must realize that much of their wealth has been derived by burning hydrocarbons and accept a disproportionate role in paying for solutions.

King Coal will return.  It's up to us to be prepared.