Transition Back to Coal

In the January issue of Monthly, published 31 January and titled Transition Back to Coal, I looked at 200 years of global coal use and I posed the following question:

The United States is the second largest consumer of coal in the world. Sitting just behind China, but ahead of India, Japan, Russia, South Africa, and Germany, the US consumes about 560 mtoe of coal each year. (million tons oil equivalent). US coal consumption has been largely flat the past 10 years, as the rest of the world has raced ahead. In 2008, the most recent year for available global coal use data, total world consumption of coal reached 3303.7 mtoe. Thus, the US accounted for nearly 17.00% of total world coal use. Within the US, coal accounts for nearly half (48.7% ) of all power generation. To give up coal completely would be an impossibility but let’s imagine for a moment such a circumstance. Question: if the United States stopped using coal today, given current coal consumption trends, how many years would need to pass before the rest of the world (ROW) replaced the lost consumption from the US?

The answer to this question can be derived by a more complex interplay between the current trajectories in peak oil and global coal consumption growth. Or, by a simpler method which is to merely look at Developing world coal demand. In the monthly newsletter, I used both approaches. But before I give you my answer, let’s take a look at the chart of Developing world coal use:

Based on current trends, and using a conservative 4.00% annual growth rate in global coal consumption (when in truth it is currently closer to 4.7 -5.00%), I project that the world could replace 100% of lost US demand in 5 years. The force behind this trend of course is not the 2 billion people in the developed world, but the nearly 5 billion people in the developing world.

In my research archives I have an August 17, 2004 copy of the Financial Times which lays out in great detail Asia’s plans to build out coal-fired power generation. On a beautiful summer day in New England I still recall reading the following passage: In Asia, utility companies are planning around 1,000 new coal-fired plants with far less environmental scrutiny than in the US. One hundred are already under construction, mostly in China. Asia’s coal demand has indeed been unstoppable for years now. This raises a more serious question, however, than the one I posed here. And that’s this: when will the world transition fully back to coal, thus displacing oil as the primary energy source?


Notes to Chart:  In the above chart, the developing Asia portion is composed of:  Bangladesh, China Hong Kong SAR, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Other Asia Pacific.