A transition away from carbon-based fuels to alternative and renewable energy is underway in this country and around the world.
However, the simplicity of that often-repeated statement belies the rocky trajectory of that transition and the continued importance of coal in meeting future energy needs.
And the current state of the coal industry, as well as the projections for the immediate future, demonstrate just how difficult it is going to be to leave that fuel behind.
Thermal coal, used to generate electricity, is hot right now here and in other countries because of increased demand. The most recent consumption report shows that domestic coal production is up 8% from a year ago (14% in Appalachia), while prices are up a whopping 70%.
China and India, the world’s two largest consumers of coal, faced energy supply shortages recently because of dwindling coal supplies. Last April, Germany reopened 11 coal-fired power plants to avoid blackouts.
But of course, coal remains the popular boogie man and that was evident at the recent global climate change conference in Glasgow. Some of the participants pledged to stop using any coal at all to generate electricity as part of their commitment to slowing climate change.
Notably, China, India and the United States were not among them. However, President Biden has committed the United States to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. To achieve that, the U.S. would have to eliminate coal (and natural gas) as sources for electricity.
Julian Kettle, senior vice president and vice chair of metals and mining for Wood Mackenzie, a global natural resource consulting firm, believes that will be difficult to achieve. He predicts the demand for coal will continue to rise for the next few years and that the decline after that will be much slower than projected because of energy demands.
“The uncomfortable truth is that while coal is an unwelcome guest at the decarbonization table, we will still need coal-fired power to ensure an orderly transition to a low-carbon world,” Kettle said.
So, all the soundings of the death knell for coal are premature.
“To paraphrase Mark Twain who, upon hearing rumors that he had in fact died, was quoted as saying, ‘the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.’ I think the same can be said for coal!” according to Kettle.
The eventual move away from coal as a primary global energy source is inevitable, and essential to help slow the warming of the planet. However, the current evidence points to that transition being much slower and more variable than the anti-carbon movement would prefer.
Like it or not, coal is going to be around for a long time.