Why Coal Isn’t Going Away

Coal is Plentiful and Cheap

Coal can produce electrical power by combustion, coal can be converted into liquid fuels, and coal can be converted into gaseous fuels. Coal’s abundance, versatility, and low cost all guarantee the continuation of global (and US) coal production for many decades yet.

Global coal consumption is set to remain steady in absolute terms through the middle of the century…

… projections show how the impact of rising populations and prosperity in developing economies is likely to drive an enormous increase in total energy demand which will continue to support absolute coal consumption.

Coal consumption is almost certain to remain a major part of the energy mix, especially in poorer countries, even as oil, gas, nuclear and renewables become relatively more important. __ https://www.reuters.com/article/us-coal-climatechange-kemp-column/coals-lingering-role-complicates-climate-change-efforts-kemp-idUSKBN1O51JN

In the US, the EPA is streamlining some of the absurd greenhouse regulations instituted during the Obama “economic reign of terror.”

Energy companies found that the combination of stricter environmental laws and low cost of natural gas as a fuel made building new plants uneconomical. The removal or diminution of the rule could help make new coal plants more financially attractive to run … __ Rejuvenating Coal

The EPA was once justifiable, in the early years of the clean air and clean water acts. But just like any government bureaucracy, the EPA grabbed more power than it was justified in doing, and is overdue for some trimming back.

Hydrocarbon Reserves are Plentiful

Global Hydrocarbon Endowment
Gary Swindell Geologist Dallas TX
http://gswindell.com/endow.htm

Humans have barely begun to tap into the planetary crust, in the quest for hydrocarbon energy. And if the governments of advanced nations suddenly acquire much more wisdom than they are known for, it may never be necessary to go much deeper. According to all that we know about the energy density of various fuels, only nuclear fission and fusion can take advanced human societies well into an abundant and expansive human future.

Energy Density Comparison from Wikipedia
Fusion, Fission Orders of Magnitude Better than Chemical and Other Energy Sources

Surviving an Ice Age

Earth has suffered through some very frigid periods in the past, even a so-called “Snowball Earth” where the entire planet was covered with ice. Consider how you and your family might survive such an extended cold spell on the planetary surface. Wind and solar would obviously not do, nor would hydroelectric power.

Coal, oil, and natural gas would only work if you lived in a large, advanced underground complex with direct pipeline access to nearby subterranean hydrocarbon fields. But imagine all the coal ash that you would need to find a use for, if you were forced to use coal to stay alive!

No, by far the better approach would be modular fission or fusion plants, using micro-grids to supply colonies and communities. The plants would have to be extremely efficient, burning a high percent of available fuel. Even with high energy density and excellent burn efficiency, one would need to stockpile a large supply of fuel.

Clearly one would need power plants that could be fueled for long periods of times — centuries or longer. Such nuclear reactors are not nearly developed.

For intelligent persons, worrying about a few degrees of climate warming is not a large concern. Rather, the threat of an extended period of deep glaciation — which has happened repeatedly in the past — is the larger concern.

If burning coal helps to retard the coming of such an “ice age,” we had best set about burning a lot more coal than the climate cultists would have us burn.

Abundant Gas Hydrates
Der Spiegel

Thank the universe for hydrocarbons! Without them, you would probably not be here.

More: Black gold, Texas tea

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10 Responses to Why Coal Isn’t Going Away

  1. Jim says:

    “Snowball Earth” episodes happened long ago and it’s amazing that life on this planet survived at all. The recurrent “Ice Ages” of the last few million years are not “Snowball Earth” episodes. Humans were around in some of them and survived.

    • alfin2101 says:

      As for the extent of climate swings more than 1 or 2 billion years ago, no one can prove much either way. Much of geological history is based on conjecture, models, and extrapolation/imagination. Just as most of the science which we cannot thoroughly document is assembled largely of educated guesses. Science is not a noun, properly speaking. It is a verb, a method. Making science an icon and worshiping “science” as it is presented in textbooks is one of the largest mistakes that modern people make.

      Scientific theories and hypotheses are made to be pulled down and destroyed by new evidence and new theories.

  2. Jim says:

    By the way I would agree that the Earth in the current era is much cooler than it has generally been over the last 600-700 million years. At the end of the Cretaceous the Earth is thought to have been
    about 10 degrees centigrade warmer than now. Also ocean levels are now close to the minimum over this period.

  3. It will have to go away eventually – and the faster we use it, the faster that day comes.

    At current rates, proven reserves will be exhausted in ~125 years. As other fossil fuels decline, the rate probably go up – if we replaced all other fossil fuels with coal, we’d need to at least treble the rate we use it, not accounting for the lower efficiencies achieved. Given population growth and the demands of economic growth (I don’t think the Chinese will be content to use far less energy than the Europeans), we will have to use a lot more than that. Of course, the total resources are probably a lot higher, so we might make it to the end of this century before peak coal hits.

    On the other hand, whilst climate change may or may not be a problem at 400ppm CO2, it’s a different matter at 2000ppm. Plus there’s a lot of other environmental damage associated with coal. Earth at 2100 could easily resemble a typical hive world – choking air, barren wastelands, and overpopulated cities with a massive underclass and a small but wealthy and healthy elite. Think https://nishikiprestige.wordpress.com/2018/11/11/crucifying-humanitarian-environmentalism-2/

    On the gripping hand, 50 extra years should be enough for Musk and co to get us established off-world, and the biotech revolution to flower, before the world sinks in to the morass of the resource wars and dysgenic fertility takes its toll. So it might be worth it, despite the horror of turning Holy Terra into Armageddon.

    • alfin2101 says:

      Some interesting ideas, although much more thought is required for some of them.

      For example, have you any idea how much hydrocarbon would have to be burned to raise the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere from the current low 400 ppm to 2000 ppm and keep it there? Hint: A lot more than humans can dig up in the next several hundred years. Unless of course one gets rid of all of Earth’s oceans and all plant life on Earth. The complexity of the atmosphere is far beyond the wits of the current breed of climatologist (not to mention journalists, politicians, and bureaucrats), and the atmosphere is just one piece of the massive puzzle that determines global climate.

      Likewise, humans cannot burn all of Earth’s coal in 125 years. Not in 1,250 years. The difficulty comes in computing “proven reserves.” Earth’s proven oil reserves in 2018, for example, are far higher than they were in 1918. In fact, the more oil we use, the higher oil reserves have grown.

      The same principle (once a person learns how it works) applies to coal and most natural resources.
      See: https://humanprogress.org/article.php?p=1603&fbclid=IwAR3qbgn4mOJcqzFSU19A74HgQ18wd54Uje-ofVNLdX8nsfYE7Jx0Xn6TsJ0

      Technology tends to advance in free societies, and advancing technology disrupts all straight line extrapolations and predictions. Proven reserves are those known reserves that are economical to extract. But that number constantly changes as technology evolves.

      For a good laugh go back and read some of the 1970 Earth Day predictions and some of the books of Paul Ehrlich. By their reckoning we should all be dead now. Then read Paul 😉 Julian Simon’s free online book “Ultimate Resource II.” More

      You don’t have to be a cornucopian to understand that today’s breed of doomer is almost inconceivably stupid (the word may not mean what we think it means).

      • alfin2101 says:

        But you are right that coal will “go away.” When humans move to advanced nuclear (fission and fusion) there will not be the need for advanced societies to burn coal.

        Less advanced societies (average IQ < 90) will not be able to use nuclear safely until it is made "fool-safe" so they will be using coal to produce electrical power a lot longer than more advanced societies will do.

        Grid solar and grid wind are destructive traps that only look attractive to well-intentioned "greens." If you care to get a degree in electrical power engineering, you will learn why such schemes cannot possibly work under any circumstances in an economically sustainable way. Otherwise, go talk to a number of people responsible for keeping power grids up and running, buy them a drink or two (off duty), and let them talk about the subject — take notes.

        But yes, coal will for us eventually "go away." And good riddance too. The stone age did not end because the world used up its proven stone reserves.

      • “For example, have you any idea how much hydrocarbon would have to be burned to raise the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere from the current low 400 ppm to 2000 ppm and keep it there?”

        Yes.

        The concentration of oxygen is ~200,000 ppm @ ~2 tonnes per m^2. In order to raise CO2 levels by 2000 ppm, we would have to convert 1% of the oxygen to CO2, which would require burning 10kg of carbon for every square metre of the planet. The earth has a surface area of ~500 million square kilometres, so that’s a total 5 teratonnes of carbon that would have to be burnt in order to raise the CO2 concentration by (not to) 2000ppm.

        Currently, world coal consumption is ~8 gigatonnes. At this rate, it would take us 625 years to burn that much coal – if we could access it. However, if we rely upon coal to meet *all* current fossil fuel needs, it would require a trebling of the coal consumption rate. If China and India demand European levels of energy consumption as well, that would be another doubling, leaving us with around a century before reaching that point.

        Of course, that requires us to be able to access that coal. If we can only access a teratonne of additional coal, we have ~40 years left if it replaces all other fossil fuels, and ~20 years if India and China suddenly reach Euro levels. Though in the later case (which is very unlikely), no-one would build coal plants, because the economics wouldn’t pencil out.

        • alfin2101 says:

          Thanks for the calculation. But keep in mind that the atmosphere is a dynamic system, interacting with oceans, the biosphere, and the lithosphere. Oceanic and terrestrial biospheres will not let the CO2 rise so high. Oceans are hungry for anything that looks like food, and drink up CO2 greedily when the dynamic balance allows.

          Coal will not be in the picture once humans finally admit that they must develop advanced nuclear power technologies for all scales of use — including for outer space applications. Coal is dirty, bulky, and has low energy density compared to other common forms of power production (although wind and solar are far worse!). New generations of coal plants, however, are cleaner than old generations. This development will continue. But why not just move to advanced nuclear?

          Nature and the universe could finish us off without breaking a sweat. Planet Earth could easily raise atmospheric CO2 levels higher than 2,000 ppm using massive volcanic release. That would be a catastrophe for poor little humans. An asteroid strike would be even more devastating.

          And then there is a super-glaciation period which could wipe out at least 80% of humans through elimination of fertile farmland and advanced northern hemisphere infrastructure.

          • Coal has the major advantage over nuclear that it’s a lot cheaper. If coal is acceptable, we’re not going to build nuclear plants that are twice as expensive. New developments are likely to make coal even more attractive – coal slurry fuels would enable load-following. As you say, coal doesn’t require the same IQ levels as nuclear to run a power plant (if we wanted to massively deploy nuclear in the next few years, we’d have to start recruiting new engineers a decade ago), which means that even in high-IQ countries the labour cost is going to be lower.

            As far as space applications go, solar (thermal or otherwise) is going to beat nuclear out to at least Jupiter, and uranium and thorium are pretty scarce past that, so you’re going to need fusion rather than fission. OTOH, the large free vacuum in space should make constructing fusion plants a lot easier…

            Re. CO2, it takes time for the earth to draw the levels down. The level has increased by over 100ppm since we started measuring it, so we know our emissions have been outpacing the earth’s ability to use the CO2. It would take thousands of years for CO2 levels to fall back down again.

          • alfin2101 says:

            It takes a huge investment of time, money, brainpower, and other resources to develop, scale, and make economical and safe advanced nuclear reactors. Taking all the money and resources squandered on grid solar and grid wind monstrosities, we could have been most of the way there.

            The common perception that it takes the planet thousands of years to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels is very interesting. 2000 ppm is an attainable artificial atmosphere for greenhouse plants, but CO2 must be constantly generated to maintain such high levels. This would be true even for airtight greenhouses, assuming plenty of energetic photons to maintain photosynthesis. And the terrestrial biosphere only one of the carbon sinks that Planet Earth contains.

            If humans wise up and shift to advanced nuclear energy, one small part of the planetary carbon generator would be turned down.

            The ocean stores 50 times more carbon than the atmosphere and maintains an equilibrium dependent upon temperature. As the Earth has warmed naturally from the Little Ice Age, oceans have naturally released CO2 into the atmosphere (out-gassing), which humans recently became able to measure (recent in geologic terms). This coincidental rise of both temperature and CO2 may have been confused by some in terms of cause and effect, when the largest part of the correlation was due to confounding.

            The confusion should be settled through experiments, with computer modeling taking on its proper role to generate hypotheses for future experiments.

            Atmospheric carbon is a very tiny amount when compared with the carbon in oceans, the lithosphere, and the terrestrial biosphere. But that is not important. Only the dynamic interchange of carbon between the various active and passive reservoirs is important. To better understand that, we need better experiments and a lot less political involvement.

            It is nice to see a humble climatologist for a change:

            We really don’t know where these sources and sinks are…all we see is the net result of all of them expressed in the average atmospheric concentration. Like your bank balance representing the net effects of all deposits and withdrawals. __ Roy Spencer

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