December 21, 2013
Coal Consumption Growth Still Outpacing Oil And Natural Gas

If you pay attention to press stories in the United States about booming production of oil and natural gas from shale you might think that King Coal is in serious trouble. Well, coal consumption in America is certainly down. But King Coal is still booming globally, outpacing oil and natural gas.

Coal use increased by an average of 3.4 percent per year from 2007 to 2012, faster than the increase in either oil or natural gas. Consumption through 2018 is expected to increase by 2.3 percent a year, the I.E.A. said.

Most countries are not willing to impose on themselves the sorts of high electric power costs that Germans pay in the name of green energy.

If the natural gas drillers start finding it hard to find good unexploited shale natural gas formations in the United States then coal's decline in the US could reverse as well. If the natural gas lasts long enough then dropping costs for photovoltaics will eventually cause big growth in solar power. In 2012 solar power amounted to just 0.3% of US electric power production. While wind is much bigger (at 3.4% of US electric power) than solar my guess is that solar will catch up with wind because solar panels work in a lot more places than wind farms can be installed.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2013 December 21 05:52 PM 

Wolf-Dog said at December 22, 2013 12:29 PM:

Actually the price of coal is declining despite the increase in coal use. This is probably be because better mining techniques also get applied to coal as well, and there are enormous coal reserves in the world, maybe for centuries.

Even Germany is planning to increase its coal consumption, even though it uses the most polluting lignite type coal, but Germany actually has newest clean power plants that miraculously cause very little pollution:

It should be a simple matter to prevent sulfur and heavy metal pollution from coal, only CO_2 will be a problem, but if genetically modified trees can be used for the reforestation of deserts, all the generated CO_2 can be captured without incident.

don wilkins said at December 22, 2013 5:57 PM:

It seems that a number of technologies could lead to cleaner to coal burning. Supercritical carbon dioxide generators could increase efficiency of power plants so less coal has to be burnt for a given amount of electricity. Feeding pure oxygen to coal burners would reduce nitric oxide emissions. Carbon dioxide could either be fed to crops or monoatomic gold layers slice carbon dioxide into carbon momoxide which could be used as feed for chemical production.

Ronald Brak said at December 23, 2013 7:51 PM:

Here in Australia we don't have high electricity costs from renewable energy. Instead we have renewable energy pushing down the wholesale price of electricity which makes the owners of our current coal and gas generating capacity rather unhappy. There will never be another coal power plant built in Australia as coal is simply not competitive with wind and solar. In Australia the problem is not that renewables are raising electricity prices but that vested interests will block them from lowering electricity prices.

Here in Australia grid electricity use is declining. In the US you don't have the same factors operating as we do here, but the US can benefit from improved efficiency and widespead rooftop solar just as Australia has and so I think it is possible that demand for grid electricity may decline in the US as well. It just might not happen quite as dramatically as it has happened here.

Wolf-Dog said at December 24, 2013 11:04 PM:

But Australia does not have a lot of heavy industries like China, EU, US. Heavy industries require a lot denser power sources. Rarefied power sources like wind, solar, biomass, etc, would work well only for the houses and personal cars.

But if genetically engineered forests can be created in deserts, and if newer generation coal-fired plants that only cause carbon dioxide pollution are used, then coal will not be a problem. This is very good news, because this would give us another century until reliable (clean) nuclear energy becomes available. Otherwise, there is no alternative to coal for heavy industries, until nuclear power becomes clean and safe enough to save the world, and nuclear renaissance is still decades away.

Ronald Brak said at December 25, 2013 1:31 PM:

Wolf-Dog, grid supplied kilowatt-hours are a commodity. Industrial machinery doesn't care how they were generated.

Wolf-Dog said at December 25, 2013 2:23 PM:

Ronald Brak, the transportation of the green energy to heavy industry is an issue because a much wider surface area is needed for the generation of wind, solar or biomass and energy compared to nuclear or coal.This is because heavy industry consumes a lot more power than houses and electric cars. For instance, if all the cars and trucks in the US become electric, this would require at most 10 - 20 % increase in the grid capacity, because it turns out that businesses use most of the power. And the US is significantly de-industrialized compared to China. In the case of Australia, there is plenty of empty desert space to install solar panels and windmills because the population is very low relative to the total surface area, and since houses would be the main clients of these green utilities, there would not be a problem with the transportation of the energy to its destination. But if heavy industry were the main target of the Australian green energy, then you would have to construct an intricate web of power line cables that will be both expensive and inefficient, as power does dissipate with distance. Only with supercoducting cables you can transport electricity without loss of power over the long distances, and such cables are still a few decades away, although this would make a big difference when superconducting power cables become a reality.

Ronald Brak said at December 25, 2013 4:23 PM:

Wolf-Dog, Australian wind and solar capacity averages much closer to where the electricity is used than our coal power plants.

Wolf-Dog said at December 25, 2013 11:53 PM:

Ronald Brak, I am in favor of solar and wind expansion, my only point was that compared to places like Germany and Japan, in Australia there are very few heavy industries, and this is why it is possible for you to put the solar and wind sources close to where it is used. The heavy industry requires more dense power. And the low population density of Australia makes it possible to put solar panels close to many towns. Also the geography of Australia is better for wind than most of Europe. But I am sure that within a few decades superconducting wires will make it possible to carry even distant solar electricity from Spain to Germany.

Wolf-Dog said at December 25, 2013 11:55 PM:

Sorry for the typo above, I meant that the geography of Australia is better for solar power, not wind, compared to most of Europe.

Ronald Brak said at December 26, 2013 7:13 PM:

Wolf-Dog, Australia uses more electricity per capita than the industrial nations of Germany, China, Japan, or South Korea.
Also we don't put wind turbines in the desert. We put them in farmland. And most countries have farmland.
We don't put solar panels close to towns. We put them in towns on roofs. Apart from a weird 10 megawatts in Western Australia all of Australia's 3 gigawatts of solar capacity is point of use.
If other countries did what Australia does, they would put solar on rooftops only and wind turbines in farmland. No deserts are needed and a low population isn't required either.

Wolf-Dog said at December 27, 2013 1:49 PM:

Ronald Brak, According to this Wikipedia article, Australia had only 2,412 MW of installed photovoltaic power as if December 2012:

Australia has over 2,412 MW of installed photovoltaic (PV) power (December 2012),[1] and 1,000 MW of PV was installed in 2012. At a capacity factor of 14 percent, this would contribute 1.1 percent of Australia's electrical energy (~261 terawatt hours per year) (1.74 x 24 x 365 x 0.14 = 2958 gigawatt hours = 3.0 terawatt hours). Growth in the amount of installed PV capacity in Australia has been dramatic with a 10-fold increase between 2009 and 2011. Feed-in tariffs and mandatory renewable energy targets designed to assist renewable energy commercialisation in Australia have largely been responsible for the rapid increase. The first commercial-scale PV power plant was opened on Thursday 28 July 2011, the Uterne Solar Power Station, a 1MW capacity grid-connected solar photovoltaic system located 5 km south of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.[2] The second opened October 2012 at Greenough River Solar Farm with a capacity of 10 MW.[3] The price of photovoltaics has been decreasing, and in January 2013, was less than half the cost of using grid electricity in Australia.[4]

So despite the enormous growth of solar energy in Australia, this 1.1 percent is still not significant, unless much more dramatic work is done.

But I still believe that all residential electricity can be made solar or wind in Australia. My only point was that Australia does not have heavy industries. It's the heavy industries that are difficult to feed with solar energy due to the sparsity and low density of solar power. This is why coal is used in China at an accelerated rate.

Ronald Brak said at December 27, 2013 11:53 PM:

Wolf-Dog, you seem confused. Here in Australia wind power is a much denser source of energy than coal power measured in terms of square meters of land removed from agricultural or other use, so energy density certainly can't manke wind power unsuitable for industry.

Wolf-Dog said at December 28, 2013 6:03 AM:

Here is a discussion of wind power:

It turns out that in order to prevent wind turbulence that can adversely affect wind energy, the wind turbines are spaced at 3-10 rotor diameters, which means that the distance between turbines is 180-600 meters.

The more advanced turbines generate 5MW of power (with diameter at least 100m) , but if we assume a conservative spacing of 250 meters between such turbines, then inside a 1 square kilometer, we can fit 5 x 5 = 25 turbines. Thus a square kilometer can produce 25 x 5 = 125 MW of electricity, which is excellent, but it still takes a lot of space. Thus, it seems that the wind equivalent of a 1,000 MW nuclear power plant would take 8 square kilometers. This is still very good in sparsely populated countries like Australia where the geography favors this kind geometry, but in places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Beijing, Shanghai, there will be severe restrictions.

Maybe 30 % or 40 % of all power in the world can be derived from wind, which is phenomenal, but to make it 90 % we still have to wait until the superconducting wires are available in a few decades. In the latter case, it will be possible to send wind power from Gobi desert to Beijing:)

Once again, the wind power that you are talking about, is great for Australia, but not so great for very densely industrialized places like many parts of China. Heavy industry is very dependent on dense power.

According to this article, as of 2011, wind power accounted for only 2.4 % of Australia's electricity:

I am sure you can increase this to 30 % within a decade, but I would guess that you won't be able to do better until the superconducting cables are ready, and this might take more time. (I hope I am wrong and the new physics will make the cables available sooner.)

Wolf-Dog said at December 28, 2013 3:01 PM:

But this is in Australia. The same geographic configuration would not work in very densely populated places like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Beijing, Shanghai, etc, because the wind turbines must be very far from these regions. In order to deal with the wind turbulence issues, the turbines must be spaced at 3-6 times the rotor diameter, and so the distance between rotors with diameter over 100 meters, would be at least 250 meters, meaning that in a square kilometer we can fit only about 5 x 5 = 25 wind turbines. The most advanced wind turbines generate 5 MW of power, and so 1 square kilometer generates 25 X 5 = 125 MW of wind power. Thus, to get the equivalent of a 1,000 MW nuclear power plant, we need 8 square kilometers of land that has reasonable wind that is not too far from the region that needs the power. This kind of land may not be available in every region. As you said, I agree that the thin wind towers that are placed on farmland does not disturb the farmers, and hence does not cost any land, but this land is not available near many cities. This is why superconducting wires are needed to carry this power from very distant places to where it it needed, and this will take a few decades at least, unless there is a totally unexpected development in physics.

Ronald Brak said at December 31, 2013 4:19 PM:

Wolf-Dog, here in Australia we regularly transmit electricity over 800km along standard high voltage lines. I think most places could find a suitable spot for wind power within a much shorter distance than that. And of course if you put solar power capacity where its used it can require 0 kilometers of transmission capacity. We have a little bit of High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) capacity in Australia, but not much, though I undertand the US is building a fair bit of it. The longest HVDC line is in China and is over 2,000 kilometers long. I've included a link to the wikipedia page on it in case you're interested:

Wolf-Dog said at December 31, 2013 8:34 PM:

Ronald Brak, Thanks for the article about HVDC, but according to Wikipedia, as of 2011 only 2.4 % of Australia's electricity was from wind power. Maybe by 2050 some 40 % of electricity will be from wind power, but the real problem is that the world will need a lot more energy when robots start doing a lot more work, and at that time neither wind nor solar will be enough, nuclear power will be necessary. Once again, Australia does not have heavy industries like China, EU, and the US, and it is sparsely populated.

Ronald Brak said at January 1, 2014 3:36 PM:

Wolf-Dog, according to you wind and solar power aren't suitable for heavy industry. So exactly where will the decision be made not to use wind for heavy industry where it is cheaper than other electricity sources? Will the owners of say a shipyard say, "We don't want your electricity because 25% of it is generated from wind. We will pay extra for coal power instead." Or will power companies say, "To stay competitive with other power companies we should build wind capacity as it is cheaper than fossil fuels, but the local shipyard is heavy industry and for some unknown reason electricity generated from wind is no good for them, so we will build coal capacity instead and reduce our profits for their benefit."

Wolf-Dog said at January 11, 2014 12:49 AM:

Ronald Brak, according to this article, Germany is actually increasing the lignite-fired power plants. Lignite is the dirtiest kind of coal, and Germany is full of people who hate coal, and despite this, as a desperate measure they are still increasing coal-fired plants. Same story with China.

In the case of Germany we can argue that since Merkel decided to close the nuclear plants, as an emergency they increased coal consumption, but even China is increasing coal consumption.

I also hate coal-fired power generation, which disperses more uranium than all the uranium burned in nuclear plants, but the fact is that currently the wind power does not seem to be competitive enough. The hidden subsidies are probably concealing the current cost of wind power, also, the lack of density of wind power is still a problem for heavy industry. The infrastructure to carry the wind energy from the Baltic Sea to the interior of Germany is still expensive. Same story for China, unfortunately.

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