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What are We Going to Do with all this Coal?
Craig Neilson, 10 Feb 08
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Auckland Anniversary Day was also the two year anniversary of the longest environmental protest occupation in New Zealand: the Save Happy Valley Coalition exist to prevent state-owned Solid Energy from digging an open-cast coal mine near Westport in the South Island. The activity around the anniversary has really sparked my interest in coal - ironic, considering it has been there for at least 280 million years.

The burning of coal currently generates more electricity worldwide than any other source, emits more carbon dioxide than cars, and produces radioactive waste with lots of heavy metals.

Its reputation as a dirty energy source is entirely deserved - the mining of coal leaks acids into waterways, destroys forested environments, and leaves nothing but a scar for future generations. It's not energy-effective to refine coal, so its ashes include arsenic, methylmercury, barium and copper, it can cause acid rain, and yes, your city almost certainly runs on it.

I'm preaching to the converted here, but my recent interest has made me ask a new question: If it's so rich in energy, so easy to access, and there's 900 gigatonnes of it lying around -

What are we going to do with all this coal?

I wouldn't be asking this if there wasn't much of it - but that's why there's a question in the first place.

Counting it up and weighing it in is exactly the way of thinking that needs to change. It's a thought-trap: If we're not going to burn it all - not now and not ever - then does it matter how much of it there is at all? The perfect example of this is that we refer to "coal in the ground that we know about" as "reserves".

A reserve is something kept back or saved for future use or special purpose. By calling coal (in the ground that we know about) "reserves", we assume that we are going to be using it for something - maybe now, maybe later. We also make the assumption that we could burn it all now and the only thing we'd be spending is our savings.

But the only useful thing we know how to do with coal is how to set it on fire, get it boiling some water and put a turbine above the vapour. Is the only possible answer to my question "burn it"?

If it is, then there's lots of problems with that answer. Here's one: there's too much coal to burn it all in time.

If environmental factors are ignored and we keep using coal at the current rate (despite everything), we'll run out 164 years from now. But if we don't rapidly change our way of life (especially around fossil fuel consumption), this question seems a bit irrelevant.

I'm not one to ring the bell and call "the end is nigh", but could we really last 160 years burning coal like this? Of course not. Change is nigh, reserves are not reserves if you can not spend them.

Given the evidence, we wouldn't be here long enough to find out what happens when we use the last of it. But if we're not going to burn it, and we don't know how to do anything else with it, what are we going to do with all this coal?

Leave it in the ground.

There's a very good case for this option. If we leave it in the ground then we won't have to worry about any of the terrible side-effects we currently do. But we rely on it for energy, so, whilst this ultimately needs to be the end-game, it might not be absolutely achievable in the next couple of decades.

Come off it slowly

By "slowly" I mean "quickly" over the next three decades. The world has plenty of abundant alternative sources of energy, and there are hundreds of creative ways to use the energy we generate more effectively.

There's no doubt that we can wean ourselves off coal, but to do it we'll need to change our thinking. Deposits are not reserves. We will never use it all.

So what will we be using coal in the ground for, a thousand years from now?

Exactly what we're using that coal for today. Holding up the mountains.

Image: thanks Flickr/davipt!

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But the only useful thing we know how to do with coal is how to set it on fire, get it boiling some water and put a turbine above the vapour.

Wrong. Ever since the 1850s we've been turning it into all kinds of useful stuff through the wonders of industrial chemistry. Fischer-Tropsch synfuel is well known; aniline dyes are the canonical example. The Haber process is another.

Posted by: Alex on 12 Feb 08

Fischer-Tropsch synfuel is well known; aniline dyes are the canonical example. The Haber process is another.

Cheers Alex - but liquefication of coal is still done for the purpose of burning it (Fischer-Tropsch synfuel). Aniline dyes are not needed in the quantities of coal that is considered "available" (and they're horrible anyway), and The Haber Process - yes, it's useful and we can do it with coal, but it's not viable as a fertiliser in the long run due to the energy consumption in its production.

Is there anything sustainable we can do with coal (today) that fits the bright green vision? I'm still very much open to answers for this question.

Posted by: Craig on 12 Feb 08

We have become used to cheap energy - coal. The alternative is to pay multiples more for expensive alternatives like Wind turbines/Solar Energy. Once we can access H in H20 this pollution problem will be solved. Until this happens countries will continue down the path of cheap coal. I'd like a Ferrari - but hell - I can't justify paying the price. With so much misery and hunger in the world - priorities should be directed towards social upliftment. This pollution issue is pressing but in my opinion not as pressing as basic human rights issues that we are currently faced with.

Posted by: mike on 12 Feb 08

pollution is a human rights issue.

Posted by: greensolutions on 12 Feb 08

If you believe in greed, the only thing to do is to have the government in the US and other governments internationally artificially elevate the cost of burning coal through enforcing carbon credits or by creating some other market or tax. So the price of burning coal goes up and other options look more affordable by comparison. As much as we fret about energy being too expensive, some of it is just too cheap.

Posted by: Jarrett on 12 Feb 08

Even if rose petals came out of the smokestacks, if we can't dig the coal cleanly, then we can't use it clean.
As long as almost 4 million pounds of explosives are used daily to blow up mountains, homes and communities, as long as the waste from mountaintop removal is dumped into mountain streams and then poisoned, as long as men die from black lung and dangerous mining; then coal can never be clean or cheap. Coal Kills! and then it is burned and it poisons our babies and then coal kills again. It is time to get our knuckles off the ground and switch to renewable energy and leave the coal in the ground to filter our real needs..clean water!

Posted by: Judy Bonds on 12 Feb 08

It is nice to consider a world without coal but perhaps certain elements of the environmental movement would benefit from compromise and pragmatism.

Ideally, within the next several decades solar and wind energy may be able to supply 20% of our electricity needs. This is an enormous amount, when technological advances of dams and geothermal energy are taken into account the amount of renewable energy increases, but where, with growing global energy requirements does coal factor out of the picture?

It seems to me that at least for our lifetimes, coal will be a part of any energy policy (even if nuclear energy is finally accepted as an option (refused by many members of the green movement among others)).

An attitude of all or nothing will not help to further the cause of making coal (mining and burning) a cleaner source of energy. We could potentially sequester carbon dioxide emissions from coal power plants, scrub the majority of pollutants out of emissions, and improve reclamation of land devastated by coal mining (or improve mining techniques!) all within our lifetimes. This requires working with the coal industry, which may prove more amenable than thought if we approach the issue as a series of compromises than one of stamping out their existence.

Thought experiments are important (they let us think of what should be) but world changing means addressing environmental issues in a real, practical and open-minded manner.

Posted by: Liam on 17 Feb 08

defiantly coal for energy use could be ended, that is the call from the exports and the film leonardo dicaprio was part of, the 11th hour. the film (documentary) urged an immediate withdrawal from fossil fuels and taking up of clean and renewable energy.

coal burning if it keeps increasing and oil usage continues will release an amount of co2 that the worlds atmosphere cannot handle. for climate chaos to be avoided large reductions of 80-90% need to be made by 2050, that means moves away from coal and into clean energy. there is mining issues, health issues and many others such as river pollution from mining, deaths from mining, especially in China and countries like South Africa and in South America. Wildlife habitats being destroyed from open cast coal strip mining and mountiantop removal mining.

In short coal has to go, it is to polluting, to destructive and literally killing our future.

Posted by: ben gibson on 23 Feb 08

Totally agree with the main thrust of your article Craig, but a couple of corrections. Some coals are much yopunger than 280m years. The coal under Happy Valley on the West Coast is around 40m years old.
Some coal mining as at Stockton generates acid leachate from the rock dumps but in other places this is not an issue. Arsenic is not a problem at Stockton, but can be at other mines.
Pete Lusk, Westport

Posted by: Pete Lusk on 23 Feb 08

Hey, thanks for the info, Pete!

Posted by: Craig on 23 Feb 08



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