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Coal gains in share of energy mix over medium term [ClearOnMoney]
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Coal gains in share of energy mix over medium term

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Commentary

Coal gains in share of energy mix over medium term

18 Oct 2010 by Jim Fickett.

Over the last few years the share of the global energy mix that comes from coal has increased significantly. This is mostly due to China. Whether the trend continues depends on China's growth, which may slow, and policy, which is attempting to raise the share of natural gas.

Gregor Macdonald, who posts infrequently but with interesting insights, recently made the claim that climate change legislation is going nowhere and coal, the dirtiest power source, will soon be the dominant one:

Unfortunately, the entire discussion of Wind, Solar, and Nuclear power is marginal when considering how the world powers itself, in the main. The title of my ASPO conference talk, Return to Coal, addressed the coming crossover point when coal once again becomes the primary energy source of the world. When we consider these energy sources, and their actual use in perspective, we can see that the politics of Climate Change legislation for example is actually just a parlour game played in the developed world: and one that offers no practical solutions. Most proposals have been very light and mostly symbolic, regardless, and even these failed to pass as most leaders recognize them as lose-lose propositions for their political careers. Meanwhile, its the five billion people in the developing world, industrializing, who are now in the drivers seat of the world economy, and world energy usage. They have adopted coal as their primary energy source while the OECD countries, overly indebted and losing power on the world stage, delude themselves into thinking they have some say in the matter. (We) don’t.

This depressing statement is consistent with recent changes in the global energy mix:

(Data are from the BP statistical review.)

Note that since 2002 the share of coal has grown strongly, while the share of oil has dropped strongly and the others have either stagnated or dropped slightly.

Almost all of the shift to coal comes from China. From 2002 to 2009 the global increase in coal consumption was 875.2 million tons of oil equivalent (MTOE). The increase in China over the same period was 823.6 MTOE. So any future projections depend strongly on (1) China's growth continuing at current rates and (2) China's policy remaining the same. Neither of these is at all certain. Many people, including me, think China's current growth rate will slow when the current crop of bad loans becomes difficult to hide. And on policy, the Wall Street Journal reports that China has made it a goal to increase the fraction of natural gas in the energy mix:

Beijing wants natural gas to account for 10% of the nation's energy mix by 2020, up from 3% in 2005. It now accounts for about 4%.

In 2009, fully 47% of world coal demand came from China. So this story, like many others, does depend on the somewhat chaotic metamorphosis of the middle kingdom.