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Study Concludes “Peak Coal” Will Occur Close to 2011

A multi-Hubbert analysis of coal production by Tadeusz Patzek at The University of Texas at Austin and Gregory Croft at the University of California, Berkeley concludes that the global peak of coal production from existing coalfields will occur close to the year 2011. The HHV of global production is likely to peak in 2011 at 160 EJ/y, and the peak carbon emissions from coal burning will also peak in 2011 at 4.0 Gt C (15 Gt CO2) per year, according to the study.

After 2011, the production rates of coal and CO2 decline, reaching 1990 levels by the year 2037, and reaching 50% of the peak value in the year 2047. It is unlikely that future mines will reverse the trend predicted in this business-as-usual (BAU) scenario, according to the study, which was published in the journal Energy. (The accompanying online supporting materials provide the analysis of production by country.)

The most important conclusion of this paper is that the peak of global coal production from the existing coalfields is imminent, and coal production from these areas will fall by 50% in the next 40 years. The CO2 emissions from burning this coal will also decline by 50%. Thus, current focus on carbon capture and geological sequestration may be misplaced. Instead, the global community should be devoting its attention to conservation and increasing efficiency of electrical power generation from coal.

...We repeat again that immediate upgrades of the existing electrical coal-fired power stations to new, ultra supercritical steam turbines that deliver electrical efficiencies of ca. 50% are urgently needed. The authors do not suggest that new coal-fired power plants be constructed, unless they are to replace less-efficient existing coal-fired plants. The goal should be to increase efficiency rather than capacity.

—Patzek and Croft

The paper provides a physical model of historical and future production of coal worldwide. The model demonstrates that despite enormous coal deposits globally, coal production rates will decline because the deposits show increasing inaccessibility and decreasing coal seam thickness, according to the research.

Other findings of the study include:

  • The estimated CO2 emissions from global coal production will decrease by 50% by the year 2050.
  • Between the years 2011 and 2050, the average rate of decline of CO2 emissions from the peak is 2% per year, and this decline increases to 4% per year thereafter.
  • It may make sense to have carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) to alleviate the highest CO2 emissions between now and the year 2020 or so.

Given the imminence of the global coal production peak, a better alternative would be to gradually replace the existing electrical power generation blocks with the new ultra supercritical steam blocks (steam temperatures of 620-700 °C, and pressures of 220-250 bars), whose electrical efficiency is close to 50%, compared with the ~35% efficiency currently realized. This replacement might ultimately lower current CO2 emissions from coal-fired power stations by 15/35-40% for the same amount of electricity.

—Patzek and Croft

In the paper, Patzek and Croft developed a base-case scenario for global coal production based on the physical multi-cycle Hubbert analysis of historical production data. They treated areas with large resources but little production history, such as Alaska and the Russian Far East, as sensitivities on top of this base case, producing an additional 125 Gt of coal. They then compared their findings with 40 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scenarios in the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) Report. The Patzek and Croft resulting base-case is significantly below 36 of the 40 carbon emission scenarios from the IPCC.

Between the years 1990 and 2011 all but two of the IPCC scenarios are at or below the actual world coal production and emissions. In contrast, after 2011, most of the IPCC predictions increase unrealistically in a variety of exponential ways. Thirty-six out of 40 of these scenarios deviate significantly upwards from our base-case, up to a factor of 100...In particular, 2 IPCC scenarios peak in the year 1990, 3 in 2020, 3 in 2030, 3 in 2040, 13 in 2050, while in the 16 remaining scenarios coal production simply grows exponentially until the year 2100.

Because IPCC did not rank its forty scenarios on purpose, the 16 nonphysical outliers, and 4 other scenarios, 8 were given de facto a weight equal to the more realistic lowest scenarios. The policy makers tend to focus on the most extreme outcomes, and the outliers have gained prominence as inputs to the subsequent climate models. The real problem 40 years from 2009 will be an insufficient supply of fossil energy, not its overabundance, as the IPCC economists would have it.

—Patzek and Croft

Because their study is a multi-cyclic Hubbert analysis, the authors noted, the possibility of future cycles that are not reflected in the historical data must be considered. The base-case in the study includes all coal-producing regions with any significant production history. New mines in existing coalfields should be part of existing Hubbert cycles and thus are part of the base-case.

However, new cycles could occur if a technological breakthrough allowed mining of coal from very thin seams or at much greater depths, or if non-producing coal districts become important producers.

The current paradigms of a highly-integrated global economy and seamless resource substitution will fail in a severely energy constrained world. A new territory is being charted by all, thus close attention must be paid to what the physical world reveals about energy conservation and production.

...In view of the imminent difficulties with the coal supply, a lasting increase of natural gas production in the United States is of utmost importance.

—Patzek and Croft

Resources

  • Tadeusz W. Patzek and Gregory D. Croft (2010) A global coal production forecast with multi-Hubbert cycle analysis. Energy Volume 35, Issue 8, Pages 3109-3122 doi: 10.1016/j.energy.2010.02.009

Comments

SJC

Fossil fuels have taken more than 100 million years to create and we have used half of them in 100 years. Reasonable people know that nothing is infinite. The closest we have a 3 billion years of sunlight and that is why renewable energy is being examined.

Engineer-Poet

TXGeologist, you may be right about Texas lignite, but Texas wind can supply about 160% of total US electric energy use (it increases to more than 200% at 100 meters) without mining a thing. And if you combine Texas with S. Dakota and Kansas, you get rid of a lot of the variability in the resource. Last, many of our current and future uses for electricity (air conditioning, water heating, electric vehicles) lend themselves very nicely to storing energy for hours (cars, hot water) to weeks (ice for A/C). Small changes in the way we do things can pay big dividends.

Reel$$

All nations must reduce population to avoid mutual annihilation by war and famine. Conversion of fossil use to cleaner NG, new nuke and sustainable alternatives is already underway. Liquid fuels from biomass and FT must replace fossils for remaining heavy lifting.

We are on the right path. Energy is ubiquitous in the universe and vacuum. Continued stalling of population mitigation and alternative energy WILL result in disruptive technology ending the issue. What's it gonna be??

Bryan

Engineer-Poet,

I don't think many people are against using wind energy in our nation's energy mix. We should most definitely continue our trend of wind development, but we also need to include base load plants (nuclear, solar thermal, and hydro) as well as peaking power plants (natural gas and hydro) to have an effective electrical grid.

I don't think that this whole 'peak coal' theory is probably incredibly worrisome or even true. If the US used nuclear reprocessing like France, nuclear could be cheaper than coal. We wouldn't even be discussing fine particle pollution, sulfur dioxide emissions, or black lung if this were the case..

SJC

The best use of fossil fuels is to develop renewable resources. There is leverage, there is gain. If we have another 50 years of easy fossil fuels, would we rather use them up as fast as we can or use them for renewable energy resources that will take us much farther out in time? I know which I would chose.

HarveyD

Well said SJC. How can the majority be convinced that (currently lower cost) fossil fuels should be used to build wind turbines, solar panel and other sustainable energy plants and should not necessarily be used to drive around in 4-ton gas guzzlers? Human nature (an specially us) have been taught to use/eat the lowest hanging fruit to minimize efforts and maximize profit regardless of environment and other secondary effects.

That may not change unless some laws or regulation make it profitable for producers and users. That's our nature.

SJC

The implication is "we will just go to war for oil". This has never been said, but I think that it has been implied more than once. We have to stop that insanity NOW. NO way is going to war for oil ever going to make any sense at any time for any reason.

sheckyvegas

WE ALL GONNA DIE!!! AAAIIEEEEEEE!!!!!!!

ai_vin

Only subsidies keep solar/wind afloat. Yea I know fossil gets subsidies too but not even close to the per kilowatt hour rate that solar and wind does.


It’s a familiar refrain: "Renewable energy won’t look as enticing after government subsidies are removed."
But...

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-07-29/fossil-fuel-subsidies-are-12-times-support-for-renewables-study-shows.html

Roger Pham

Are we continue to fund extended unemployment benefits to the tune of tens to hundreds of billions of dollars, one year after another?

Or are we going to invest in green and renewable energy infrastructure so that we can employ more people and get them off the the unemployment benefits?

Modern computer and robotic technologies and globalism with out-sourcing of jobs overseas have permanently eliminated millions of jobs. Even the postal workers are feeling the pinch from email. Telephone receptionists are being replaced by computer answering machine. So are stenographers and transcripters being replaced by voice-recognition computer. Car workers are being replaced by robots in welding and painting.

South of US border, drug gangs and criminal gangs are coming from the desperation of increasing lack of employment opportunities.

The most humane way to solve environmental and social problems together is to have a massive deployment of labor-intensive renewable energy collectors and infrastructures. Moving toward H2 and synthetic biomethane and moving away from coal mines, oil wells etc...

Next step: Massive recyling of everything made...clean up the environment...millions of more jobs opportunities.

SJC

I don't think it is robots, but low wage people being used as robots. When you can pay a Vietnamese person $1 an hour to glue together NIKE shoes that sell for $100 a pair, you do not need automation.

Silverthorn

critta writes:


Oil is irreplaceable as a transport fuel. Energy used for uranium mining and transport and the massive construction requirements of nuclear power plants must come from somewhere.

Actually, the construction requirements for nuclear power plants are not particularly massive, in relative terms. The concrete and steel requirements for even a conventional light water nuclear plant are roughly 10% of those of the largest and most efficient wind turbines, on the basis of kilowatt-hours delivered per year.

The high cost of nuclear plants arises from labor and procedural issues that have little to do with the actual energy and material inputs to the project. There is a huge disparity between what it currently costs to build a nuclear plant and what it theoretically could (and arguably should) cost. That creates an enormus profit opportunity for any country that can develop the industrial infrastructure and technology to build nuclear plants at something closer to cost implied by their energy and material inputs.

Guess what country is racing ahead to exploit that opportunity? Hint: it ain't the U.S. of A.

Peter_XX

It is interesting to follow the fierce discussion about this topic. However, this time I will not participate. Instead, I have a suggestion: Why don´t we just sit down and wait. If all the coal reserves were about to last for 500 years, this is not an option but if we only have to wait until next year, I recommend you to be patient, since we will have the answer very soon...

SJC

shecky,

Gulf I was about oil and Gulf II was about oil, without regard to the claims made about the supposed WMD. I don't want another oil war, that is all I am saying.

Roger Pham

Hi SJC,
Outsourcing to low-paid overseas labor is what I referred to as "Globalism". Globalims is enhanced by advances in telecommunication and efficient transportation.

And yet, modern workers are also further squeezed by industrial automation (robots), office automation (computers answering device and voice recognition devices, etc.) This a fact of life whether you recognize it or not.

We cannot fight progress and move backward. However, we can take advantage of all the modern advancements AND to provide jobs at the same time, by planning for a sustainable environment and energy future. I invite you to consider our potentially exciting future and what wonders it will bring, IF we plan for it wisely.

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