The Transition Back to Coal


"Coal accounts for nearly half (48.7%) of all U.S. power generation."

In the January issue of Monthly, I looked at 200 years of global coal use and posed the following question:
The U.S. is the second-largest consumer of coal in the world. Sitting just behind China, the U.S. consumes about 560 mtoe (million tons oil equivalent) of coal each year. U.S. coal consumption has been largely flat the past 10 years, as the rest of the world has raced ahead. In 2008, the most recent year for available global coal use data, total world consumption of coal reached 3303.7 mtoe. Thus, the U.S. accounted for nearly 17.00% of total world coal use. Coal accounts for nearly half (48.7%) of all U.S. power generation. Imagine for a moment that we gave up coal completely. Question: if the U.S. stopped using coal today, given current coal consumption trends, how many years would need to pass before the rest of the world (ROW) replaced the lost consumption from the U.S.?
The answer can be derived by a more complex interplay between the current trajectories in peak oil and global coal consumption growth, or by looking at developing world coal demand. I used both approaches. But before I give you my answer, let's take a look at the chart of developing world coal use:

Based on current trends, and using a conservative 4.00% annual growth rate in global coal consumption (when in truth it is closer to 4.7%5.00%), I project that the world could replace 100% of lost U.S. demand in 5 years. The force behind this trend is not the 2 billion people in the developed world, but the nearly 5 billion people in the developing world. In my research archives, I have an August 17, 2004 copy of the Financial Times, which details Asia's plans to build out coal-fired power generation. I still recall reading the following passage: In Asia, utility companies are planning around 1,000 new coal-fired plants with far less environmental scrutiny than in the U.S. One hundred are already under construction, mostly in China. Asia's coal demand has indeed been unstoppable for years now. This raises a more serious question, however, and that is: when will the world transition fully back to coal, thus displacing oil as the primary energy source?

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