Monday, August 2, 2010

Study Warns 'Peak Coal' Could Be Just Years Away

With electricity poised to potentially replace gasoline as the fuel that powers tomorrow's automobiles, the question of where that power comes from is an important one. If the majority of the world's electricity continues to come from coal, replacing internal combustion engines with lithium ion batteries will, in essence, just mean replacing one carbon-spewing combustible with another�though most research on the subject shows that EVs are still significantly cleaner.

But a new study calls into question whether coal will still be cheapest available source of energy by the time electric vehicles start making a major dent in the auto market. Could a looming shortage force our hand in replacing coal with nuclear energy and renewables?

Coal Plant

Twin Peaks

In recent years, peak oil theory has received a lot of attention�and not just from the commodities gurus and conspiracy theorists who have been shouting warnings from the rooftops for decades. With global energy demand rising and countries like China and India on the cusp providing the world with billions of new consumers seeking something similar to the energy-thirsty "American way of life," even the mainstream media has been known to throw the term out there from time to time. In fact, it's possible that the consensus on peak oil has shifted in the last decade from a question of "if," to one of "when."

What hasn't gotten as much attention in recent years though is the global supply of another fossil fuel that mankind relies upon to power its prosperity: Coal. About half of the electricity used in the United States comes from the burning of coal, and in other countries that number is often much higher. China relies on the fuel for more than 70 percent of its energy. But with international demand for coal expected to rise by nearly 50 percent by 2030, exactly how much of this finite resource is left to mine, and how long will it be until global production peaks?

According to a study by Tadeusz Patzek of the University of Texas and Gregory Croft of Berkeley, that day is a lot closer than anyone would imagine. Patzek and Croft are warning that after 2011, global production rates for coal will begin to decline�sinking to 1990 levels by 2037 and dropping to half of peak production by 2037. The paper also projects a corresponding decrease in emissions from coal, by an average of 2 percent per year.

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