Robert Bryce has a short essay explaining why global coal consumption has increased so dramatically over the last decade, and why there is good reason to believe that coal’s dominance will continue for years to come. The first and most obvious reason is that coal is cheap and abundant, but that’s not all:
Low cost isn’t the only reason for coal’s dominance. Another is “power density,” a measure of the energy flow that can be harnessed from a given area of land. Let’s return to the North Antelope Rochelle Mine. Once you account for the energy lost during the conversion of coal to electricity, the mine yields the equivalent of about 300,000 barrels of oil a day. Solar and wind energy, meanwhile, provided the U.S. with the equivalent of 203,000 barrels of oil a day in 2011. So a single coal mine produces about 50% more energy on an average day than all of the country’s solar panels and wind turbines combined. Moreover, the mine covers just 80 square miles, while domestic wind projects alone cover about 9,400 square miles.
Natural gas and nuclear are potentially better alternatives to coal. Both are able to produce large quantities of reliable electricity, and both have lower CO2 emissions than coal does. Supplies of natural gas are increasing thanks to successful exploration and the shale revolution. Nuclear energy is also seeing significant growth. But neither is growing fast enough to displace coal any time soon. Natural gas production would have to more than double, which will require decades of sustained and expensive exploration and production. Nuclear energy is hampered by huge start-up costs, and many countries don’t have the infrastructure or human capital to support it.
This is one reason why resistance to increased natural gas production is so potentially problematic: it undermines the most readily accessible low-carbon alternative to coal.