The uncertain future of coal

 By RP Siegel

Given the dynamic nature of the energy market these days, with so many powerful economic, environmental and political forces at play, it’s difficult to predict even a few years into the future. Coal, in particular, being the fuel with by far the highest level of carbon emissions, might seem likely to go the way of the dinosaurs that created it…

Due to its widespread use, coal is presently responsible for 45 percent of global carbon emissions, making it by far the largest contributor.
But our world is a complicated place, and while it seems clear that the role that coal plays in our economy will certainly be changing, it’s not clear exactly how. Burning coal to produce electricity by way of steam has been its most widely-used application. Coal does, however, have other uses.
To a large degree, the short answer to what is the future of coal—is in Asia. Europe and North America are already cutting back in response to climate change, lower natural gas prices and renewables. Meanwhile, developing countries, particularly India and China, see coal as a necessary evil, especially given their substantial domestic reserves, and their lack of affordable alternatives.
According the BP Energy Outlook, which forecasts energy usage through 2035—as of 2015, the Asia Pacific region was already responsible for 76.7 percent of world coal consumption, a number that is expected to grow to 87.2 percent by 2035. Coal consumption is also expected to increase in Africa and in the Middle East over the same time period, while decreasing substantially in Europe and North America.

Most pundits agree that there are limited future prospects for coal in the U.S., except for exports, which, according to the BP data, are expected to grow by 12.6 percent. Not long ago, the future of domestic use of coal in the U.S. seemed bright, given the substantial reserves, estimated as nearly 300 years’ worth. But new hydraulic fracking techniques opened up massive natural gas reserves, making gas both cheaper and cleaner, thereby pushing coal aside. Even as the new president speaks of a coal revival, plants continue to close. A total of 46 U.S. coal generating units are planned to close over the 2017-18 time frame, reducing coal consumption by 30 million tons.
While there are other applications for coal, especially steel and concrete, and technologies that could improve efficiency and reduce emissions, the big question in the near term, is what India and China will decide to do, which could be as much a matter of policy as economics.

Last year the IEA cut their projection for growth of Chinese coal consumption in half, suggesting that Chinese demand for coal peaked in 2013. This is supported by a record drop in global coal use in 2015, led primarily by plant closures in the U.S. and a surprising 3.7 percent drop in China, where coal consumption had been expected to grow until 2030. This is attributed to a combination of factors including an economic slowdown, concerns about air quality which led to a policy shift away from coal, and significant growth in renewables. Installed capacity of wind and solar grew by 34 percent and 74 percent, respectively. However, Professor Boqiang Lin from the Institute for Studies in Energy Policy at Xiamen University said:
“There will be huge uncertainty in China’s future energy consumption mix and carbon emission outlook. China’s demand for coal is likely to recover once the economy turns for the better and energy demand rebounds. Even if total energy consumption growth rate is zero, to replace 1 percent coal consumption requires 10 percent growth in clean energy. This is not an easy task and we should not overestimate the trend.” Recent months show significant increases in Chinese coal mining output.
India, like China, has been increasing its use of coal as part of the rapid modernization of its economy. The country has increased domestic production with a goal of one billion tons annually by 2020, largely in hope of reducing dependence on imports. However, that effort has slowed amid initiatives to add renewable capacity and an apparent falloff in electricity demand since many rural residents can’t afford it. At the same time, the government is planning a ten-fold increase in solar capacity.
The draft 10-year energy blueprint published last year, predicted that non-fossil fuel sources would provide 43 percent by 2027, a significant jump from the 40 percent by 2030 that had been promised in Paris. The change is attributed to an increase in private sector investment in Indian renewable energy projects over the past year. The blueprint now calls for no new coal plants being constructed, despite the proposed Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, Australia, which if constructed, will be Australia’s largest mine. The controversial project is being touted as a means to “address power poverty for hundreds of millions in India and unacceptably high unemployment in regional Queensland.”
The fact that Indian utilities are having difficulty selling coal power to rural residents, due to cost considerations, will only get worse if attempts are made to address national commitments on carbon emissions. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the addition of carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) technology to coal plants, designed to reduce emissions, will add an additional 80 percent to the cost of electricity.
At the same time, Bloomberg is estimating that the price of solar energy will drop below that of conventional coal plants, as soon as 2021. That doesn’t leave nearly enough time to develop or even deploy technology to effectively remove the carbon from flue exhaust. Several projects that attempted this, including Mountaineer and FutureGen were canceled due to cost issues.

The first, so-called “clean coal” plant in the U.S. opened in Texas this year. In it, carbon dioxide is extracted from the exhaust gas, and then pumped to an oil field 80 miles away where it is pumped into the ground to force additional oil to the surface. A second plant under construction in Mississippi, which converts the coal to gas before burning it, just suspended operation. There is one other operational in Saskatchewan, Canada, where costs are exceeding expectations. Will we see more of these plants in India, China or some other developing countries? It’s certainly possible, but don’t expect to see a lot of them. With the price of alternatives falling, time is not on their side. However, other, simpler methods to capture carbon directly from the atmosphere have been demonstrated and may be useful in an effort to “draw down” CO2 levels if humanity should overshoot safe levels, which now seems likely.

The Petra Nova facility project (

There are other uses for coal beyond power generation. The next largest application of coal is for steel-making. Metallurgical coal is purified into coke, which is then added to a blast furnace to melt and react with the iron ore to make steel. Roughly 12% of all hard coal mined is used for steel-making. The new mine that just opened in Pennsylvania, will produce this type of coal.
Cement is another large consumer of coal, which is used to heat the process to 1450°C. Roughly 200 kg of coal is needed to produce one metric ton of cement, enough to produce three cubic meters of concrete.
According to the World Coal Association, other uses of coal include alumina refineries, paper manufacturers, and as a feedstock in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Refined coal tar is used in the manufacture of creosote oil, naphthalene, phenol and benzene. Ammonia gas recovered from coke ovens is used to manufacture ammonia salts, nitric acid and agricultural fertilizers. Many other products use coal ingredients: soap, aspirins, solvents, dyes, plastics, such as rayon and nylon. Carbon fiber, which is now being used in cars and airplanes, and silicon metal, which is used to produce silicones and silanes, from which a number of lubricants, water repellents, resins, cosmetics, hair shampoos and toothpastes are derived, also come from coal.
Just recently, a company called Atlas Carbon LLC, moved to Wyoming, with a business plan that includes using coal—in this case, for manufacturing activated carbon (the stuff found in water filters)—but not burning it for energy. This one case, where coal is used to clean the environment rather than pollute it, could just be the shape of things to come.

SEE MORE: China’s renewables revolution by Nicholas Newman

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.