Coal Makes a Comeback

Every now and then I get asked to be on panels about the future of energy where you’re supposed to embrace the path of the True and the Beautiful by predicting the brilliant energy prospects of lima bean curd, unicorn flop sweat, dilithium nanoparticulates, or something—anything except the hydrocarbons we use today.  I typically like to have fun by saying the future of energy is—coal.  Never fails to provoke outrage.  It has the additional benefit of being true.

There was a flurry of excitement mixed with cognitive dissonance among environmentalists over the last couple of years as the proportion of electricity from coal (about 50 percent for most of the last 20 years) declined rapidly (to under 40 percent at one point recently) as cheap natural gas displaced it.  Of course, while environmentalists like the decline in coal use, they have swung round again the method—fracking—that is producing the cheap gas making this possible.  But over the last few months, as the Energy Information Administration noted recently, coal has been making a quiet comeback.  (See figure below.)

But never mind the United States.  Coal use continues to rise overseas.  As Frank Clemente of EnergyFactsWeekly points out, India has calculated that coal is its route out of poverty:

Coal has been, is, and will continue to be the foundation of socio-economic development in India, meeting over 40% of energy demand in 2010 and rising to 50% by 2030. Coal provides almost 70%% of India’s electricity and within two decades India’s coal based generation capacity will exceed 350 gigawatts, requiring well over one billion tons of coal.

Frank offers the chart below showing the correlation between coal use and the rise in the India’s score on the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI).  Now, correlation does not equal causation, except when you put greenhouse gas emissions next to global temperatures.  (Oh, wait, that isn’t working very well right now, it is?  Never mind.)

But wait, there’s more!  You may well think that India is being foolish to embrace more “dirty” coal.  In fact, moving to more cheap coal-fired electricity may actually reduce health risk from air pollution in India, because it will lower a primary source of energy poor Indians use heavily now: small wood-fueled cookstoves.  One recent study found that the small wood-fueled cookstove is the largest environmental health threat in developing nations:

In a finding that confirms the devastating health impact of energy poverty, the landmark Global Burden of Disease study published today tallied 3.5 million annual deaths from respiratory illness due to burning of wood, brush, dung, and other biomass for fuel. . .

Added Kirk R. Smith, a professor of global environmental health at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-author of The Lancet article, “One of the most alarming findings is that smoke from cooking fires was found to be the largest environmental threat to health in the world today.”

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