In growing global market for energy, coal still dominates

A surge in natural gas production in North America and regulatory assaults in the US can give the impression that coal’s future is grim. Not so, says

The misimpression can be especially strong in the US, where gas prices very low by international standards and regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency are displacing coal in electric power generation.

Globally, however, coal remains dominant.

An Energy Facts newsletter points out that the International Energy Agency, US Energy Information Administration, and Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries all indicate “coal is on track to gain ascendancy over all other fuels within two decades.”

Coal was the most rapidly growing source of electricity in the world in the past decade, Energy Facts says. Coal-fired generation increased from 5,500 Tw-hr in 2000 to more than 8,600 Tw-hr in 2010. It will exceed 12,000 Tw-hr by 2020.

“This incremental increase in coal-based electricity will exceed the growth of gas, nuclear, wind, and solar combined,” Energy Facts says.

The outlook will not comfort anyone fearful that rising concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere promise catastrophic warming.

But coal has advantages that environmental problems can’t annul, primarily energy density and abundance. Energy Facts cites an estimate by the German Institute for Geosciences that global coal reserves approach 1 trillion tons. It says the US Geological Survey estimates the worldwide coal resource at more than 16 trillion tons. And distribution of coal reserves over 70 countries, according to the World Coal Association, provides the security that accompanies supply-source dispersion.

Consuming nations have strong incentive to develop clean-coal technologies, Energy Facts says. And analysts expect coal use to expand to the production of steel and cement and to conversion into liquid transportation fuels, substitute natural gas, and chemicals.

Even in competition with coal, oil and natural gas will grow in the large markets where they hold form and price advantages. The world requires energy with scale proportionate to need. Energy forms with that scale contain carbon.

(Online Dec. 7, 2012; author’s e-mail:

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