What about “Peak Coal” and Climate Change?

Coals role in our ever changing world

In the October 2nd post, I talked about Peak Oil and and Climate Change.   There are many great energy sites to look at for information on that topic.  One thing that I haven’t heard a lot about is “Peak Coal”!  We all remember from our history books the city of London being totally smoked in during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s during the Industrial Revolution from the coal being used for heat and early industries.  Black lung disease (pneuumoconiosis) was a common affliction that many coal miners suffered who  made their living going 200-400 feet deep into collieries (coal mines) to bring up the precious black rock.

The effects from coal burning on our world have been both positive as well as negative.  Positive from the standpoint that it began industries and ways of doing things we could never of had without that form of power, negative from the health and cumulative impacts it has on our environment.

Coal is the mainstay of our Energy world

Coal power in the United States accounted for 42% of the country’s electricity production in 2011.[1] Utilities buy more than 90 percent of the coal mined in the United States.

Brown coal is now the primary coal burned in many countries as the easy to get seams of black coal are disappearing. Wikipedia states “Primarily because of latent high moisture content of brown coal, carbon dioxide emissions from traditional brown-coal-fired plants are generally much higher than for comparable black-coal plants…” Brown coal is more difficult to transport thereby many new coal burning electric plants are being built as close as possible to the mine source.

The Lignite Council (Brown Coal) estimates that there is 835 years worth of this resource remaining if utilized at current rates. That’s a good thing if we can ever discover a way to burn it cleanly with little or no CO2 emissions.

The Lignite Council may be a bit biased when it comes to coal as the 835 years worth is primarily found in Western North Dakota, home of the Lignite Council.

The cost of electricity and the external cost of burning coal can also be looked at from another angle as provided by sourcewatch.org

Cost of Electricity from Existing Coal Plants

As of July, 2008, the average cost of coal supplied to existing coal plants in the United States was $2.09 per million BTU.[17] At 34.3% efficiency for a typical coal plant, that translates to 2.08 cents per kilowatt hour for coal.[18] Operation and maintenance is approximately 0.75 cents per kilowatt hour.[19] So total fuel and operating costs for a typical coal plant is 2.83 cents per kilowatt hour. Since the median age of existing coal plants is 44 years, most are already fully amortized. That means their owners have fully paid off the construction costs, and operating and fuel costs are the only components of cost.

External Costs of Existing Coal Plants

In economics, an external cost or externality is a negative effect of an economic activity on a third party.External costs of coal plants include the following:[20]

  • Reduction in life expectancy (particulates, sulfur dioxide, ozone, heavy metal, benzene, radionuclides, etc.)
  • Respiratory hospital admissions (particulates, ozone, sulfur dioxide)
  • Congrestive heart failure (particulates and carbon monoxide)
  • Non-fatal cancer, osteroporosia, ataxia, renal dysfunction (benzene, radionuclines, heavy metal, etc.)
  • Chronic bronchitis, asthma attacks, etc. (particulates, ozone)
  • Loss of IQ (mercury)
  • Degradation and soiling of buildings (sulfur dioxide, acid deposition, particulates)
  • Reduction of crop yields (NOx, sulfur dioxide, ozone, acid deposition); some emissions may also have a fertilizing effect (nitrogen and sulfur deposition)
  • Global warming (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide)
  • Ecosystem loss and degradation

Among the impacts of coal plants are the fine particulates released directly or produced indirectly by sulfur dioxide emissions.[21] According to a 2004 study released by the Clean Air Task Force, fine particulates from power plants result in nearly 24,000 annual deaths, with 14 years lost on average for each death.[21] Based on social decisions in other contexts such as transportation and medicine, researchers report (see below) that American society is willing to spend $129,090 to avoid the loss of a year of life.[22] This suggests that society would be willing to spend at an additional $40 billion (i.e., 24,000 annual deaths x 14 years lost x $129,000 per year lost) for alternative ways of generating electricity that did not produce deadly pollution. With US coal plants generating about 2 billion Gigawatt hours annually, the expenditure of an additional $40 billion would raise the cost of electricity by about two cents per kilowatt hour.[23]

How much is a year of your life worth?


If you research coal mining in Wikipedia even they have a discussion on the types and increasing useage of coal by the nations in the world.  Over 50 nations produce coal commercially!  While there is a lot of coal reserves left in the world, the fact is that coal burning is still one of the major contributor of CO2 to our atmosphere!

Wikipedia notes that estimated peak coal (of Cleaner Burning Black Coal) is estimated to by the year 2030!  So if we continue the trend of coal burning power plants and switch more and more to burning “brown coal”, our CO2 output will only increase more.

The Good Old Days!

“So how do we keep CO2 from increasing in our atmosphere?”

The biggest question is definitely “What can we do?”  We can encourage and promote the wise use and clean burning of coal.  The development of new cleaner methods for burning coal has been looked at for years.

The world’s first “clean coal” power plant went on-line in September 2008 in Spremberg, Germany. The plant is owned by the Swedish company Vattenfall and has been built by the German firm Siemens.[10] The plant is called Schwarze Pumpe power station. The facility captures CO2 and acid rain producing sulfides, separates them, and compresses the CO2 into a liquid. Plans are to inject the CO2 into depleted natural gas fields or other geological formations. This technology is considered not to be a final solution for CO2 reduction in the atmosphere, but provides an achievable solution in the near term while more desirable alternative solutions to power generation can be made economically practical.[10]


Engineering firms are studying yet today ways to burn coal even more efficiently.  Methods that utilize pure Oxygen are being studied right now to improve the coal burning electrical plants.  New plants using the Oxygen technique will be coming on line in 2013.


Unfortunately new methods require new plants or the retrofitting of existing power plants.  Many of the older plants are simply being decommissioned because it is too expensive to retrofit.   Does it cost money to build “clean coal” power plants, yes.  Energy will be more expensive in the future.  Does it remove CO2 emissions from our atmosphere…not really.  It becomes a shell game of carbon credits with the EPA.  Companies will have to use new techniques of  sequestering CO2 back into the ground, carbon salvage is still an unknown economic cost and officials worry that potentially CO2 pumped into the ground can leak back out when seismic activity occurs. Getting major corporations to convert plants will be like pulling teeth!

So, The fact is that no matter how efficient we try to make burning coal to produce electricity there is always a downside environmentally.  This gives us even more impetus to  find alternative forms of energy to reduce the costs of energy and the impacts on our environment.

Too little too late

Many people in the Climate Change world are saying we need to convert to alternative forms of energy NOW.  Climate change is happening faster than anyone believed.  The following is taken from Martin Lacks blog “Lack of Environment” and quotes Brit Environmental Journalist George Monbiot from “The Guardian” and American Environmentalist Bill McKibben an writer who first warned us of climate change in his 1989 Book “The End of Nature”.

Per Martin Lack in his blog, “As far back as May 2011, George Monbiot warned us that our problem is that we have too much fossil fuel (not too little) and earlier this year Bill McKibben quantified the problem by telling us that we have 5 times more fossil fuel on Earth than it would be safe to burn.  Therefore, because (as Dr Myles Allen and others have been saying for at least three years) it is cumulative emissions that now matter
— we need to stop burning conventional fossil fuels: and
— we need to stop looking for unconventional fossil fuels.”

Modern day open pit mining.


About rsingram

Environmental Specialist, Disaster Reservist, Certified Professional in Erosion and Sediment Control, Para-Archeologist
This entry was posted in Alternative Energy, Climate Change, Economics, Environment. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to What about “Peak Coal” and Climate Change?

  1. Ashby says:

    Interesting information power is like water its not missed till its gone most folks don’t consider the impacts of providing it.

  2. davekimble2 says:

    Ashby says “its not missed till its gone”. Actually, that’s not right. It’s not missed until the production rate doesn’t grow in line with the economy. If the economy needs to grow 3% each year to be healthy, then coal production needs to grow at 3% too, or all hell breaks loose –
    blackouts and brownouts, utility operators going bust in the midst of frantic demand, etc.

    For a list of scientific papers and articles on Peak Coal, see http://www.peakoil.org.au/peakcoal.htm .
    Most estimates by the people who are prepared to admit to Peak Coal (many aren’t), put world Peak Coal at 2026. Coupled with Peak Oil in 2005-2013, that puts Peak Fossils at 2016.

  3. rsingram says:

    Thanks Dave. You’re spot on. Many third world nations enjoy blackouts and brownouts already as a normal part of their day. You can only imagine what impacts it will have on larger countries. Glad to see Australia is concerned about what kind of fossil fuel future we have.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s