The Black (Coal) Truth – Part I

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As we have already seen, coal is one of the most important sources of electricity, not just in India, but in the entire world as well. Although renewable energy sources are a bigger part of the energy mix today, coal still dominates all other energy sources. Why is that so? How long has it been the case? How long can it continue? I will try to answer these questions in this and the following two articles titled “The Black Truth”.

coalBefore we delve into the above-mentioned questions, we need to understand what coal is and how it is formed. As per Wikipedia, coal is “a combustible, black or brownish-black, sedimentary rock, usually occurring in rock strata in layers or veins called coal beds or coal seams.” Coal is a mineral of fossilized carbon. So it is primarily composed of carbon, but also contains varying quantities of other elements like hydrogen, sulfur, oxygen, and nitrogen.

How was coal formed? In the geological past, the Earth had dense forests in low-lying wetland areas, which were buried underneath soil due to natural processes such as flooding. As more and more soil was deposited over them, they sank deeper and deeper, thus getting exposed to higher and higher pressures and temperatures. As the process continued, the plant matter was protected from bio-degradation and oxidation, and instead converted first to peat, then to lignite, then to sub-bituminous coal, then to bituminous coal, and then to anthracite. Hilt’s law states that “in a small area, the deeper the coal, the higher is its rank (or quality)”. This law is true if the temperature gradient is entirely vertical, but metamorphosis may cause lateral changes in rank, irrespective of depth.

Coal reservesThe process of coal formation, needless to say and by definition, is very slow; it has taken millions of years for the world’s coal reserves to form, which is a timeframe that we cannot comprehend even if we want to. And we are well on our way to exhausting these reserves in a relatively very short time span of 300-400 years! If we don’t do something about it, all future generations will look at us as the worst generations which compromised their sustainability. To be fair to us, we are also the ones who are inventing all the renewable energy technologies, but we have to do a much better job of adopting them if we want to avoid the curse of the future generations; the current pace of adoption just isn’t good enough. That is the context for this series of articles and everything happening today on the climate change front.

So how much coal reserves are there in the world? The proven, recoverable reserves that various countries had (in million tonnes) at the end of 2006 are mentioned in the Table 9.1. Table 9.2, on the other hand, shows the production of coal of various countries in 2007.

No.CountryAnthracite & BituminousSub-bituminous & LigniteTotalShare
6.South Africa48,750048,7505.4%

Table 9.1: Coal reserves in various countries at the end of 2006

No.CountryProduction In 2007ShareProduction In 2012Share
3.European Union590.59.2%580.77.4%
7.South Africa269.44.2%260.03.3%

Table 9.2: Production of coal of various countries in 2007

China's coal

The top ten countries have 91% of the world’s total reserves between them, eight out of which were also the top ten producers of coal in 2007. The order in which they appear in Table 9.2 is pretty much the same as in Table 9.1, which isn’t much of a surprise. The most notable exception to that is of course China, which despite having only 63% of the reserves that USA has produced 2.44 times the coal that USA produced in 2007! Essentially, China is being forced to exhaust its coal reserves at a much faster rate to support its growth plans. India and Australia also seem to be exhausting their reserves faster compared to Russia.

In 2012, the picture was identical except for two changes: India jumped one place to the 3rd position, and Indonesia jumped 3 places to 5th position. Indonesia’s production increased by 218%, China’s by 43%, and India’s by 26%. For all others, production remained fairly stable or increased marginally, and USA’s production in fact declined by 12%.

In 2010, Japan, China, South Korea, India, Taiwan, Germany, Turkey, UK, Italy, and Netherlands were the top ten importers of coal, whereas Australia, Indonesia, Russia, USA, South Africa, Colombia, Canada, Kazakhstan, Vietnam and China were the top ten exporters. Indonesia exported 97% of the coal that it produced; the figures for Australia, Russia, and South Africa were 77%, 38%, and 30% respectively. Although Colombia doesn’t figure in the list of top ten coal producing countries, it exports almost all the coal that it produces. So these countries are producing coal for the purpose of selling it and making money; coal is a big part of their export economy.

Coal consumersIn 2010, India was the 3rd highest consumer of coal, 3rd highest producer of coal, and 4th highest importer of coal. India’s coal consumption is high and is going to increase in the next few decades. So in all likelihood, it will maintain these positions or go higher. Clearly, India is one of the drivers of growth in the 21st century, behind China of course.

So that was the first of the three articles on coal. In the next article, I will talk about what happens when you burn coal.

Sustainably yours,

Prashant Karhade.
Writer, Publisher, Entrepreneur

One Response

  1. Artin 6 years ago

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