Up against a wall — of coal


Coal demand is through the roof even as prices soar. And that’s why “Carbon emissions race past all predictions.” And, of course, U.S. coal exports are soaring. As the NY Times reported in a major piece:

United States exports of coal grew from 49 million tons in 2006 to about nearly 59 million tons in 2007, according to coal industry statistics, while domestic production increased by 1 percent. Coal executives say they expect exports to reach 80 million tons this year, and with railroad and port improvements, to rise to as much as 120 million tons in the next few years.

China is the big driver, adding a stunning 200,000 Megawatts of fossil fuel power (most coal) in the past two years alone. As the Washingon Post reports today in a long must-read article:

China, the world’s largest consumer of coal, is burning through more than the United States, European Union and Japan combined. And its consumption is increasing by about 10 percent a year. In 2006, it installed power plants with more capacity than all of Britain.

If any sentence bears repeating, that one does: “China, the world’s largest consumer of coal, is burning through more than the United States, European Union and Japan combined.” Also, China has “limited electricity rate increases for years, encouraging greater use” and in January, it froze electricity prices. This completes a total reversal from their pro-efficiency policies of the 1980s and 1990s. The immorality of their energy policy (i.e. climate non-policy) almost matches ours.

India is working hard to catch up: “By 2012 India expects to add 76,000 megawatts of power, according to Upendra Kumar, a member of the mining committee at the Confederation of Indian Industries.” And many in India seem stuck in the same old misguided mindset that dominates China and parts of this country:

“Coal will continue to be king in India. There is no way out,” said Kumar… “The other choice is asking the country to stay poor. . . . The question is, are we going to allow poverty or allow a little bit of pollution?”

If that were their only choice, the answer would be obvious. But they have huge renewable and efficiency opportunities. Sadly for India, they are one of the countries that will suffer the most from climate change, especially the loss of the inland glaciers that provide water to hundreds of millions.

It is worth noting, though, that it isn’t just China and India fanning the flames. As the Post article explains, Germany and even the United Kingdom are turning back to coal, even as our country is having second thoughts.


So is there enough coal to fill demand? Well, the NYT headline from Wednesday reads: “An Export in Solid Supply.” The Post article from today reads, “Coal Can’t Fill World’s Burning Appetite.” Ah, don’t you just love the traditional media….

I think the bottom line is that, unlike conventional oil, there is more than enough coal at current prices to push us on the irreversible path to 1000 ppm of atmospheric CO2 concentrations and satisfy the world’s apparently insatiable demand for self-destruction.

If it wasn’t clear before, the next president is perhaps the only person in the world (other than the leader of China), who has any hope of providing the global leadership needed to save the climate.

16 Responses to Up against a wall — of coal

  1. Paul K says:

    I am announcing the formation of the National Fossil Fuel Replacement Association dedicated to funding the purchase and installation of alternative energy technology. Join today! The association welcomes you. Our motto is Let’s create some energy.

    As founder and first member, I am writing a check for $10 payable to National Fossil Fuel Replacement Assn. The first funding project will be for the purchase of and installation of 2Kwatt PV on a Habitat for Humanity house. That $10 buys one watt. I am dedicating myself to getting others to also write a check for $10 and participate in the association’s Ten Dollars a Month Club. It is my sincere hope that everyone reading this will join in.

    The association is now in the application for certification process, which is complex enough in Illinois to require the advice of a lawyer and an accountant. An EIN will be assigned for tax and regulatory purposes. The EIN is also required to open a bank account. Therefore, I am sending my check written to the association to the Center for American Progress Attn: Joe Romm. I urge everyone to do the same. Let’s create some energy. Be part of the solution. Yes, $10 is a small step for a man, but it’s a giant step for mankind.

  2. David B. Benson says:

    As I have stated elesewhere previously, the price of coal is now high enough that biocoal ought to be able to successfully compete. Just requires some entrepeneur to start doing it, probably first in Africa…

  3. Joerg Haas says:

    Dear Joe,
    I really admire your blog and read it regularly. But in this case, it is just not sufficient to put the blame on the Chinese and Indians.
    If you were Indian, with a still low CO2 output per capita and hundreds of millions extremely poor people, you would probably not understand why you should solve the climate crisis that others have created. Why you should pay a penny more for renewable electricity if others have built their industrial strengh on cheap coal.
    So the only way out of this dilemma is, that the costs of climate friendly electricity have to be borne by those who are responsible for the climate crisis and who are capable of bearing the extra cost.
    This is what the Greenhouse Development Framework is all about. An effort to share the costs of climate change equitably. It may sound difficult for American ears, but the longer you think about it, you may find it a feasible and realistic proposition.
    You find some information on it at

  4. Joe says:

    If you read the post again, you’ll see I don’t put the blame on the Chinese and Indians. Hence the line, “The immorality of their energy policy (i.e. climate non-policy) almost matches ours.” We are clearly more immoral because we have the wealth to act, but we refuse to.

    That said, what China is doing is excusable. Given our large and growing trade deficit with them (based in part on their undervaluing their currency), and given their leadership in PV and wind, the notion Americans are going to pay them tens of billions more to get them to switch from coal is, as I’ve said, a mutual suicide pact.

  5. Paul K says:

    One day you castigate Pielke for the religious zealotry remark, the next it’s “the immorality of their energy policy.” Classic doublespeak. Now that I am answering your key question, I wonder if you could answer it yourself. What do you propose beyond vague efficiencies, unspecified regulation and a yet to be determined cap and trade system? What do you propose we do today, tomorrow, this year, over the next five years. Is there any piece of legislation that can actually pass or executive action you favor. Which, if any, of the proposals made in your book has come to pass?

  6. Dear Joe and Commenters,

    I’ve known about the amount of coal power going into China for awhile and it is depressing. Now I know about India and that’s depressing too. Google is trying to make RE

  7. Uosdwis says:

    And thus, our doom is sealed.

  8. Joe says:

    Paul — I castigate Pielke for 1) mindless repeating denier nonsense, and 2) quoting a well-known denier on his behalf. I don’t see how that is at all incompatible with saying the U.S. and China energy/climate policy is immoral. It isn’t illegal. What else is there to call it? self-destructive works. I sometimes use “suicidal.” But immoral is certainly accurate.

    My question is not about what passable legislation I endorse — it’s what would you do if you were in charge of national and international climate policy. domestically I think I’ve been pretty clear that the Clinton or Obama plans are an adequate starting point. I do tend to agree with Hansen that we need a moratorium on coal plants without CCS.

    If you’ve read my book, then you know I’m inclined to believe that beating 450 ppm requires a WWII-scale effort. I have 2 chapters in the book on most of the solution. Plus I have some new ideas. The energy efficiency stuff is detailed in the book and on scattered blog posts. I will do a post on it. I like cogeneration a lot. And wind and solar thermal electric and probably geothermal. We’ll probably build some nukes. Not sure how much coal with CCS, but I’d certainly pursue it more vigorously than this president. And, of course plug in hybrids. Plus, hopefully, cellulosic ethanol. And, lots and lots of fuel efficiency. Again, look at the Obama/Clinton plans.

  9. Jim Bullis says:

    Have you seen the system of distributed cogeneration based on individual households and low horsepower cars? It could double or triple the amount of electricity that is squeezed out of natural gas.

  10. Nick says:

    Jim Bullis,

    The problem with that is you’re just slowing down the car that’s headed off the cliff. We can debate all improving the efficiency of power plants (only 33% of the energy that coal produces actually goes to electricity, rest is lost to heat), vehicles (only 12% is for driving, rest is lost to heat), etc. But, the bottom line is that the money it takes to develop better efficiency is better spent on capital development for alternative energy. Why? Because, there isn’t a risk of extranality and because cogeneration or low horsepower cars still does not free us from the problems associated with natural gas (low supply, imported) and coal (mountaintop removal issues).

  11. Paul K says:

    I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with many of your solution proposals while rejecting your vision of climate catastrophe. We both want to transform to non fossil fuel energy. I see it as a matter of economic and environmental survival and for national security. We will probably never agree on AGW, but don’t think that really matters if we are pursuing essentially the same results.

    I think, in answering your “key question”, our biggest difference is that you favor a top down approach while I look at things from the bottom up. They are not mutually exclusive. Efficiencies, for example are key in either approach. I ask you to be more specific about regulation because that is your area of expertise and I value your opinion. I wrote a beginning outline of what I would do were I in charge on another thread. I’d appreciate your comments on two things I would do on day one. 1)Eliminate capital gains taxes on investments related to fossil fuel replacement
    2)Approve the Bay Wind Project off Massachusetts

    I also think that beyond the activity of business and government, it is important that like minded people join in voluntary association to assist the consumer’s participation in the solution.

  12. Pradeep says:

    Good point regarding shrinking Himalayan glaciers. Sadly, will effect other countries in the subcontinent too.

    Any meaningful action to mitigate GHG emissions will need to involve all the major players.

  13. Paul K says:

    Who exactly are all the major players?

    In developing my plan, energy use is divided into transportation, electrical generation, heating and cooling, industry, agriculture and commerce. Is there a place where I can find the amount of energy these sectors use in both absolute numbers and as a percentage of the whole? Do you have a rough idea of the current state? Each sector has its own characteristics. Careful consideration of individualized solution is included in the plan. I see that I’ll have to really jump on a broad the learning curve to flesh this all out.

    Here is the brief outline so far. There is plenty of space for anyone to add to it.
    90% carbon replacement in 100 years
    60% in 40 years
    40% in 25 years
    10 year plan
    5 year plan
    1 year plan
    Day one
    Eliminate capital gains taxes on carbon replacing energy investments
    Install 5Kwatt solar on all appropriate federal properties.
    Purchase hybrid for all non-military vehicles until none are available
    Approval of the Bay Wind Project
    Formation of a national fossil fuel replacement association

  14. David B. Benson says:

    Paul K — Start with the DoE EIA (Energy Information Agency) site. The UN has something similar. Go web trawling with appropriate search terms and you’ll find what you are after.

    Your final target is simply not large enough. We need 100% fossil fuel replacement plus sequestering a great deal of the excess carbon already added to the active caron cycle. See the Hansen-350 thread, back a few. Also, we need to do this ASAP, it shood not take a century.

  15. Jim Bullis says:

    RE: Nick

    Every project has its risks and potential rewards, whether it is alternative or efficiency related. Each proposal really needs some significant discussion.

    Often overlooked are the true capital costs of “alternative” approaches and all the ensuing environmental impacts of such when done on a large scale. When carefully considered some of the alternative approaches seem quite unreasonable. I try to look at the outcome of any plan as if it would be implemented on a large enough scale to have a real impact on the problem.

    But I would suggest that efficiency measures should be considered, whether or not they absolutely free us of fossil fuel problems. The criterion is how much can they cut down on energy use.

    I think there might be a difference in how much we think efficiency can accomplish. From my perspective, knowing of automobile concepts that can reduce energy use, from whatever source, by 90%, yet still satisfy current transportation needs, I see efficiency as the key to the solution. For example, if such cars used electricity from coal, thus cutting out all use of petroleum, then there would be a huge net CO2 reduction benefit. (What I take to be a problem is shifting to electric cars without changing our approach to the automobile from the present day inefficient pattern.)

    Continuing on the subject of the car that uses 90% less energy, rather than using electricity from coal to power it, it can also be built using a hybrid system where electricity would come from petroleum, whether it be diesel or gasoline. The Toyota PRIUS does quite a good job of this, and the thermal efficiency they squeeze out of their small engine is said to get better than 30% thermal efficiency. (Your assumption of 12% is not unreasonable for some of the US automobiles of the past.) So the high efficiency car using a similarly efficient hybrid drive system could be quite an attractive solution. From my perspective, this could be quite easily implemented. And it would not require any investment, other than replacing current cars as they wore out.

    Looking at the total CO2 from cars and “light trucks” (read SUV), you can see such a cut would be a significant fraction of US CO2.

    Nothing is easy. Really efficient cars will look different, and such cars would require getting people to rethink their emotional attachment to the kind of cars we have been trained to expect.

    My expectation is that nothing will really happen until oil gets quite a lot more expensive. Then GM will shift to electric cars (read “coal”). The range of offerings will look about like they do now.

    In order to compete with electricity from coal, we need to have a way to make electricity a lot more efficiently. This is where cogeneration comes in. If it is done on a distributed system basis, where cars are parked next to households and are connected to natural gas that runs the heat engines in the cars, and households fully utilize the heat, then the efficiency of producing electricity from natural gas is doubled or tripled. There is no equipment cost, since the car engine is already owned (remember the high efficiency hybrid from above) This puts it in range to compete with coal fired power plants.

    If we could get all this done, we would be quite close to meeting Kyoto responsibilities. And it costs nothing.

    Try to figure out a plan for “alternative” sources that even makes a dent in the problem without a huge capital expenditure.

  16. Paul K says:

    David B. Benson,
    Glad to make the 100 year goal 100% fossil fuel replacement and it is certainly possible to do it much sooner. Bio sequestration is appealing. The alternative, mass CO2 storage facilities, becomes problematic if no profitable use for CO2 is found. I think the transmission and micro application of alternative power could be a greater challenge than the production of it.