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Peak coal this year?

In August last year, the journal Energy published A global coal production forecast with multi-Hubbert cycle analysis by Tadeusz W. Patzek and Gregory D. Croft. I'll let National Geographic introduce the findings.

Peak_coal_hubbert_curve A new study seeks to shake up the assumption that use of coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel, is bound to continue its inexorable rise. In fact, the authors predict that world coal production may reach its peak as early as next year, and then begin a permanent decline.

The study, led by Tad Patzek, chairman of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, and published in the August issue of Energy, predicts that by mid-century, the world's coal mining will supply only half as much energy as today.

The idea that the world will face "peak coal" as soon as 2011 flies in the face of most earlier estimates and analysis.

The London-based World Coal Institute, an industry group including the largest international coal producers, says "the use of coal will rise 60 percent over the next 20 years," and that "coal will last us for at least 119 years." And the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in its most recent international outlook, projects that coal consumption for electricity will grow more than 50 percent by 2035 unless policies are put in place to stop the growth of greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the Patzek study paints a far different picture—and not because people will use up the last of the coal in the ground. Rather, the world will finish off the coal that is easy to reach and high-quality—the coal that produces a large amount of energy per ton, the new study says. What remains will often be of lower quality, and progressively harder to dig up and bring to where it is used.

The study's prediction for the time of the peak—actually a peak in the energy produced by global coal production—may not turn out to be exactly right, Patzek said. “I’m not saying that on July 1, 2011, there will be a peak."

But the main thrust of the study is stark: “We are near or at the peak right now,” he said.

Economic Costs

If true, this could have a vast impact on the world economy.

Coal-fired power plants supply 40 percent of the world's electricity, and energy for two-thirds of the world's steel production.

"If we are right," Patzek's study said, "major restructuring and shrinking of the global economy will follow."

If true, this could have a vast impact on the world economy. As understatements go, that's right up there with the best of them. Patzek and Croft's Hubbert modeling indicates a peak in the energy obtained from coal in existing mines, so it might be better to call their result "peak exajoules (EJ) from coal". (Read the footnote below.) Here's the abstract and Table 1 from the paper.

Based on economic and policy considerations that appear to be unconstrained by geophysics, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) generated forty carbon production and emissions scenarios. In this paper, we develop a base-case scenario for global coal production based on the physical multi-cycle Hubbert analysis of historical production data. Areas with large resources but little production history, such as Alaska and the Russian Far East, are treated as sensitivities on top of this basecase, producing an additional 125 Gt of coal.

The value of this approach is that it provides a reality check on the magnitude of carbon emissions in a business-as-usual (BAU) scenario. The resulting base-case is significantly below 36 of the 40 carbon emission scenarios from the IPCC. The global peak of coal production from existing coalfields is predicted to occur close to the year 2011. The peak coal production rate is 160 EJ/y, and the peak carbon emissions from coal burning are 4.0 Gt C (15 Gt CO2) per year. After 2011, the production rates of coal and CO2 decline, reaching 1990 levels by the year 2037, and reaching 50% of the peak value in the year 2047. It is unlikely that future mines will reverse the trend predicted in this BAU scenario.

Click on the image to get a better view

Patzek and Croft's analysis is easily tested. Since this year is the coal energy peak year, it should be easy to confirm or invalidate the Hubbert model as applied to existing coal production by analyzing new production data in 2012, 2013, and so on. I would think a peak should be evident as early as 2015, and certainly by 2020. However, even if the 2011 date is (only) several years or a decade too early, we wouldn't be out of the woods. Rather than assuming we have 119 years of coal left, perhaps it would be better—perhaps it would have been better—for the world's leaders to keep a close eye on coal production.

Unfortunately, the situation is even more complicated than just stated because coal production is very sensitive to global economic conditions, which appear to be very fragile right now, and subject to great volatility. For example, China's bubble may burst. And all things being equal, a peak in energy from coal itself will be very disruptive. Not to mention our obvious troubles with oil.

Let us ponder this grim conclusion—

The most important conclusion of this paper is that the peak of global coal production from the existing coalfields is imminent, and coal production from these areas will fall by 50% in the next 40 years. The CO2 emissions from burning this coal will also decline by 50%. Thus, current focus on carbon capture and geological sequestration may be misplaced. Instead, the global community should be devoting its attention to conservation and increasing efficiency of electrical power generation from coal.

The current paradigms of a highly-integrated global economy and seamless resource substitution will fail in a severely energy constrained world...

There is more to say about "peak coal" than can be said in a single post, so I shall return to this subject soon. In the meantime, you can read the Patzek & Croft paper if you like. I should warn you that it is not valid to simply leap to the conclusion that Patzek & Croft's analysis is correct, and simply assume that the death of human civilizations (in their current form) is imminent. I know that many of you will do just that regardless of what I say.

If Patzek and Croft are indeed correct, and Hubbert modeling does successfully apply to existing coal production, there are two ways to go. If you think life's glass is half empty, you can pretend you are contortionist, bend over, place your head between your knees and, stretching as far as you can, kiss your ass goodbye. If you think life's glass is half full, it's easy to find the bright side—at least you won't have to worry about global warming anymore Smiley_glasses

And remember this, about life: nobody gets out of here alive.

Footnote — From Patzek and Croft, page 3: To convert the mass of coal of different ranks to the corresponding higher heating values (HHVs), the following averages of the HHV are used: 30 MJ/kg of anthracite, 27 MJ/kg of bituminous coal, 21 MJ/kg of subbituminous coal, and 15 MJ/kg of lignite. These averages are then multiplied by the annual production of coal reported by rank. MJ/kg stands for megajoule per kilogram.

Bonus Video


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