Coal is dead… Long live coal?

With soaring oil and gas prices, coal consumption is experiencing a marked recovery. The trend is particularly strong in China and India where abundant coal deposits provide a means of meeting an exploding energy demand. But reconciling the growing population and economies of the emerging world with the imperatives linked to global warming and energy security is set to remain a major challenge.

© Shutterstock
© Shutterstock
Prévision de la croissance des capacités de production d’électricité en Chine (scénario de référence 2005-2030 de l’IEA). © OECD/IEA 2007
Forecasted increase in electricity production capacities in China (IEA reference scenario 2005-2030). © OECD/IEA 2007
Prévision de l’évolution des combustibles pour la production électrique en Inde (scénario de référence 2005-2030 de l’IEA). © OECD/IEA 2007
Forecasted growth in fuel for electricity production in India (IEA reference scenario 2005-2030). © OECD/IEA 2007

According to the reference scenario set out in the World Energy Outlook 2007 published by the International Energy Agency (IEA) – focusing largely on China and India – global coal consumption will increase by 74% between 2004 and 2030. Global reserves currently stand at 998 billion tonnes, which is enough to meet the planet’s energy demands for the next 160 years. Although coal is mined in over 100 countries on every continent except Antarctica, two-thirds of exploitable resources lie in the sub-soil of four countries.

The United States has the largest stock, with 27% of the world’s reserves, followed by Russia (17 %), China (13%) and India (10%).

In 2004, 66 % of world production came from these four countries and two-thirds of the 5.9 billion tonnes of coal produced in 2005 was destined for electricity generation.

The exploding energy demand

This situation is very fortunate for India and China, which are in urgent need of energy to develop their industry and electricity grid. The IEA expects the number of people need ingelectricity in India to increase from 62 % to 96 % of the population between 2005 and 2030. This means India will have to triple its production capacity. “According to forecasts, 700 GW will have to be added to the Indian network by 2030, 60 % of which will be generated using coal,” says N.N. Gautam, a former expert attached to India’s Ministry for Coal.

China’s energy targets are even more impressive: no less than 1 300 GW – equivalent to the total energy capacity of the United States! – will have to be added to the grid during this same period to satisfy consumer demand.

Coal-fired plants will contribute 38%.

While 70 % of India’s coal demand comes from electricity generation, almost half (45%) of Chinese demand comes from its fast-growing basic industries, especially iron and steel.

China is also interested in coal with a view to producing synthetic oil. The Shenhua Coal Liquefaction Corporation has just completed construction work in Mongolia on China’s very first coal liquefaction factory. Inexpensive, immediately accessible and widely available worldwide, coal is coming to be seen as the most suitable energy option for meeting Chinese and Indian needs. These two countries will alone be responsible for as much as 72% of the growth in coal consumption between 2004 and 2030.

The pitfalls of the coal renaissance

This coal renaissance is nevertheless causing concerns. The quantity of CO2 emitted during coal combustion is about 25 % higher than that emitted by oil per unit of energy produced, and 50 % higher than for gas. In 2004, coal was already the second most polluting energy source in terms of CO2 emissions, accounting for about 39 % of total emissions, and by 2010 it is expected to replace oil as the biggest polluter.

A vast deployment of CO2 capture and storage systems (CCS) could limit the environmental impact of this return to coal, although the technology is still in its infancy and experts expect it will take another decade to perfect it. “In addition, present studies highlight a lack of storage solutions in India, thus complicating the installing of CCS. China does have some reservoirs but the storage potential in Asia remains low in comparison to the rest of the world,” believes Sankar Bhattacharya, CCS expert at the IEA. “In accordance with the IEA recommendations for the short term, China and India are today concentrating on optimising the yield of certain existing coal-fired power plants and closing the most archaic plants that are too polluting,” explains the expert. Subsequently, to reduce drastically greenhouse gas emissions in the medium term, the IEA recommends the large-scale installation of clean-coal technologies.

Also, with a view to reducing dependency on a single and limited energy, it advocates diversifying energy sources by investing in the long term in nuclear and renewable energies.

A necessary technology transfer

China has already shown proof of goodwill, in particular by announcing a 20 % reduction in energy consumption per unit of GDP by 2010 and making a determined effort to exploit its green energy potential. “China is set to invest over 10 billion US dollars in developing its renewable energy facilities in 2007, making it the world’s second biggest investor in this sector after Germany,” states a press release published at the end of 2007 on the Worldwatch Institute (1) site. However, emerging countries are demanding financial support and a greater technology transfer on the part of rich nations, a message clearly stated at the international climate conference in Bali last December. “The developing countries are not going to sacrifice their quality of life in the name of global warming,” warned N.N. Gautam. “The developed world must therefore increase the transfer of technologies to the poor countries.” With its origins in the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the European Union is also increasing its research on clean coal to counter its dependency on gas and oil imports.

The ECSC treaty, which expired in 2002, has enabled the EU to cultivate a high-tech expertise, both in terms of energy efficiency and clean combustion, thanks to 50 years of pooling research on coal and steel. It is an expertise that, if shared, could prove extremely useful to the developing countries.

Research will clearly play a key role in harmonising economic growth, energy consumption and environmental protection at world level. It remains to be seen if and how politicians will coordinate the huge scientific effort needed to meet this formidable challenge.

The choice is a crucial one as many experts declare that, in the context of a global energy shortage, what humanity is most lacking is not the resources or the technologies, but time.

Julie Van Rossom

  1. China on pace to become global leader on renewable energy,, 14/11/2007


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Coal liquefaction: a sustainable solution?

Coal liquefaction – developed by Germany in the 1920s and widely used by the Nazis in World War Two – involves producing fuel for combustion engines from coal. Indirect liquefaction is based on the Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) process and involves totally breaking down the coal’s structure by gasification with oxygen and steam. This produces synthesis gas – syngas – that then reacts on an F-T catalyst to form liquid hydrocarbons. Direct liquefaction is based on the Bergius process. This involves mixing with crushed coal a recycling solvent itself obtained from coal. The resultant coal paste is then heated to 450 °C in a hydrogen atmosphere at a pressure of between 13 900 and 20 900 kilopascals. Revolutionary alchemy? That all depends on the efficiency of future techniques for capturing and storing CO2 because, whether direct or indirect, liquefaction releases much more CO2 than oil extraction and refining.